ROSELLE PARK, NJ — Months after a controversy erupted over a war memorial in Roselle Park, residents and businesses are coming together to show support for the memorial, as well as solidarity with Mayor Carl Hokanson, by placing kneeling soldier memorials on front lawns, in their windows and on the sides of buildings throughout the borough.
The kneeling soldier memorial was placed in front of the Roselle Park Veterans Memorial Library on July 29 by Hokanson as a private donation to the borough. This resulted in a lawsuit filed against the borough by Roselle Park Councilwoman Charlene Storey, her husband Gregory, and the American Humanist Association, to which the Storeys belong.
The lawsuit demanded that the display be removed and sought to forbid the borough from erecting a “similarly religious display” in the future.
The display featured a cross-shaped silhouette with a soldier kneeling in front of it, and the Storeys, along with other local citizens, voiced their concerns that the memorial appeared to be religious, and that its placement on public property was a “constitutional violation of the separation of church and state.”
The mayor removed the memorial Oct. 4 — 68 days after he had placed in front of the library — and donated it to the Church of the Assumption, where it remains.
But although the memorial has been long gone from the library, borough residents and business owners have not forgotten the controversy, and what many believe to have been an attack on veterans and the mayor.
Hokanson told LocalSource that he was happy to donate the memorial to the church, and that soon after it was placed there, people began contacting him to find out about getting their own memorials to display.
“Several businesses wanted it,” Hokanson said in a Feb. 13 phone interview. “People bought them and now there are at least 40 of them around the borough. The momentum is still strong.”
According to Hokanson, he conducted a survey of the borough’s residents after the controversy erupted and during the period the memorial was displayed in front of the library.
“About 85 percent were in favor of keeping the memorial where it was,” Hokanson said.
Hokanson removed the memorial, however, opting to avoid a potentially costly legal fight.
“I decided to remove the soldier so we wouldn’t get the borough embroiled in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit,” Hokanson said.
But business owners like Joe Bellomo, of Joe and Jodi’s Barber Shop, located on Chestnut Street in the center of the borough, decided that they would proudly — and publicly — display the same memorial.
Jodi Bellomo, whose father owns the shop, told LocalSource that she was disturbed when the mayor was forced to take it down, and that many others in the borough have responded accordingly.
“It’s in our front window of our store, which is smack in the middle of town,” Bellomo said in a phone interview last week. “When it was placed at the library, it was placed as a memorial to those who served. It’s a beautiful memorial.”
According to Bellomo, who has lived in the borough for 30 years, she has been verbally attacked for her public display of the memorial.
“I’ve been attacked on social media because I chose to put it up,” she said of the memorial. “We have a right. The majority of our customers are vets. This is our First Amendment right. This is coming out of faith. I’m not political in this town. Mayor Hokanson is a beautiful man; there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for this town. His motives are pure.”
Bellomo said that, after she decided to put up the memorial at her shop, Hokanson warned her that the move could affect her business.
“Carl looked out not just for the residents, but for the businesses,” Bellomo said. “He said. ‘Jodi, I don’t think it’s a good business move.’ He wanted me to think about it before I displayed it. That is great leadership right there.”
Bellomo also called out Councilwoman Storey, stating that she was not representing most of the town when she asked that the memorial be removed.
“She said she spoke for people in the town,” Bellomo said of Storey. “I want to know what people in the town she’s talking about. My question to the council is, ‘Who are you representing?’”
Kristie McCrone, of the Sun Tavern on Westfield Avenue, said that her father, Kenneth Duda, who owns the restaurant and who chose to display a kneeling soldier memorial there, felt strongly about the issue.
“We just kind of feel that it’s a no-brainer,” McCrone told LocalSource in a phone interview last week. “Why wouldn’t we want to support the military?”
Duda is a former Marine, according to McCrone, and her husband and father-in-law are police officers.
“We put one up at our business and at our home,” McCrone said.
Harry Heerwig, owner of Korino’s, also on Westfield Avenue, said his choice to display the memorial has everything to do with supporting the country.
“It’s really got to do with our country and supporting what’s right,” Heerwig told LocalSource in a phone interview last week. “People today are too PC. What is wrong about displaying the memorial and honoring soldiers and their families? We support the mayor and what he wanted to do.”
Heerwig said that as soon as the controversy around the memorial began, he knew he wanted to show solidarity with the mayor.
“As soon as I saw what was going on, I asked the mayor where we could get the silhouette,” Heerwig said of the memorial, which he put up last week on the side of the building in which his business is located.
According to Heerwig, about 20,000 people drive by his store each day, and he is happy that the memorial will be seen by so many.
“You got to give people some room to express their feelings,” Heerwig said. “We’re doing it because it’s a memorial. That’s all that is. It’s a soldier kneeling at a grave, that’s all.”
Bellomo said she is unconcerned about the effect her display of the memorial might have on her business.
“I don’t think it will affect my business,” Bellomo said. “It’s in our front window, and it fits exactly. It truly looks like it belongs in my window. It found a new home and it’s going to stay there.”
Two more kneeling soldier memorials have also been placed at the borough’s American Legion Building, as well as at other locations throughout the borough.
As of press time, there was no resolution to the lawsuit against the borough.