WEST ORANGE, NJ – It was one of the most poignant Arbor Day ceremonies in West Orange history on Friday as the community came together to honor the lives of both the late Governor Brendan Byrne and beloved first-grade teacher Patricia Villarosa by planting trees in their memory at Washington Elementary School, where Byrne was a student and Villarosa taught for 23 years.
Byrne, who was governor from 1974 to 1982, died in January at the age of 93. Villarosa died tragically in March from injuries caused by being struck by a car as she crossed Pleasant Valley Way on her way to a West Orange Board of Education meeting.
Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky told the large crowd of dignitaries, teachers and school children that one of his most memorable days as superintendent is when he accompanied Byrne on a visit to Washington School a few years ago.
“His passion for Washington Elementary School and for West Orange was amazing,” said Rutzky. “He loved this school.”
Rutzky said it was fascinating to listen to his stories from when he was a student, and to watch how well he interacted with the students.
“He was a gentle, kind person—a remarkable man,” said Rutzky before speaking about how beloved Villarosa was by everyone in the school.
“The thing that is wonderful about planting the tree in her memory is that every day that you walk into the school you will see that tree, and you will think of Patty,” he said. “In five, 10, 50 years from now, that tree will still be there. Hopefully everyone in this room will come back to see it, and how big it has gotten, and remember the importance of what happened here this year.”
Mayor Robert Parisi, who also attended Washington as a child, encouraged the young students to come back and visit the school as adults.
“When you see those trees, you will recognize that you’ve done something important,” he said.
West Orange Council President Susan McCartney said planting a tree to remember Gov. Byrne is particularly appropriate since he saved one million acres of forest and parkland while serving as governor.
McCartney presented Jane Brick with the West Orange Garden Club Heart of Green Award for her efforts in teaching people how to take care of their trees and plants.
Township Forester John Linson said hundreds of more trees are being planted in West Orange this spring to replace the ones that were destroyed primarily from the major snowstorm on March 7. He told the crowd that once again West Orange has been named Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. Linson then showed everyone the Tree City USA flag that the township received from the foundation.
“This is in recognition of West Orange’s long history of taking care of its trees,” said Linson. “And we are continuing this tradition today by distributing tree seedlings to most of the children here today.”
Other speakers during the ceremony included Marie DeMaio, principal of Washington Elementary School, and Mike Brick, chair of the West Orange Environmental Commission.
The school’s honor choir sang “America the Beautiful,” the school’s band played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the Washington School orchestra played “Love the Sun.” All students joined in on “This Land is Your Land” and “Simple Gifts.”
Helping to organize this event were Arbor Day Committee members Joe Antonucci, Nick Chirico, Michael Elifani, John Linson, Joe McCartney, Susan McCartney, ShariAnn Quirk, Lenny Ripa and Nick Salese, Sr.