"Dr. Paul Cavalli came up to us and asked if he could walk along with us," Reilly remembered last week.
Then Reilly noticed something odd. People who were packed along the sidewalks for Walter's passing started calling out to Dr. Cavalli.
"On nearly every block, someone called out to him," Reilly recalled. "After about seven or eight blocks, I needed to know why, and asked him."
These people, Reilly learned, had been touched by Dr. Cavalli during his long years as a doctor. They were mothers and children, grandparents and grandchildren, all of whom owed him a debt of gratitude for helping with their birth or treating their illnesses. And despite the fact that Cavalli had not practiced medicine in Union City in several years, the people still remembered him.
"This is what happens when you care about people and believe in humanity," Reilly said. "It was a great lesson to me. While sometimes you might not get recognized in life, you still can leave your mark by doing good for people. That's what Dr. Cavalli did. He was a special, special man who brought a personal touch to medicine."
For Dr. Cavalli, who passed away last week at the age of 74 due to heart problems, success wasn't measured in money, but in the handful of grandchildren he had and the thriving of Meadowlands Hospital he helped found in 1971.
At the end, Cavalli was cared for in the hospital he loved and by the staff who respected him. He had been president of the hospital from 1994 until his retirement on April 2, 2001.
"It's an end of an era," said Martin Baker, the man who took over as president. "Dr. Cavalli was a man with vision."
Had an impact
Although he was last a resident of Secaucus, Cavalli was born in Jersey City Heights and moved to Union City when he was very young. He attended Thomas A. Edison Elementary school and served in the local Boy Scouts.
While scouting would become a lifelong passion that would win him the organization's highest honors as a boy and later as an adult, Cavalli had another dream that may have been seemingly unrealistic for a poor boy in those years: He wanted to become a doctor.
In an interview conducted with Cavalli at his retirement two years ago, he described his father as a man who had a hard time for a while, but who eventually managed to make some money. He described his mother as a Manhattan hat-maker whose designs became an American fad. In 1943, when money became more abundant, Cavalli's father sent him to LaSalle Military Academy in Oakdale, N.Y., which Cavalli called "a lesson in discipline as well as academics."
"It was a strict education," Cavalli said at the time, noting that he had previously been something of a troublemaker, a matter the school managed to straighten out.
From this point, his educational road led him to Manhattan College, which he attended from 1947 to 1951, then onto Fordham University where he studied chemistry and political science.
Even then, he had aspirations of becoming a doctor. He said that in deciding on a career, he thought being a doctor would allow him to help people while also providing him with a good income.
Served around the world
Although accepted into several prestigious universities to continue his education, Cavalli took a break from book studies to get some practical experience and went to Europe as a CARE worker.
CARE, a private international relief and development organization, was founded in the aftermath of World War II, and was originally formed to help survivors of the conflict in Europe and Asia. Cavalli found himself in what was then Yugoslavia until Tito, the communist leader there, ordered relief workers out of the country.
He managed to pay his way to Switzerland, and from there, he decided to visit his aunt, who lived in a small town near Turin, Italy. Although he had been accepted by two or three prestigious universities in the United States - including Georgetown - Dr. Cavalli allowed his aunt to register him at the University of Turin, where he studied medicine from 1951 to 1956.
He returned to Hudson County in late 1956, serving his internship at Jersey City Medical Center and his residency at Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital. He opened a private practice in Union City in 1957.
In 1965, he joined with two other physicians and opened the first cooperative medical group partnership in Hudson County area. This was comprised of three adjoining storefronts in Union City. Three years later, in 1968, this group became the first medical professional association in the state and one of only seven in the United States.
"People kept telling me it wasn't possible to do some of the things we did, but we managed to do them anyway," Cavalli said. Over the years, Cavalli served as police and fire surgeon for Union City - a position he held until 1985. He served as a member of the Criminal Justice Planning Committee in Union City from 1971 to 1981. He was also a member of the International Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association. He said people using illegal drugs gave him a bad feeling. "I guess that's true with most doctors," he said.
