It was the summer of 1983 and at 25 I was an embarrassingly green and inexperienced political candidate running for the state legislature against popular incumbent John Kelly, who was also the president of Nutley Savings and Loan at the time.
Kelly was already Nutley’s most popular public figure, and was in his late 50’s. I will never forget going to a Nutley little league game, because I figured there would be lots of voters who I could meet and hopefully persuade to support for me.
But it soon became clear just how popular Assemblyman-and all around good guy-John Kelly really was. Immediately, as I started introducing myself and saying I was running for the Assembly, person after person said things like; “You are running against John Kelly? I’m sorry, I can never vote against him.” Or; “Hey kid, take a look at the scoreboard. Did you notice who donated it to the little league? John Kelly.” Or, this one; “John Kelly gave me my first loan that allowed me to start my business.” People wished me luck, but it became clear that Nutley was a locked up town for anyone running against Kelly.
John V. Kelly passed away a few days ago at the age of 83. While I was fortunate to win that race against the incumbent in 1983, two years later he came back to reclaim his seat in the legislature and my budding political career was over in a flash. What was interesting was that in a world filled with nasty, negative and partisan bickering and sniping, John Kelly was always a guy who crossed the aisle and made friends with everyone.
After I left the legislature in 1986, I would come to know Kelly even better. But, what I will never forget is that when he lost to me in 1983, he found his way to our headquarters and made it his business to shake my hand and congratulate me. I was the kid, and he was the mature, distinguished legislator who never saw my candidacy coming. But he still had the class and dignity to walk into that election night celebration to shake my hand. I’ll never forget it. And while it hurt like hell two years later, I remember doing the same with him when I lost to him. It was the least I could do for such a decent guy and worthy opponent.
In 1987, I rode the NJ Chamber of Commerce train from Washington back to New Jersey with Kelly. For four hours we talked, not about politics, but about family and a life outside of politics. He asked me what I really wanted to do with my life. We talked about the personal toll politics and public service takes on your family. He suggested, in the most genuine way possible, that I find out what else I could do beyond running for office. He was a fatherly figure giving me really good fatherly advice. He would do that with so many other people.
John Kelly was a Republican, but he was not partisan and he definitely wasn’t an ideologue. He was a practical, old school guy from Jersey City whose success in life was based largely on building and maintaining relationships. People liked and trusted Jack. He was there when you needed him with a loan from his bank, with advice, with a vote, or just to lend an ear. John Kelly was a class act. People liked him so much not because he gave a great speech or was particularly charismatic, but because he was down to earth. He was a regular guy who you could trust and count on.
My sense is that it would be virtually impossible to find many people who served with him in the state legislature who didn’t like him. He was the kind of legislator and kind of man that the state needs more of-people with integrity, but without a ton of ambition to “run for the next office” just because it was there. John Kelly just wanted to do a good job for the people he served, people who he related to on a very personal and human level. It was the kind of banker he was. So much like the character Jimmy Stewart played in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” He really wanted to help people purchase their first home or start that business they had been dreaming about for years. He wanted to make loans and help you send your kid to college. He wanted to donate little league scoreboards or whatever else was needed by people in his community. He was an incredibly generous guy with a generous heart.
I owe a lot to John Kelly, not the least of which is the beginning and end of my very short political career. But more than anything else, what I owe him is to respect his legacy and the fact that he took the time to be a friend after we battled against each other in two incredibly intense legislative campaigns. He gave me advice, support and guidance and I know I am not alone. John Kelly is going to be missed by lots of people, not just in Nutley, but throughout the entire state of New Jersey. I count myself as one of the lucky ones who got to know him up close and personal.