UNION, NJ — Anthony Steitz was not your typical 17-year-old young man.
Through his volunteer work, he collected money for Puerto Rico after the recent hurricanes, helped compile backpacks full of supplies for hurricane victims in Texas and Florida, and he even collected suits for disabled veterans.
Steitz had a drive to help people that was unprecedented, according to Michael Boll, a Steitz family friend and director of the New Jersey Veterans Network, where Steitz volunteered.
“He was always a face of the ROTC but he’s a face of our team too,” Boll said of Steitz in a phone interview on May 2. “For a 17-year-old to have that kind of drive, it’s just incredible.”
On Saturday, April 27, the Union High School junior was driving home from the school’s Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps banquet in Scotch Plains, where he had just been named the battalion commander of the Union High School Junior ROTC for his senior year, when his car veered off the road and crashed into trees around 11:30 p.m., New Jersey State Police told LocalSource on May 2.
Steitz, who was wearing his seat belt at the time, died the next morning after being rushed to the hospital.
Boll has known the Steitz family for almost 25 years and said that the young cadet was always his “go-to volunteer.”
Steitz, who joined the ROTC his sophomore year, already had signed up for the Army National Guard through its split-training option. He planned to spend this summer in basic combat training and return to UHS for his senior year, then join the National Guard full-time after graduation, according to Boll.
“I’ll say this a thousand times. A lot of adults are worried about our youth, but it was kids like Anthony that really made you feel safe,” he said. “He was the brightest star of the ROTC in that school and he was beloved by all.”
Steitz’s father and two of this brothers are members of the Union Fire Department; another brother is a member of the Cranford Fire Department and his sister is in the National Guard.
Boll said the family is living by the saying “honor the deceased by honoring the living” and has set up a scholarship and disabled veterans fund in Anthony’s name.
“They’re honoring him instantaneously and it’s amazing how strong this family really is,” Boll added.
Gov. Phil Murphy ordered to have all flags half-staff on May 3, the day of Steitz’s funeral.
“Pvt. First-Class Anthony P. Steitz was taken from us much too soon in a tragic automobile accident,” Murphy said in a release. “His selfless service and dedication to our state and country will not be forgotten. Tammy and I would like to express our sincere condolences to Anthony’s family and friends during this difficult time.”
Members of the local fire and police departments attended Steitz’s funeral and a flag was raised in his honor by his fellow JROTC cadets on April 29.
“As a school district, we are so saddened by the passing of this amazing young cadet. He was an active member of the JROTC program and loved being of service to others,” district spokeswoman Akua Boakye said in a May 1 email.
“At his young age, he was a registered organ donor. Anthony has left a great impact not only on our school community, but on the entire Township of Union as well. Our condolences to his family,” the statement went on to read.
A memorial table was also set up at the high school, where students had an opportunity to put items that reminded them of their classmate, as well as flowers and his belongings.
“Your wings were ready but our hearts were not,” the JROTC posted on Instagram, along with several pictures and a video of Steitz, some showing off his goofier side, including his rendition of “Piano Man” on the harmonica during one of their trips.
“Thank you for having been part of our lives,” the post with the harmonica video said.
Boll told LocalSource that the Union JROTC and the Operation Rebound Racing Team — from the NJ Veterans Network — will be walking in Steitz’s honor at the township’s annual Memorial Day Parade on May 27.
The JROTC and members of the veterans’ network will continue the walk to the Springfield War Memorial, for a total of 3 miles.
“This is a way of helping the family and others that are sad by honoring him almost instantaneously,” Boll said.