In addition, Cavalli sat on the board of directors of the New Jersey Hospital Association, the Hudson County United Way and the Harmony Early Learning Center. He was also been an active member of the American Hospital Association, the American Cancer Society, and the Girls Scouts. He even served as a sheriff in Hudson County, although most of his political career was focused around Union City.
He was an elected member of the Union City Board of Education during the 1970s, but said he resigned because he was uncomfortable with some of the things going on in Union City at the time.
UC mayor like a father
While he claimed he had no heroes growing up, Cavalli said William Musto, former mayor of Union City, was like a father to him, and said he was greatly disappointed when Musto and many other people associated with that administration were later indicted and convicted of numerous crimes in federal court.
Over the years, Cavalli worked in numerous local hospitals including St. Mary in Hoboken, St. Francis in Jersey City, and the legendary Doctor's Hospital that eventually evolved in the North Hudson Hospital in Union City. Cavalli perpetually dreamed of having a hospital of his own.
In 1968 Cavalli began to think seriously about starting his own hospital, although plans did not emerge until 1971, when he approached friends and colleagues with the idea.
From 123 doctors in New York and New Jersey, Cavalli managed to raise $1 million, of which $750,000 went toward the purchase of the land. He sought funds from local banks that agreed to lend him up to $12 million for the project, and forged agreements with medical suppliers that would allow him to run the facility once opened.
Hartz Mountain Industries then proposed a road along the western side of Secaucus between the residential property and the river, and this seemed like an ideal location for a hospital.
"I looked at other areas, even the place where Palisades Hospital is now, but decided against them," he said.
Built a hospital
Cavalli recalled standing on a 20-acre site covered with gravel and stone along the Hackensack River with Dr. Frank Primich, looking for a place to put the cornerstone to the hospital in 1972. Hospital construction broke ground in early 1973.
The location was ideal for a number of reasons, Cavalli said. It was in a location that was remote from all of the existing hospitals, yet still within sight of the Empire State Building - so he could still attract numerous patients.
Perhaps he had a vision as to the massive development that would soon take place in town. He certainly had the ear of Leonard Stern, the owner of Hartz Mountain.
"I told him, he shouldn't just build warehouses," Cavalli said, recalling that moment three decades ago. "I told him he should put in residential units, stores and other businesses, and that's what he did."
But the hospital paved the way for many of those things, and the hospital's construction was soon followed by the construction of the Harmon Cove development and various other businesses.
Meadowlands - then known as Riverside - Hospital was to become the first hospital run as a for-profit corporation in the state of New Jersey.
When the doors opened for the first time in 1976, Cavalli called the project "an impossible dream made possible." Within two weeks, hospital was 90 percent full, and had a staff of 900 doctors.
Changes in health care
Changes occurred in the health care industry since then that no one could have expected, and Cavalli has been credited with adopting policies and forming partnerships to help keep up with the changes. The hospital was renamed Meadowlands Hospital in 1986 to reflect the growing importance of the region. At this point, the hospital also became a non-profit entity. By the year 2000, the hospital was seeing 40,000 patients a year.
From the day the hospital opened its doors in 1976, Cavalli played a pivotal role, serving as the chief executive officer from 1976 to 1991. In 1985, Cavalli suffered a major heart attack. The hospital, managed by a 14-person board of directors, hired an administrator to handle the day-to-day operations. But he continued as executive until 1991 then as the chairman of the board for the hospital from 1991 to 1994, when the hospital was purchased by Liberty Health Care Systems.
Surviving are four daughters, Maura Tesoroni, Mrs. Michele Iacono (husband of Secaucus Town Administrator Anthony Iacono) and Mrs. Monique Woltmann, all of Secaucus, and Mrs. Manette Fox of Wyckoff, and five grandchildren. A sixth grandchild predeceased him.
In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 45 Springfield Ave., Springfield, N.J.
"He was a unique man," Deputy Mayor Reilly said. "He was more than just a doctor. He was a humanitarian. He had a vision for the medical profession and for North Hudson. He proved what would be done to help people if they banded together."