SOUTH BRUNSWICK, NJ – Colleagues, friends and political rivals expressed shock, sympathy and respect following the death of Mayor Frank Gambatese early Saturday.
“Mayor Gambatese will be remembered as a tireless advocate for the Township. In the 20 years since he was elected to office, he worked diligently to improve the quality of life for the residents of South Brunswick Township,” Township Manager Bernie Hvozdovic said in the announcement of Gambatese’s death Saturday. “As the chief ambassador for the Township he attracted hundreds of new businesses into the Township including Target, Best Buy and Coca-Cola, to name a few. He was a strong advocate for preservation and open space.”
Gambatese, 81, passed away early Saturday morning at St. Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick while recovering from pneumonia and heart-related conditions in recent years.
Despite his failing health and missing several recent Township Council meetings during his rehabilitation, Gambatese still came into the office for meetings with businesses and constituents as recently as this month.
He was elected to the Township Committee as a Democrat in 1997 and then was appointed Deputy Mayor under the administration of Mayor Debra Johnson in 1999 when the form of government changed to a Council-Manager under the Faulkner Act.
When Johnson declined to seek a second term in 2002 due to family related issues, Gambatese became the candidate for the Democratic Party and won the first of his four, four-year terms in the office.
Winning re-election in 2014, he was the longest serving mayor in the history of the township.
“It is a very sad day for not only the Gambatese family and personal friends, but for the South Brunswick community and for Middlesex County as a whole,” his GOP rival in that election, Paul Saltin said Saturday. “He devoted a great many years to the people of South Brunswick. He put his heart into serving them and he will be sorely missed. My sincerest condolences to his family, friends and the people of South Brunswick.”
State Assemblyman, and township resident Andrew Zwicker, D-16, reflected on what Gambatese meant to the 42-square-mile community of about 48,000 people.
“Frank Gambatese made my hometown of South Brunswick a better place to live each and every day for the past 20 years,” Zwicker said. “On my way to work, I drive past one of his greatest accomplishments, the preservation of the Princeton Nursery in the Kingston section of town. As a new member of the New Jersey Assembly, the Mayor was always willing to share with me his wisdom on good governance and, like he did with everyone he met, always greeted me with a beautiful warmth and a smile. We lost one of the great mayors of New Jersey this morning and I will miss him.”
Chief of Police Raymond Hayducka praised Gambatese for the support he gave to the police department.
“He was a great mayor and person,” Hayducka said. “His support during his tenure as mayor has been instrumental to the success of the South Brunswick Police Department. He will be greatly missed.”
Board of Education member Barry Nathanson, who served with Gambatese on the Zoning Board of Adjustment, prior to winning his seat on the school board, called the late mayor a “gentleman.”
“I worked with Frank since he was on the zoning board with me prior to him being mayor. Frank was a real gentleman, always thinking of South Brunswick first,” he said. “It’s a sad day for South Brunswick he will be truly missed by me and everyone he touched.”
Former GOP Councilman Ted Van Hessen, who currently resides in Europe, echoed Nathanson.
“Whether we agreed or not, you were ever the gentleman and a respected colleague,” Van Hessen said in a Facebook post after learning the news. “You will be missed. Condolences to your family and friends.”
During his 80th birthday celebration at the municipal building last year, Gambatese said that he and his late wife Ellen moved to the community in 1992 from northern New Jersey.
He had a successful career as a corporate accountant and served as mayor of West Paterson.
While expecting to live out a quiet retirement in his new home, the savvy politician soon became wrapped up in the community and returned to public service.
“When we moved here there was an election,” Gambatese said at the time. “I called (the Democrats) up and said ‘put a sign on my lawn,’ and no one came over. I thought ‘the Democrats are in trouble,’ and my wife (Ellen) said I should run for office.”
Ellen Gambatese, also a devoted community activist, especially with the libraries in the township and Middlesex County, died suddenly on Veterans Day in 2012 at the age of 76.
Gambatese was heartbroken losing his wife of 54 years, but said the work of the mayor’s office helped him through that rough time.
Because he was retired, Gambatese could usually be found in the Municipal Building on Ridge Road during the week, holding meetings and discussing township issues despite the position being only part-time.
Even though he was a staunch Democrat in his politics, Gambatese was devoted to the township and was known to criticize administrations of both parties if he saw something unfair being done to the community.
When then Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevy withheld some $1 million or so promised to South Brunswick for completion of Route 522 between Route 130 and Route 535 in the early 2000s, Gambatese said that he went directly to Trenton to ask where the promised funds were.
He said that he bristled when McGreevy told him that there would be no money for the project.
“I can’t believe I voted for him,” Gambatese said, half chuckling.
As the community mourns Gambatese, officials are discussing what will happen next.
The early take is that under the Council/Manager form of government, Deputy Mayor Chris Killmurray will become acting mayor and the council would appoint someone to fill Killmurray’s vacated seat.
Because it is so early in the election year, a week before all candidate petitions are to be turned in, it is not yet clear if there would be a special election this November to fill the unexpired terms this would create.
More information should become available during the scheduled Tuesday night Township Council meeting, according to officials.
Funeral arrangements for Mayor Gambatese are still pending, officials said.
(Editor's Note: A previous version of this story said that Mayor Gambatese died at St. Peter's University Hospital. While he was initially admitted there, he was moved at some point to Robert Wood Johnson. The family's obituary lists Robert Wood Johnson. It is not clear if he went back to St. Peter's before his death.)
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