SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – “We are in deep grief over the loss of a tremendous man, so genuine, such a gentleman,” Township Councilman Joe Camarota said leaving the funeral mass of Mayor Frank Gambatese Wednesday. “As his family is grieving, we, as a town, are grieving.”
Gambatese, 81, who died Saturday after a brief illness, was celebrated Tuesday and Wednesday with services at St. Cecilia’s Catholic Church on Kingston Lane.
He won the seat in 2002, making him the longest serving mayor in township history.
“The whole town of South Brunswick is mourning today from such a great loss,” Camarota said. “We were his family too. That’s how he treated us.”
Hundreds of people attended family calling hours Tuesday and then a funeral mass Wednesday morning preceding his burial in North Brunswick.
South Brunswick police cars, with lights flashing, parked diagonally along the shoulder of Kingston Lane next to the church and a police honor guard attended both services, standing on each side of Gambatese’s casket.
Gambatese was in the middle of his fourth, four-year term as mayor when he passed away.
He moved to the township from West Paterson with his late wife, Ellen, in 1992.
Two units from that Passaic County town’s police force took part in the procession from the church to the burial along with South Brunswick police cars and officers.
Gambatese served as mayor of West Paterson, now called Woodland Park, for several years before retiring to South Brunswick after a successful career as a corporate accountant.
Retiring from politics was not in the cards, however, and he found himself swept up in public service in his new home.
During a party for his 80th birthday last year, Gambatese said that he initially contacted local Democrats to put up a lawn sign.
When they didn’t get back to him, he said his wife told him to get involved.
He won his first election to the Township Committee under the old form of government in 1997, then ran again a year later when the form of government changed to council/manager, winning a seat on the new council.
Before he served as mayor, Gambatese served as deputy mayor under the administration of Mayor Debra Johnson, the first directly elected mayor in the township.
“He was my running mate and my friend. He was an amazing individual. “Johnson said outside of the church, a tear rolling down her cheek as she spoke. “He really cared about all people.”
Johnson said that Gambatese had a special gift to be able to communicate with everyone in the diverse township regardless of ethnicity or religion.
“It is very difficult sometimes to find a person that can always communicate with every type of person, but he had that ability because of his innate love and compassion for people,” she said. “His leadership has done great things for the town.”
When Johnson decided not to seek a second term as mayor in 2002, Gambatese ran as the Democratic candidate and won the seat, which he held through three more elections.
Since his death, Saturday, accolades from many different sources have come in to pay tribute to the man, and leader of the 42-square mile, 48,000 resident community in Middlesex County.
Former GOP Councilman John O’Sullivan said that Gambatese was dedicated to the community and that he enjoyed serving with him on the governing body.
“Frank cared about this town,” O’Sullivan said. “He is going to be very hard to replace.”
Board of Education member, and community activist, Azra Baig said that it is up to the community to maintain his legacy.
"Mayor Gambatese was an exceptional individual. He had an open-door policy and was always there to listen to the people of South Brunswick and to their concerns,” Baig said. “His leadership has helped shape the town to be a wonderful place for all to live. He has left a legacy of bringing people together, the importance of serving others, and to treat one another with kindness and respect. It will be everyone's responsibility who is part of South Brunswick to carry his legacy on. He will be missed tremendously."
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