Freeholder loved work

and people of Ocean Co.

Patricia A. Miller

Guest Column

Jim Mancini and his wife Madeline used to joke about what song he wanted played at his funeral. "How Great Thou Art," Madeline would kid her husband of more than five decades.

"My Way," Mancini would counter.

They played both songs before Jim Mancini’s funeral Mass last month. He would have loved it. He would have laughed.

The whirlwind that was James J. Mancini passed away on Nov. 18, at the age of 77. Ocean County is the poorer for it.

He was mayor of Long Beach Township for almost 40 years. He had just been re-elected to his eighth term on the Ocean County Board of Freeholders on Nov. 4.

More than 2,000 people came to say good-bye to him at St. Francis Roman Catholic Church, a church he helped build, in the Brant Beach section of the township.

He died at Southern Ocean County Hospital, a hospital he helped found. He was still chairman of the hospital’s board of directors. There is a wing named after Jim Mancini.

It was cancer, not age, that finally stopped him in his tracks. Mancini, who had more energy in his 70s than most people half his age, treated his illness as an inconvenience.

He was still at his desk each morning in the Long Beach Township municipal building. He still made the trip to Toms River to attend freeholder meetings. His last caucus meeting was just a week before he died.

Jim Mancini would be annoyed at all the accolades that came his way after he died. He’d probably say "O.K., O.K., enough already." He would have shrugged off all the accomplishments and titles crammed into his obituary.

"When I’m gone, more people will remember me and can say I helped them than somebody who was a billionaire," he said to me in a 1998 interview.

He was far from a billionaire when he died. Mancini, once one of the largest developers in Ocean County, lost a fortune while building the Fawn Lakes development back in the 1970s.

The newly created Pinelands Commission had issued a moratorium on building. Mancini had borrowed millions for the development.

Another man might have taken the easy way out. Mancini sold all his assets, including his home. He paid back every dollar he owed. He and Madeline were living in a rented house when he died.

"It never destroyed me," he said in 1998. "I have everything I want. The only time I feel badly about not having the money is when one of my kids needs money. I can’t help them."

Kids. There were nine of them. When the Mancini family went out to eat when the children were little, waiters and waitresses would scatter.

"They’d say, ‘Here comes the guy with the nine kids,’ " he recalled. "I’d give them a $10 tip, then they’d take care of us."

Few people knew that he had lost the sight in his right eye during a 1960 construction accident. Doctors tried to save the eye, but couldn’t. Mancini refused a general anesthetic and asked for a local. He wanted to make sure they took out the correct eye.

He loved to kiss and hug people. Few women were able to escape a friendly buss on the cheek.

"I know this embarrasses Pat, but I’m going to do it anyway," he would say before a freeholders meeting, planting a big smacker on my face.

There were a few things that annoyed him — especially a Dover Township gadfly who peppered the freeholders with dopey questions and refused to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.

After one meeting, he stepped down from the dais and patted me on the shoulder.

"Full moon," he sighed. "Full moon."

He created a little controversy during one of his freeholder campaigns when he warned Ocean County residents that voting for his Democratic opponents could turn the coastal county into another "Nork," which was how he pronounced Newark, his birthplace.

What annoyed him most were coastal geologists, whom he fondly referred to as "ultra-liberal environmentalists." He treated the word "retreat" as an obscenity.

At one freeholder caucus meeting he called a renowned coastal geologist a fraud. Not once. Seven times.

When a Rutgers University scientist predicted a rise in sea level over the next century, Mancini had the answer — beach replenishment.

"If the sea level is rising an inch every 10 years, we can raise our beaches 1 inch every 10 years," he said.

He also had little patience with people who got themselves into a tizzy over winter nor’easters. He described one several years ago as "peanuts."

"These storms we have now, I’m used to them," he said. "We have them constantly. They’re a pain in the neck."

The mayor kept a scrapbook of faded photos in his office in town hall, pictures of the vicious March 1962 three-day nor’easter that killed nine and took 600 homes on Long Beach Island.

"You know why I show these pictures?" he asked me. "To put things in perspective."

But first and foremost, Jim Mancini was a family man. He loved Madeline, his wife of 55 years. He called her "Mad." She called him Jimmy.

"I think it’s gonna work out," he said once. "We’re getting to know each other. If she behaves, it’ll work out."

Neither came from a large family, but nine children were born during the first 16 years of their marriage.

"When I found out what was causing it, we didn’t have any more," he said with a straight face. "My wife gets real mad when I say that. I always get a big laugh with that."

Bottom line, Jim Mancini loved his life. He loved people.

"I enjoy what I’m doing," he said. "I don’t know what else I would do. I don’t want to do anything else."

Good-bye, Jim.

Patricia A. Miller is a Greater Media Newspapers staff writer.