By John Burton
RED BANK – The life and legacy of the late Daniel J. O’Hern Sr. and the borough’s train station are two longstanding symbols of the borough’s past and both will be recognized in the near future.
As the NJ Transit commuter rail station, situated at the intersection of Bridge Avenue and Monmouth Street on the borough’s west side, nears completion of the multi-year renovation project undertaken by the transit corporation, family members and others will gather at 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 28, for the placement of a plaque, naming the station in honor of O’Hern’s years of public service.
The state Assembly and Senate previously approved legislation authorizing the naming of the site as the Daniel J. O’Hern Station–Red Bank, recognizing the former mayor and state Supreme Court associate justice’s work for his town and state through those and numerous other positions he held during his long career.
The connection between the two was not lost on Daniel J. O’Hern Jr., and for others.
“He grew up right around the corner” on Locust Avenue, on the borough’s west side, the junior O’Hern said, with the station playing a role in the older O’Hern’s life, as he traveled to New York City to attend Regis High School during the mid-1940s and then bringing him back to his hometown when he went away to college and law school.
Michael Arnone, a former mayor and state assemblyman, recalled when O’Hern was mayor in 1976, he spearheaded an effort to save the station, which had fallen into considerable disrepair and was under consideration for demolition. O’Hern encouraged NJ Transit to renovate and modernize the site, even recruiting students from Red Bank High School to help out, with O’Hern assisting in some painting of the structure, according to O’Hern.
“He really did help save what is probably the oldest landmark in Red Bank,” Arnone said, believing the rail station, which dates back to the mid-1800s, continues to be “a source of pride” for the borough.
Mayor Pasquale Menna said the station’s dedication is a fitting tribute to such an accomplished individual who continued to call Red Bank home because “they represent the comeback” of the borough’s redevelopment.
As a Harvard Law School graduate who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., O’Hern could of had his pick of Wall Street or Washington, D. C., law firms, said Menna, who believes that was the route chosen by most of O’Hern’s classmates. “I’m sure they never looked back,” but, Menna said, O’Hern “not only looked back, he came back,” working and living in the borough and the Two River area for the rest of his life.
“I guess the moral of the story is that he had the opportunity to become wealthy,” Menna said. “He was still concerned and still attached to his roots and came back to live a life well lived.
“It says a lot about the man,” Menna said.
His son agreed.
“He cared very deeply about the community of Red Bank,” O’Hern Jr. said. “He was a humble kid who never forgot where he was born and raised.”
Menna said the station’s renovation reflects a return for the west side, which has been undergoing a slow but continuing revitalization with a number of commercial and residential projects poised for completion.
Now the station will be something of a centerpiece and symbol of that progress, he said.
“We’re very grateful that NJ Transit invested the type of money that it took to bring it back to its glory,” Menna said.
The facility again had fallen into disrepair over the nearly 40 years since the last major renovation project.
The approximately $1.6 million rail station project, paid for by NJ Transit, was geared toward stabilizing, preserving and restoring elements of the historic station, first constructed in 1876, NJ Transit spokesman William Smith said in an email.
The work included the repair and, as necessary, the replacement of all the exterior wood clapboard siding, in addition to work on or replacement of all doors, windows and the historic trim on the station’s exterior. Some of the work involved recreating missing trim –from the eaves of the roof to the pavement surrounding the station plus the doors, windows and gables, according to Smith.
The project also has stabilized the facility to prevent further deterioration caused by water and the infiltration of vermin over the years.
Included in the work were the repairs to the structure’s brick foundation and the stabilization of the ceiling beams framing the stair opening.
The scope of the work was initially announced late 2010, with work beginning during fall 2011.
“The extensive nature of the work speaks to the level of commitment to return the station to its prior glory,” Smith said in his email.
The station, which was included on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, hosts approximately 1,200 riders who board trains each day, according to NJ Transit.
Currently, workers are completing final punch-list items to finish the project.
NJ Transit is expected to make an official announcement about the project’s completion sometime in the near future, Smith said.
Menna said he hoped the project would inspire the transit company to look at cleaning up the remainder of its site and start planning for a long-needed parking garage on the property.
“They’re going to have to have a garage there” to accommodate ridership and the other developments bringing in businesses and new residents, he insisted, while offering the borough’s assistance to help find a suitable private partner for such a project.
“We would certainly be happy to work with them to get that accomplished,” Menna said, “because I think it is in the best interest of Red Bank to do that.”
NJ Transit’s Smith said he was unaware of any future plans for a garage project in Red Bank at this time.
O’Hern died at the age of 78 on April 1, 2009 from a cancerous brain tumor. A Democrat, he served on the borough council from 1962-1968 and then as mayor until 1978.
Arnone, a Republican who followed O’Hern into the mayor’s office, said he knew O’Hern for most his life. They had grown up together and he always considered him a dear friend.
“Legacies are determined by how you deal with the issues of your time,” Arnone said. It was during the turbulent 1960s and ‘70s, a time of racial and civil unrest, that “Dan dealt with his issues very passionately and correctly, I think,” Arnone said.
O’Hern had been active in Brendan Byrne’s run for governor with Bryrne naming him commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and as the governor’s special counsel.
Byrne nominated O’Hern to the state Supreme Court, securing his appointment in 1981. He served on the high court for 19 years, retiring at the mandatory age of 70.
“There is no better person to honor,” Byrne said this week, calling O’Hern “a dedicated public servant.
“He served his town and his state with distinction and honor,” Byrne said, adding, “It’s nice to see his accomplishments recognized.”
As DEP commissioner, “he actually took the position to a new level, not just a title,” said Menna. As a Supreme Court justice, his opinions reflected “what were pretty good roots in social Catholic conscience to do the right thing” for all, especially the less fortunate.
James Zazzali, a Rumson resident, got to first know O’Hern when Zazzali was attorney general in the Byrne administration. He followed O’Hern on to the state’s highest court with Zazzali rising to chief justice before retiring in June 2007.
“As mayor of Red Bank, as associate justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, and in so many other ways, Dan O’Hern improved the lives for so many of us,” Zazzali said this week. “Because of his presence and substance, because of his character and courage, he is truly a star in the New Jersey firmament.”
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