Park renamed after historic town figure in ceremony

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

UNION, NJ — Dignitaries gathered to honor a historic Union Township figure when Columbus Park on Morris Avenue in Union, across from Town Hall, was renamed Anthony E. Russo Park at a dedication ceremony on Monday, Dec. 7. A plaque was unveiled during the ceremony.

According to Union Township public information officer Natalie DaSilva, former Union Deputy Mayor James Roberts, former Linden Mayor Michael Bono, former Union Mayor Jerome Petti and state Sen. Joseph Cryan were in attendance on Monday, Dec. 7, to honor Russo.

“Russo is one of the most dedicated public servants in the history of Union, who is committed to the township’s success in every way,” Cryan said on Sunday, Dec. 13, in a telephone interview. “He’s had a brilliant legal career and has a political career that spanned 27 years on the town committee, including his time as mayor, and a man who has made the difference in more people’s lives in Union than they can possibly know.”

Cryan said the most important thing Russo had done was to ensure that Union had a strong, economic foundation.

“It’s a culture that carries to this day: ‘If you don’t have it, don’t spend it.’ That’s why Union, today, is considered such a strong value for the tax dollars,” said Cryan. “He had a focus, and part of the reason that park was selected was because it’s in Union Center, where his office is, and still is today, and his focus on colonialism and preserving that particular character of Union.

“He founded parks, such as Bicentennial Park. He kept our pride in patriotism up, with things such as the Bicentennial Parade. He expanded recreation. It was his leadership that created senior citizen housing in the shape for an Ehrhart Gardens and he touched every generation while he was in office on the town committee.”

The state senator said the decision to rename Columbus Park after Russo was no surprise at all.

“The governing body chose it because, frankly, it’s in Union Center, which became Anthony Russo’s trademark,” Cryan said. “Ensuring that the center thrive was one of his most important goals, and, today, as you see the center come back and thriving. It was a natural fit. Russo is Union Center.

“The park is nearly directly across the street from his office, which is directly across from Morris Avenue. We thought the fact that the man has had his office there, I believe for six decades, and his commitment to the town, has made it also such a natural choice. I couldn’t think of a better choice for a better person in a better place.”

Cryan said that, despite his contributions to the township, Russo tends to deflect the attention to his accomplishments.

“The ceremony was a surprise,” he said. “He declines every honor, and a humbler man is impossible to find. It was a surprise to him and he was stunned. … He’s just a reluctant man to be acknowledged for what he’s done. It was a fitting tribute.”

The ceremonial plaque states that Russo was first elected to the Union Township Committee in 1961 and later succeeded the late F. Edward Biertuempfel as mayor in 1974, becoming Union’s first Democratic mayor. He served on the governing body for 27 years and as a mayor for 10 years. The plaque says that Russo also served as state senator for four years and as Union County adjuster. He has been an active parishioner of Holy Spirit Church, in Union, since its inception in 1963, and had served as an usher there for many years.

“Anthony also opened his law office in the center of Union’s Downtown District decades ago,” said Union Township public information officer Natalie DaSilva on Friday, Dec. 11.

Russo had made a huge impact in the township.

The plaque stated that Russo established Union’s Planning Board, Senior Citizens Department and New Jersey’s first municipal senior bus service. He also led efforts to construct Union’s Boys & Girls Club, as well as Schaefer Gardens and Ehrhart Gardens senior housing complexes. He designed Union’s Bicentennial Park, had land in the township designated to be a part of the state Green Acres program and is credited with preserving Union’s suburban character. The plaque stated that, while promoting progressive initiatives, Russo also worked to develop a stable tax base and limited capital debt to establish a sound economic foundation for the township’s future.

Petti said he found the dedication ceremony to be a very touching event.

“It’s well deserved. Russo has been sort of the town’s political, social and charitable life since the late 1950s,” said Petti on Monday, Dec. 14. “Other than Mayor Biertuempfel, he’s the most significant figure in Union modern history. He’s so historic. He was on the same ticket as John F. Kennedy in 1960, so it gives you a sense of perspective of how much of a landmark he is for this town.”

Union lawyer John Paragano, who was also in attendance, agreed with Cryan and Petti.

“It was a surprise for Anthony,” Paragano said on Monday, Dec. 14. “He was extremely moved about the fact that so many friends and family had come out to honor him for the ceremony. The ceremony was only about 20 to 30 people, because the town didn’t want to make it something big, concerning COVID-19 and the weather that day, but had an intimate gathering of family and friends.

“Anthony is a legend of Union Township. He brought the Democratic Party to Union. His legacy will live on in Union forever.”

Photos Courtesy of Township of Union