Outgoing Pennington official talks about the town he’s known since 1956
Note: When the HVN learned that Edwin "Weed" Tucker would not be seeking another term on Pennington Borough Council, we asked him to look back and write down what he remembers about the town he has called home since 1956 and about his many and varied relationships with that town. Here is what he wrote:
Although I am stepping down after 16 years of elected public service — including four years as mayor (1976-1980) and four terms (over 12 years) on the Pennington Borough Council (2003- 2015) — I have been active in local politics and community organizations in and out of office for more than 50 years. It has been a long and sometimes bumpy, but always interesting road to travel. I hope some vignettes sprinkled through the following will amuse, if not amaze the readers, especially when I poke fun at myself.
My family moved from Beverly, New Jersey to Pennington in 1956 when my father, the Rev. Canon Edwin W. Tucker, was appointed vicar, and later the first rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church here. The church’s organist and choir director was Beverly Ann Sutton, a young Westminster Choir College student. Coming from Beverly to meet Beverly it should be no surprise that I would fall in love and after graduation from Hobart College, marry her in 1958 with my father performing the ceremony at St. Matthew’s.
After I was discharged from the Army in 1961, we settled in Pennington and I got a job with The Princeton Packet newspaper and we got involved in the community. My wife, Bev, joined the women’s club and I joined the Jaycees and the West Mercer Democratic Club.
In 1964 the Jaycees sponsored meetings to discuss regionalization of the consolidated school district, which was made up of Pennington Borough and Hopewell Township. Hopewell Borough students went to Princeton. As Jaycees president I presided over often heated debates. The voters approved regionalization and in 1965 we created the Hopewell Valley Regional School District with its 50th anniversary in 2015 — the same year Pennington will mark the 125th anniversary of the borough’s incorporation in 1890.
At this time Democrats were strong in other parts of Mercer County, but the western part of the county aligned with strongly Republican Hunterdon County. Democrats stood no chance of winning an election in this neck of the woods. Nevertheless, and always optimistic, the Pennington Democrats would field a slate of candidates, because we strongly believed the people should have a choice. We lost every election but we kept trying. It was so bad that the Democratic Club held a victory party when we lost by a margin of "only" three to one.
IN 1969 AT AGE 34, I was young and naive enough to be optimistic when the party talked me into running for mayor with Bill Creamer and Roy Van Ness on the ticket for Borough Council. Despite the overwhelming odds against us, I thought we might have a chance if we worked very hard . . . which we did.
Then one day during the campaign I was chatting with my neighbor, Trenton State College professor Leon Wolcott. He said, "There’s no way you’re going to win this election."
"Why not", I asked. "We’ve focused on the issue, we’re campaigning hard by going door-to-door, and I think we’ve been well received by the people."
He looked me straight in the eye and replied, "Three reasons. First you’re a newcomer being in town only eight years, second, you’re not a Presbyterian, and worst of all, you’re a damn Democrat!"
He was right. We all lost but I put up a decent showing against a very popular incumbent Republican Mayor Bill Wade. It is interesting that Prof. Wolcott sold his house to Bob and Kit Chandler. A Democrat, Kit served on council from 2008 to 2011 and was re-elected to a second term beginning in 2015. Clearly, times have changed.
For the next five years we scratched for candidates who ran and lost until Bill Laidlaw finally broke the ice by winning a Borough Council seat by only 23 votes. Unfortunately, his company transferred Mr. Laidlaw to St. Louis leaving a vacancy on council. We asked Mayor Wade to appoint Tom O’Neill, a Democrat, to Mr. Laidlaw’s seat. However, the mayor appointed Ben Phillips, a Republican, to the Democratic seat. (Since then the law has been changed to require that a vacant seat on the governing body must be filled by a member of the same political party.)
I WAS ASKED TO RUN FOR MAYOR in the 1975 election and we put together an excellent team, which included local businesswoman Rosemary Wetherill, who owned the Book Peddler shop, and Peter Wade, PhD, for full three-year council terms along with Tom O’Neill, former executive assistant to Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner David Bardin, for the unexpired term of Bill Laidlaw.
We shocked everyone, including ourselves, by winning three of the four seats and losing the fourth by only 14 votes. Under the headline, "Democrats give Pennington GOP a political lesson, Trenton Times reporter J. Stryker Meyer explained the history-making upset in a post-election analysis.
