Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, who passed away suddenly at the beginning of August at the age of 71, was an extraordinary public servant. She cared deeply about making a difference for New Jerseyans, particularly those in urban communities. She entered public service for all the right reasons, which is all too rare in government and politics today.
I knew Sheila for well over 30 years. She was from Essex County, as I am. For those around the state who may not be familiar with Essex County politics, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s rough, it’s nasty, it’s dirty, and for decades it was dominated by older white men—otherwise known as political bosses, many of whom were not particularly interested in public service. That’s the political environment that Sheila Oliver entered.
What was so amazing to me about her was that she could stand toe-to-toe with those bosses. While she was Assembly speaker—the first African American woman to serve in that prestigious role—she stood her ground with then Governor Chris Christie. She never backed down. Christie could be stubborn, but so could Sheila Oliver. No matter who raised their voice and tried to intimidate her, she never raised hers. She was classy and dignified, but that shouldn’t be confused with weakness or subservience. Sheila was willing to put her political career on the line when she stood up for what she believed in. In fact, that was in part what cost her the Assembly Speakership in 2013, when the political bosses decided her time was up.
She was an educator at her core who came from a teaching background. In 2010, the Stand & Deliver youth leadership development program I helped found honored her with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award. At the awards ceremony, she delivered a powerful message to several hundred Newark teenagers about making a difference through public service, caring about others, and, yes, standing up for what you believe. She was never an overly fiery public speaker, but when she spoke, you somehow knew you would be better off by just listening.
The tributes to Lieutenant Governor Oliver have been pouring in since she passed away, including from those who knew her best, like Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman, the first African American woman to serve in the New Jersey congressional delegation, who said, “Sheila was a fierce advocate for the economically disadvantaged, for equal opportunities, and was one of the finest examples of a public servant our state has seen.”
One of the last times I saw the Sheila in person was in September 2022 at an annual 9/11 memorial service at Eagle Rock Reservation, organized by Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. I emcee the event every year, and every year since 2002, Sheila has been there. When I introduced her to speak last year, her gait was a bit shaky, as was her voice, but her words were no less moving. She talked directly to the families of the 9/11 victims from Essex County. She spoke with empathy, grace and compassion. While Sheila got emotional, so did those family members, and the rest of us in attendance. Simply put, Sheila Oliver cared deeply about others and wore it on her sleeve. No prepared, scripted, staff-written speech. It was from the heart, just trying to offer a sliver of hope to those in need.
New Jersey and the nation will miss Sheila Oliver. We are in need of more leaders like her. A life well lived, Sheila made a difference for so many. May she rest in peace.
Steve Adubato, PhD, is the author of five books including his latest, Lessons in Leadership. He is also an Emmy® Award–winning anchor on Thirteen/WNET (PBS) and NJ PBS. Check out steveadubato.org. Steve has appeared on CNN, FOX5 in NY and NBC’s Today Show, and his “Lessons in Leadership” video podcast with co-host Mary Gamba airs Sundays at 10 am on News 12+. Steve also provides executive leadership coaching and seminars for a variety of corporations and organizations both regionally and nationally. For more information, visit stand-deliver.com.
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