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.

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He was fond of bringing funders to his beloved Robert Treat to show off the school and toward the end of the tour, without fail, he brought 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.

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.

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 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. Adubato ran his own slate of committee candidates against the Democratic Party in the North Ward and eventually wrestled control of the North Ward Democratic committee away from the establishment.

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.

In 1970, he also founded the North Ward Educational and Cultural Center in a small, storefront office on Bloomfield Avenue. 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.

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. 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.