ESSEX COUNTY, NJ - Stephen N. Adubato Sr., who rose to prominence as a North Ward leader in Newark in the 1960s and remained a towering figure in Newark civic life for the next five decades, has died at his home surrounded by family. He was 87.
Adubato founded The North Ward Center in 1970 and went on to found the highly successful Robert Treat Academy in 1997, one of the first charter schools in the state.
Though he was influential in Newark and state politics during his years, he always considered himself an educator first and his political activity always served to support his cause of providing services to children, families and seniors in Newark's North Ward.
He was fond of bringing funders to his beloved Robert Treat to show off the school. Toward the end of the tour, without fail, he bring his guest into a room filled with students, who would be prompted to shout, "show me the money."
The thousands of students who attended Robert Treat's two campuses as well as The North Ward Center's preschools called him "Big Steve," a moniker that stuck year after year.
Adubato was a brilliant political strategist who would tell people who he didn't feel were keeping up with him that they were doing arithmetic, while he was doing calculus. Another favorite saying was, "You're playing checkers, I'm playing chess."
A framed photo of Italian Renaissance political strategist Niccolò Machiavelli hung in his office alongside another one with his face superimposed over Machiavelli's. It was given to him by Jim Willse, the former editor of The Star-Ledger.
A more macabre painting greeted those who entered a conference room in The North Ward Center: Adubato looming over his tombstone and on it were inscribed the words, "He was not a nice guy."
At his peak, Adubato controlled an army of campaign volunteers in North Ward who could churn out the vote. During campaign season, the North Ward group would meet every Sunday morning at 8 a.m. to plot strategy, count voter registrations and listen to Adubato's political sermon, which often infused politics with philosophy and could potentially come with an embarrassing public lashing for those who failed to meet the week's goals.
Adubato once said that he only wanted people to be part of his organization who were crazy enough to want to come to a meeting on Sunday morning.
The political organization incubated some of the state's most powerful Democrats, including Essex County Executive Jospeh DiVincenzo, state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. Dozens of other politicians and political operatives could trace their beginnings to either working at The North Ward Center, volunteering in the political organization, or receiving an early blessing and support from Adubato in an election.
"In politics and civic life, he guided multiple generations of leaders," said Gov. Phil Murphy. "Few have had as large or as meaningful and longstanding an impact on the City of Newark and the lives of its residents as ‘Big Steve.’ The North Ward Center remains a place where people of all ages and abilities from underserved backgrounds can find opportunities that would have otherwise escaped them. At a time when others were all too quick to write Newark off, Steve saw its potential and worked tirelessly to realize its promise. The rising Newark of today is a testament to his dedication, and its continued momentum will be among his many legacies.”
Born in 1932 on Christmas Eve, Adubato was raised in Newark's old First Ward when it was dominated by Italian-American immigrants and their descendants. He graduated from Barringer High School in 1949 and received a bachelor's degree in history from Seton Hall University in 1954, the same year he married Frances Calvello.
The Adubatos had three children, Steven, who is a well-known public television host in New Jersey, Michelle, an advocate for children and adults with disabilities who is now CEO of The North Ward Center, and Theresa, who is the principal of Robert Treat Academy.
Adubato began his career in education as a history and government teacher in the Newark public school system, where he taught for 15 years. While teaching, he obtained a master’s degree from Seton Hall in education and completed the coursework for a doctorate in education.
He served on the Executive Board of the Newark Teacher’s Union and worked as their legislative representative and he was a consultant to the New Jersey Chancellor of Higher Education.
As an Italian-American living in the North Ward of the late 1960s, Adubato stood in opposition to the prevailing politics of the time, best represented by Anthony Imperiale, who was elected to the City Council in 1968 and who advocated for an armed white self-defense.
While Newark tore itself to pieces during the infamous 1967 riot, Adubato built up his political base, running his own slate of committee candidates against the Democratic party in the North Ward and eventually wrestling control of the North Ward Democratic committee away from the establishment. His wife, Fran, would go on to head the North Ward Democratic Committee for a more than a generation.
During the 1970 mayoral election, he broke ranks with political leaders in the North Ward to support Ken Gibson, who would defeat incumbent Hugh Addonizio to become the first black mayor of Newark and one of the first black mayors of a major northeastern city.
"When I was growing up in Newark around the time of the riots, you saw Amiri Baraka on one side, and Anthony Imperiale on the other," DiVincenzo said. "Steve said we have to get along, and no one wanted to hear it. He wasn't well-liked by a lot of people in the Italian community. Imperiale hated him. But I admired him for standing up. He was always thinking ahead, and he did the right thing."
