Two years ago, I had the pleasure of walking beside Senator Frank Lautenberg down Bergenline Avenue during the county’s annual Cuban Independence Day parade. Well, “beside” is not quite accurate because the then-87-year-old gentleman nearly outpaced me as I struggled to keep up. I was both honored and humbled by his presence and his incredible energy.
His ability to set such a brisk pace that day was symbolic of his long life and career in business and in politics, as Senator Lautenberg consistently set an enormous example and inspired those around him to keep up with his numerous achievements.
The Senator and I spoke for a long while after the parade. We traded army stories and he regaled me with tales from his time in Germany during World War II. We spoke politics, what it means to be a leader, and though he treated me with great respect, I also felt he treated me like a son.
Senator Lautenberg is a mentor and a role model, both to myself and to the nation and the government he served. His story is as American as they come: the son of working-poor immigrant parents, he was born in Paterson, New Jersey and took on night and weekend jobs to help support his family after his father died of cancer.
After graduating from Nutley High School, Senator Lautenberg enlisted in the Army Signal Corps in Europe, and moved on to earn a degree in economics from Columbia University on the G.I. Bill.
Bound for high achievement, he and two friends founded the very first payroll services company, Automatic Data Processing (ADP), which eventually became the largest company of its kind in the world. After what the Senator considered his achievement of the American Dream, he dedicated himself to giving back to the country that nurtured and allowed for his success.
In 1982, Senator Lautenberg won a seat in the Senate and continued his history of groundbreaking hard work and achievement. During his first three terms, he made great strides on many issues close to his upbringing and his moral compass: the cessation of aid to nations that support terrorism, the leveling of the drinking age across the states to keep drunk drivers off the roads, environmental protection, gun control, and big tobacco.
These were simply a few accomplishments.
In 2010, Senator Lautenberg was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and though his doctors anticipated a full recovery, he decided after a long career, he would not run for reelection. On June 3, he lost his life to a battle with viral pneumonia, and we as a nation lost a legend.
Aside from a deep sadness, I am touched by the fact that the Senator passed away almost exactly two years after our meeting that inspired me so greatly. It was a great honor to have known such a person in my lifetime: a man with such grace, tenacity, and moral fortitude.
Senator Frank Lautenberg led by example. He has certainly achieved his goal. He has given back in spades and helped to shape the very fabric of American society. His legacy will continue to have a positive impact for decades to come.
Our hearts go out to his family and friends, and to a nation that mourns him and that is made better by him.
Mayor Felix E. Roque, M.D.