Governor Brendan Thomas Byrne, Sr. passed away on Thursday, January 4, 2018 Family and close friends were by his side. He would often say he was elected "by accident," through a combination of luck and circumstances. His predecessor was William T. Cahill, a popular Republican ultimately undone by scandals within his administration.
"I didn't really seek it. So I come into Trenton without any real obligation to anybody," Byrne told a newspaper shortly after being elected.
Born April 1, 1924, in Orange, he grew up in West Orange in a Roman Catholic family with deep Irish roots and an abiding interest in local politics. His father, Francis A. Byrne, was a longtime member of the West Orange governing body and a state tax commissioner.
Byrne graduated from West Orange High School in 1942 and enrolled at Seton Hall University, but was soon drafted. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he served as navigator on a B-17 with the 97th Bomb Group, 414 Squad. By the end of World War II, Byrne, the youngest squadron navigator in his bomb group, had flown 50 missions over Northern Italy, earning him the Distinguished Flying Medal and four Air Medals.
He enrolled at Princeton University on the GI Bill after his discharge in 1945, and earned a law degree from Harvard in 1951.
Byrne entered public service in 1955 as an assistant counsel to Gov. Robert B. Meyner, who later appointed him as Essex County prosecutor.
As prosecutor, he prosecuted a number of municipal corruption cases and a prominent underworld figure, annoying Newark's mayor, Hugh Addonizio.
"Addonizio tried his damnedest to get the governor not to reappoint me," Byrne later recalled. The Newark mayor eventually went to prison on federal corruption charges.
In 1968, he was named president of the New Jersey Public Utilities Commission and appointed to state Superior Court two years later by Cahill.
But it was an FBI wiretap conversation between two mobsters that would seal Byrne's later election as governor. On the tape, "Gyp" DeCarlo was heard complaining that Byrne was a "Boy Scout" who couldn't be bought. A transcript of the tape eventually became public, bringing Byrne headlines and providing him a slogan for his first campaign: "The Man Who Couldn't Be Bought." The theme was "One honest man can make the difference."
He ran for only one office in his life, and he won it twice.
In 1973, he won the Democratic gubernatorial primary and went on to defeat Charles W. Sandman Jr., a conservative Republican congressman from South Jersey who had defeated Cahill in the Republican primary and had been among Richard Nixon's most outspoken defenders.
As governor, Byrne often angered party leaders. He fought with both men he chose as state Democratic Party chairman, and expressed disdain for the usual horse-trading of legislative politics in Trenton.
His biggest fight was the effort to push through a state income tax. While still a candidate, Byrne had told a reporter he did not see the need for a personal income tax "in the foreseeable future." Once in office, however, he faced a landmark New Jersey Supreme Court ruling requiring an increase in funding for public schools.
Byrne came to view a state income tax as the only stable and long-term source of revenue. The Legislature balked at passing the tax for over two years, until a July 1976 showdown, when the Supreme Court issued an order to close the schools. The Legislature soon adopted an income tax. The issue was expected to kill any chance of re-election, and many began to refer to the governor as "one-term Byrne."
Byrne won his primary, going on to face Republican state Sen. Raymond H. Bateman, who had opposed the income tax. But New Jersey residents began receiving the first-ever homestead rebate checks before the election and Bryne easily defeated Bateman, with 57 percent of the vote.
"So far tonight, I haven't met anyone who called me 'One-term Byrne,'" he told cheering supporters.
In his second term, he focused his efforts to save New Jersey's endangered Pinelands.
The Pine Barrens had been eyed, at various times, for a giant jetport and nuclear plant. Now developers were encroaching from all sides on its pristine forests and swamps, threatening to destroy the last great wilderness in the Northeast. Byrne resolved to stem the tide.
He said he had been moved and greatly influenced by a book about the unique history and ecology of the region by John McPhee, a writer and friend in Princeton.
"There's one sentence in John's book in which he says in effect, based on the realities of things, the Pinelands is bound to disappear. And I sort of took that as a challenge," he said years later.
His efforts led to the Pinelands Protection Act, which restricted development of nearly a million acres in Atlantic, Burlington, Camden, and Ocean counties. He called it his most important legacy to the state.
"He liked to take big steps," recalled Donald Linky, who served in Byrne's administration as counsel to the governor and director of the governor's Office of Policy and Planning. "He wasn't a governor who wanted to do small things."
Linky, who wrote "The Man Who Couldn't Be Bought," a biography on Byrne, said the Pinelands legislation was an example of that.
"Nobody on the staff was pushing him on that. But it was a personal thing for him," he said of the Pinelands Act.
The governor favored the establishment of casino gambling in Atlantic City, which he considered crucial to the survival of the crumbling resort.
Byrne was also proud of his role in getting the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford up and running. "If I had not been elected, I don't think it would have been built," he said.
The complex had been created before Byrne was governor, but he negotiated a new 30-year-lease with the Giants and oversaw the sale of bonds financing its construction. The Meadowlands Racetrack and Giants Stadium opened in 1976; a third venue, a multi-purpose arena given his name, opened in 1981.
Byrne, an athlete and sports enthusiast, was a fan of the place and believed it gave New Jersey badly-needed glamour. After he left office his successor, Gov. Thomas Kean, appointed him a member of its board, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.
Toward the end of his life, however, he expressed disappointment with the Meadowlands. It had acquired Xanadu, a shopping mall and entertainment center that turned into the stalled American Dream project. It has yet to open.
Once the sports complex was "a dignified project," he said. "Now it's junk."
There may have been another reason Byrne fell out of love with the Meadowlands complex.
In 1996, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, under Republican governor Christie Whitman, announced a $29 million corporate naming rights deal with Continental Airlines.
The building became known as the Continental Arena and Byrne's name, spelled out in big block letters, came down. At the time he insisted he was not upset.
"I was immortal for 15 years," he joked.
The arena, beset by declining revenues, later changed names again to become the Izod Center. But now it is dark, shut down by the Sports Authority years ago.
After leaving office in 1982, Byrne joined the Roseland law firm of Charles Carella, who had served in his administration. He served on numerous boards and never really disappeared from public view, remaining a highly sought-after speaker at fundraisers and other events, where he perfected old jokes and tried out new ones.
In 1993 he and his wife, Jean, divorced. He married Ruthi Zinn, a public relations professional, the following year.
Through his 70s and into his 80s Byrne went to the office nearly every day. He enjoyed tennis, golf, theater, Broadway musicals, and horse racing. Byrne, who did not smoke or drink, also held on to the frugal habits of his youth.
"He knows how to handicap the horses, but his idea of gambling is to ask me, 'Want to put up a dollar? Let's put two dollars on a horse," said his friend Barry Evenchik, a Livingston attorney who worked under Byrne as an assistant prosecutor, in an interview before Byrne's death.
Governor Byrne is survived by his wife, Ruthi (Greenfield); four sons, Brendan Thomas Jr. of Princeton, Timothy of Princeton, William of Maplewood and Michael Zinn of Montclair; and four daughters, Nancy Byrne of Red Bank, a former director of the state division of tourism, Mary Anne Byrne of South Plainfield, Barbara Stefan, of Cohasset, Mass and Laura Fromm. Another daughter, Susan Byrne, died in 2006 in an accidental fall. He is also survived by 16 grandchildren.
The Tribute Service will be held on Monday, January 8, 2018 at 11:00 am in the Paper Mill Playhouse. Donations in the Governor's Honor are being requested to the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041 (papermill.org).
The arrangements for Governor Byrne's Tribute are entrusted to his friends at the Codey & Jones Funeral Home of Caldwell. To share a condolence or memory, please visit www.codeyjonesfh.com.