In 1970, he also founded the North Ward Educational and Cultural Center in a small, storefront office on Bloomfield Avenue based on the urging of Father Geno Baroni, an activist priest who helped steer Adubato to funding sources.
The organization was initially intended to serve the poor, white, mostly Italian-American residents who remained in Newark after a decade of white flight. However, as the neighborhood continued to change, Adubato realized the future was in providing services to the growing Puerto Rican population.
DiVincenzo recalled being at a meeting of The North Ward Center during the 1970s when it became clear that the neighborhood was changing.
"Steve looked around and said, 'Listen - we could go do this in another town. But I say that we're staying here. We're going to change as the community changes. And if you don't like it, there's the door'."
The organization purchased the former Clark Mansion on Mount Prospect Avenue and renovated the 1879 brick mansion before it was struck by lightning and nearly destroyed. A second renovation reclaimed its glory as one of Newark's landmark buildings from an era of wealthy 19th century beer barons and industrialists.
His organization would be renamed The North Ward Center and would provide a wide range of services, including preschools, senior adult day care, recreation for children, job training and family services.
"Steve absolutely saved the neighborhood," DiVincenzo said. "The North Ward wouldn't be the place it is now without him."
After Gov. Christie Whitman signed a law allowing the creation of charter schools in 1996, Adubato immediately drew up plans for an elementary school in Newark.
The Robert Treat Academy established itself as one of the state's top performing charter schools and in 2008 was named a Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Eduction. In 2009, Robert Treat opened a second campus in the Central Ward, naming it after the first black player in Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson. The North Ward campus of Robert Treat was named after Adubato.
On the day after his victory in the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial election, Chris Christie came to Robert Treat Academy to pay tribute.
Adubato, with a gleam in his eye, turned toward a reporter present when Christie entered a classroom full of students and said "Hey kid, watch this."
Adubato turned to the students, dressed neatly in uniforms reminiscent of those worn in Catholic schools, and said "Good morning! What do we say today to Governor Christie?"
In one voice, the children shouted out "Chris Christie! Show me the money!" as Adubato and the governor-elect wryly smiled.
Adubato proceeded to use the funds for something more valuable than money - providing the type of education that lifted his school's students out of poverty on the road to realizing their version of the American dream.
Though Adubato was a lifelong Democrat, he easily rubbed elbows with politicians from both sides of the aisle. For years, he held a St. Patrick's/St. Joseph's event in which he honored politicians of Irish and Italian descent. He was careful to include both Republicans and Democrats.
Adubato and Christie, a Republican, remained friendly and found common agreement on charter schools. Adubato presented Christie with a blue fleece, which the governor wore prominently in television appearances during Superstorm Sandy and as well as Saturday Night Live's Weekend Edition.
"It's basically fused to my skin at this point," Christie joked about the fleece on SNL. "I'm gonna die in this fleece. But that's OK, it's a good fleece."
Adubato's involvement in politics, he often said, was to serve his community. Nearly every candidate running for office, including mayors, legislators, congressmen and governors would find themselves in the dark-wood paneled back room of the Clark mansion seeking his blessing.
"He always said you can't have good government without good politics, and he was right," DiVincenzo said. "To get things done, he had to show strength in the ward. He controlled every room he walked into and controlled the North Ward organization down to every last district leader. What we've been able to do in the county with our parks and our public works, that model came from him."
Ruiz said she nurtured her own love for education working as a teacher in one of the North Ward Center's preschools.
"Steve Adubato believed in Newark and more importantly, he believed in people," Ruiz said. "The legacy that he built from The North Ward Center impacted all of our families. His vision invested in residents from the very young to the elderly to everyone in between. It was in one of those very classrooms that I nurtured my own love of education and understood the power it could have on children. Anyone who had an opportunity to spend time with him could share stories of laughter, banter and passionate fighting. Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, you couldn't deny his political acumen. While physically he may be missed his everlasting impression will never be forgotten.
Ramos, who became the North Ward Councilman in 2006 with Adubato's support, said he first met Adubato when they were working on opposite sides of an election, but developed an immediate connection with him.
"I never met anyone like him," Ramos said. "When he committed his support he gave you 150% percent and enjoyed the politics and the community more than any leader I have met. While we had our share of disagreements, I had tremendous respect for his work and grew to appreciate his style and what he was able to accomplish. His passion was really the services and programs he was able to provide to residents of the North Ward. That's what he really cared about. He was an icon, a mentor and more importantly, a friend."
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