NEW YORK, NY — Former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, originally a West Orange resident, died at the age of 93 on Thursday evening. Byrne was the 47th Governor of New Jersey and served from 1974 to 1982.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said Byrne was “a statesman to whom we could all look up to and a regular guy who was quick with a joke.”
“As a prosecutor and a governor, he was ahead of his time in how well he understood the issues affecting our state, and his integrity and honesty could never be questioned,” said DiVincenzo. “To honor this great man and make sure future generations learn about his impact on Essex County and New Jersey, we dedicated a statue and plaza in his honor at our Hall of Records Complex. He was a great friend who will be missed.”
During his years of service, the Democrat was dubbed “The Man Who Couldn’t Be Bought" and was known for his honesty and integrity. After leaving office, he continued to be an active voice on many state issues and was a partner at a law firm in Roseland.
Among his family, which originates from Northwestern Ireland, Byrne was known for singing Frank Sinatra tunes and making witty comments.
"When my mom, Thecla, his older sister by nine years, was ill, he visited her often,” said Byrne’s niece, Janet Dickinson. “They joked, he sang, it was a highlight for her. I will never forget that after she died, he said to me, ‘Now we pray to her, instead of for her.’ He had a very sad look on his face, and I remember those words every day."
"He used to sing 'When Johanna Loved Me' every time he saw me,” said Johanna Dickson, Janet's daughter. “The lyric is actually ‘Joanna.’ Great singing voice though."
Janet said Byrne was a lot like his father, “although he did not instantly become a great speaker and joke teller.”
“With us, as kids, I remember him as funny and caring and always singing to us,” she said. “[My son] Sean can tell you that at the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, where Sean is an Assistant Prosecutor, they still talk about him with joy and reverence to this day.”
Another niece, Diane (Dede) McMenamy, recalled a time when Byrne drove her and Byrne’s children, Tom and Susan, up to Nymph Road in West Orange, where a new home was being built.
“On the way back from the new house, Tom had asked his dad if we could ‘walk back to Dogwood Road’ from what was soon to be Turtle Back Zoo—So off we were dropped,” she said. “Well, Tom, Susan and I got so involved in exploring the woods and rock climbing that we never quite made it back to Dogwood Road. Brendan had to come back and round us up to bring us home. Aunt Jean was not happy with Brendan or us, but we had a grand adventure.”
She also remembered when her father-in-law, Ed McMenamy, died in 2010 and the nearly two feet of snow that fell on the night of his wake. She said that despite the bitter-cold weather, her uncle drove to Summit from his home in Short Hills to honor her father-in-law’s passing.
“I was worried about him traversing the parking lot of the funeral home and made sure I guided him back out to his car,” she said. “My husband's family was so touched by this gesture, as most of their relatives from Massachusetts were unable to make the trip down to the wake and service.”
Dede, Byrne’s nephew by his sister, Muriel, who died in 1993, said Byrne would call her every year on her mother’s birthday.
“Every year after that, Brendan would call me to remember my mother on her birthday and we would make an effort to have lunch together in honor of her day—even if it was just a Nathan's hot dog at the Livingston Mall,” she said.
She also remembered his uncle taking him to Washington, D.C., where Byrne had to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy. As a political science student at the time, Dede said it was thrilling to watch the Senate in action.
“Ted Kennedy was sharp, pointed and well informed on the subject at hand,” she said. “I was honored to accompany my uncle on this trip.”
Damien Zoubek, Byrne’s nephew's son on Thecla's side, said he was in elementary school when Byrne was wrapping up his second term and he agreed to come speak at the school.
“I remember having to ask him and was really nervous about it, but he said of course,” said Zoubek. “The entire school signed a big pillowcase that he could use to ‘rest’ after he was done being governor. I remember being so proud that he would actually come and visit my school just for me.”
Byrne was born in West Orange on April 1, 1924 and graduated from West Orange High School in 1942. He attended Seton Hall University in South Orange before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1943.
Byrne and his first wife, Jean, had seven children: Brendan Thomas, Jr., Susan (who died in 2006), Nancy, Timothy, Mary Anne, Barbara and William. He then married Ruthi Zinn Byrne.
For those wishing to pay their respects to Byrne and his family, funeral services for will be held at Paper Mill Playhouse in Short Hills on Monday at 11 a.m.