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.

Sign Up for West Orange Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

He was found of bringing funders to his beloved Robert Treat to show off the school and 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. A framed photo of Italian Renaissance politico 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." 

Born and raised in Newark, Adubato spent his entire life in the city's old First Ward and eventually the North 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 executive director 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 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. 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.

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.

The organization purchased the former Clark Mansion on Mount Prospect Avenue and renovated the Queen Anne-style 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. 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.

Christie was presented with a blue fleece by The North Ward Center, which he 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. "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. 

At his peak, Adubato controlled an army of campaign volunteers in North Ward who could churn out the vote in the North Ward. 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, that often mixed politics with philosophy and could potentially come with an embarrassing public lashing for those who failed to meet the week's goals.

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.

DiVincenzo, who called Adubato his mentor, said "we have lost a visionary, a father, a leader and, most of all, a very dear friend.”

"Some people may not have liked Steve’s aggressive style, but he was a forward thinker and a tireless advocate for the City of Newark and its residents," DiVincenzo said. "Known as the city’s ‘Second Mayor,’ Steve was a major influence in calming relations and stabilizing the city after the riots and had the foresight to create The North Ward Center, which for generations has provided recreation and education programs to children, kept senior citizens engaged in their community and supported working class adults with workforce training to lift themselves into a better life. Those were his lifelong ambitions – to improve the city which he loved dearly and help all those who lived here."