The Weehawken Elks' 54th annual Press Night on Monday definitely had a different flavor than any of the previous events celebrating the local press.
For one, the setting had changed. For the first time, the festivities were held outside of the popular Elks Lodge, located on Boulevard East. A flood in May caused severe damage to the lodge, causing the event to move to Schuetzen Park in North Bergen.
Secondly, the evening focused on reflection and remembrance of the World Trade Center tragedy.
In fact, rather than discussing the freedom of the press, the guest speaker for the evening, Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham, chose to speak about what it has been like to take over as the mayor of the state's second largest municipality in July - only to have chaos break loose, thanks to the terrorist attacks, two months later.
"I'm still waiting for my honeymoon," Cunningham told the audience of approximately 200 people. "I was in office for three days, then we had a police officer [Domenick Infantes] murdered. Then, the county executive [Robert Janiszewski, who was a focus of a federal investigation] disappeared. They don't know where he is. Then, a few days later, the World Trade Center is attacked. I don't any of us will forget what we were doing when the world was transformed by the terrorists. We now have words in our everyday language, like terrorist advisories, anthrax and Ground Zero."
Added Cunningham, "When that horrible incident happened, it changed our lives forever."
Cunningham shared the stories of visiting Ground Zero in the days after the attack.
"I've never witnessed anything like it," said Cunningham, a former Jersey City police officer and U.S. Marshal. "You cannot believe the devastation. You see it on television and in person, it's much, much worse."
Cunningham also said that the tragedy will not effect him in his everyday doings as the new mayor of Jersey City.
"We're not going to slack off," Cunningham said. "We're not going to stop. We're going to bounce back and work with developers to make Jersey City and the waterfront as strong as ever."
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner briefly addressed the audience.
"Unfortunately, for the first time, we have held a Press Night outside of Weehawken," said Turner, who is also a member of the Weehawken Elks. "We couldn't hold the event there because of the physical condition of the lodge, but we will be back there next year."
Robert Phillips, the exalted ruler of the Weehawken Elks, also assured the audience that the event will return to its regular base next October.
The recipient of the Elks' annual essay contest, Weehawken High School senior Mirela Kolenovic, read her essay. She received a $100 gift certificate from the Weehawken and You Civic Association.
"The events of Sept. 11 sent a wave of emotions throughout the world," Kolenovic said. "During this most critical time, when everyone was in shock, the media showed everyone that we were not alone in our grief. The media showed that we became unified more and more and encouraged people to do something to help. I think it brought out the best in the press."
Members of the award-winning KidWitness News team from Roosevelt School were also on hand to interview Cunningham and Rep. Robert Menendez, who attended but had to leave early due to a prior engagement.
Jersey Journal City Editor Agustin Torres and this reporter, representing the Weehawken Reporter, also spoke on behalf of the press.
Fund raising raffles were held throughout the course of the evening in order to benefit the restoration fund. Rebuilding the Elks Lodge is expected to cost upwards of $700,000.