Philip Roth or Toni Morrison? Sarah Vaughan or Frank Sinatra? Woodrow Wilson or Clara Barton?
Nice problem to have—an abundance of homegrown talent and adoptive residents who changed the world in ways big and small. When the runners-up for your inaugural Hall of Fame class include names like Roth, Vaughan, Wilson, Paul Robeson, Count Basie, Walt Whitman, Dorothy Parker, Jerry Lewis, Jack Nicholson, and even Abbott & Costello, you know you take a backseat to no one in bragging rights.
“New Jersey is a breeding ground for greatness,” says Bart Oates, chairman of the Board of Commissioners that oversees the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Oates knows what greatness is, having won two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants and another with the San Francisco 49ers. After nine seasons as an NFL center, he retired in 1993 to focus on his family, law practice, and real estate development.
In the mid ’90s, Oates joined the board of the Sports Hall of Fame of New Jersey. It had been created in 1988 under the auspices of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA), and for years was the state’s most visible paean to its heroes of any kind. Plaques enshrining the 150 inductees hang on the walls of the Izod Center in the Meadowlands. Oates eventually became president of the Sports Hall of Fame. But by 2003, he and the board recognized that the project had run out of steam.
“There just wasn’t a lot of support outside the Meadowlands,” he says. “It became very apparent that there needed to be some kind of infusion, some kind of change. I’m a sports person, but there is so much more to life than sports. A lot was being left out.”
In 2004, the board broadened its mission with support from the NJSEA, and the next year, reconstituted as the New Jersey Hall of Fame, received the state’s official imprimatur. The Hall is a nonprofit corporation supported entirely by private funds. A variety of businesses, including the accounting firm J.H. Cohn, for which Oates works, have committed money and resources. Legislation sponsored by State Senator Paul Sarlo, from the 36th District (which includes the Meadowlands complex), mandates that any brick-and-mortar Hall of Fame be built in the shadow of the new Giants Stadium now under construction.
There had been a move in the Assembly to withdraw the restriction, not to exclude the Meadowlands, but to allow other venues to be considered. That amendment has been tabled, and it is expected that Sarlo will continue to push for construction in the Meadowlands.
“Launching a museum of this scope brings many challenges,” Oates says. “It’s been a massive undertaking, but we have had many, many people involved from the very beginning—experts who helped us compile the master list of potential inductees, graduate students who confirmed the candidates’ Jersey roots, members of our voting academy who have been ready to help whenever we called upon them.”
About $300,000 has been raised to cover administrative and legal expenses as well as the cost of the upcoming induction ceremony, which includes a gala reception. Ultimately, a capital campaign will be launched to raise $10 to $15 million to build a brick-and-mortar museum.
“We’ve had more than 100,000 visitors to our website, which tells me people are interested,” Oates says. “It’s all about pride in New Jersey and, as we induct our first class, we clearly have much to be proud of.”
Meet the Immortals
Clara Barton (1821–1912) She came to New Jersey in 1852 to teach, opening the state’s first free school in Bordentown. Enrollment swelled to 600, but the school board hired a man as head. She resigned, volunteering to bring medical supplies to Union troops during the Civil War. In 1881, she founded the American Red Cross.
Thomas Alva Edison (1847– 1931) “The Wizard of Menlo Park” once held a record 1,093 patents for everything from the light bulb to movie cameras. He started in Newark, built a massive Menlo Park R&D plant, and eventually settled in West Orange’s Llewellyn Park.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955) Passed over for promotion in the Swiss patent office until he “fully mastered machine technology,” he refined his theories, won the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics, and in 1933 emigrated here, joining the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University.
Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin (1930–) On July 20, 1969, the Montclair High and West Point grad became the second man to walk on the moon. He coined the immortal phrase, “The eagle has landed.”
Malcolm Forbes (1919–1990) Born in Englewood, educated at the Lawrenceville School and Princeton University, Forbes was elected a state senator in 1951. Then he got serious about the family business, Forbes, and became the complete Capitalist Tool, yachting, ballooning, motorcycling, and entertaining A-Listers.
Robert Wood Johnson II (1893–1968) Born in New Brunswick, Johnson II was sixteen when his father, Robert Wood Johnson I, died and left him $2 million. He never went to college but ran Johnson & Johnson and was a revolutionary thinker, fighting to maintain employee wages during the Depression. In World War II, he was put in charge of the Smaller War Plants Corporation. His 1948 book, Or Forfeit Freedom, won Book of the Year from the American Political Science Association. When Johnson II passed away, he left $400 million to the foundation he created.
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
Frank Sinatra (1915–1998) Born in Hoboken, Francis Albert Sinatra evolved from skinny crooner with band leaders Harry James and Tommy Dorsey into The Voice, Old Blue Eyes, and Chairman of the Board. Sinatra redefined pop singing. As if that weren’t enough, he redefined male bonding with his Rat Pack pals. And as a marquee movie star, Sinatra won Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1953’s From Here to Eternity.
Bruce Springsteen (1949–) Born in Long Branch, the rock poet of love, hope, and redemption has sold nearly 100 million albums, earned fifteen Grammy awards, and continues to live with his wife and kids in Jersey.
Mary Louise “Meryl” Streep (1949–) A record fifteen Oscar nominations, two gold statues, and countless other awards have cemented the Bernardsville native’s reputation as the world’s greatest living film actress.
Yogi Berra (1925–) The 82-year-old St. Louis native has called Montclair home since his playing days with the Yankees. The malaprop king won ten World Series titles in fourteen trips, earned three MVP trophies, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. He and his wife, Carmen, can often be found talking baseball at the Yogi Berra Museum at Montclair State University.
William Warren “Bill” Bradley (1943–) The Missourian starred in basketball at Princeton University, became a Rhodes Scholar and an anchor of the last New York Knicks team to win a title, in 1973. He served the Garden State from 1978-96 as a U.S. senator. In 2000, he vied for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Vince Lombardi (1913–1970) In 1939, Lombardi was hired by St. Cecilia High School in Englewood. For $1,700 a year, he taught Latin, algebra, physics, and chemistry, and coached the football, basketball, and baseball teams. After assistant coaching jobs at West Point and with the New York Giants, Lombardi took over the moribund Green Bay Packers and, quicker than you can say “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” he turned the Pack into champions. ESPN named him Coach of the Century.
Toni Morrison (1931–) In 1987, Morrison was named the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University, becoming the first black woman writer to hold a named chair at an Ivy League university. In 1993, she became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
Norman Schwarzkopf (1934–) Born in Trenton, General Schwarzkopf commanded the coalition forces that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi invasion in 1990-91.
Harriet Tubman (1819–1913) Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman started the Underground Railroad from her base in Cape May. She was the first American woman to plan and lead a military raid (which freed more than 700 slaves).Click here to leave a comment