"A young hungry Pennington Democratic Parity gave the traditionally-strong Republicans a pointed lesson in grass roots politics, as they pulled off what is regarded as the biggest political upset this borough has witnessed in recent years." The last Democratic mayor was Delbert K. Botts in 1958. He won by one vote and served for one year.
The main reason for our success was that we ran a more vigorous door-to-door campaign than the Republicans. One Pennington resident was quoted as saying: "If Edwin Weed Tucker had come to my door one more time I would have screamed." Before the election even loyal Democratic workers doubted Tucker would win, let along beat Republican Arthur Schwarz by 117 votes. Prominent businesswoman Rosemary Wetherill was top council vote-getter with 517 votes.
Democratic Campaign Chairwoman Nancy Centra said: "Rosemary was well-known and trusted. We expected her to get many Republican votes and she did."
And The Times article continued, "Then there is Tucker, general manager at The Princeton Packet. Weed is associated with the press, said one Democratic loyalist, and if you can’t trust the press these days, who the Hell can you trust? That plus the fact that he took hours to sit down and talk with – not at – people. He doesn’t come across as some stuffed shift either – he’s down to earth."
When the election dust settled, Nancy Schluter, GOP chairwoman and wife of state Sen. Bill Schluter, squeaked in with 488 votes, just two more than her running mate Paul Scheirer and only 14 ahead of Peter Wade. Democrat Tom O’Neill defeated the GOP’s Norman Friendly 504 to 453 for the unexpired term. Tucker topped Schwarz 556 to 439.
DESPITE THE KNOWLEDGE I had covering municipal government as a newspaper reporter and an editor, I soon learned there is much for a novice mayor to learn.
I had known Council President Ezra Bixby for several years because he was a member of St. Matthew’s Church where my father had been rector. I was about to get a more shocking introduction to this legend of local politics in our transition meetings before taking office in January. "Bix" summoned me to a meeting with him and outgoing mayor, Bill Wade.
We sat around a huge oak dining room table, with Bix at the head. Out came a bottle of booze. Whack went the bottle as Bix plumped it on the table followed by the thump, thump, thump of three glasses and the gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, as two maybe three fingers of Jim Bean splashed into the tumblers. We clinked glasses and the discussion began.
This set the tone for many meetings to come. "Here’s who we’re going to appoint to help us run the town," said Bixby, placing a rumpled list of names on the table. Key appointments such as the attorney, engineer, auditor and judge are made by the mayor with the advice and consent of council. I was being told what to do and I didn’t appreciate it.
"Gentlemen," I responded, "clearly you have the majority but I must remind you that we won the election. We need to abide by the will of the people, so let’s discuss our choices". We did and reached a good agreement and Bix and I established a working friendship that lasted throughout my term and beyond.
I was asked to speak at Bix’ retirement in 1996 and, sadly, two years later at his memorial service. He was often a gruff and cantankerous curmudgeon but his contributions to Pennington were many and legendary. We honored his memory by naming a street after him, appropriately, "Bixby’s Way."
IN A 1970’S MOVIE, "The Candidate," Robert Redford’s character was an underdog who was given no chance to win as were we in the 1975 Pennington election. However, this movie candidate pulled off an astounding upset against a distinguished incumbent of the deeply entrenched majority party. Expecting to lose — and stunned by his success and realizing that he now had to deliver on his campaign promises — the dazed candidate turned to his campaign manager and asked, "What do I do now?"
I can relate to that role somewhat, having been one of a group of starry-eyed optimists who, given virtually no chance of success, surprised even themselves by winning the mayor’s seat and two of three contested council seats.
It was only a few days after being sworn in as mayor when I found myself in that "what do I do now" situation and had to call Sharon Reed, our administrator, for help. I had received a late night telephone call from a neighbor who I knew would not have voted for me if her life depended upon it. Nevertheless, she was a constituent and I felt obliged to help. She complained that her street light was out and wanted to know what I was going to do about it — right then and there! "I’ll get right back to you," I promised. With visions of climbing a utility pole on a bitter cold January night dancing in my head, I immediately called Shari to ask, "What do I do now?"
Shari patiently explained to this then novice mayor the simple procedure that the police are supposed to routinely check the street lights, take down the pole number of burned-out lights and report it to Public Service. My constituent’s son was a special police officer and on duty that night. I knew that he always stopped home for coffee and a snack when he was on duty. I was delighted to smugly call his mother back and tell her, "When your son stops for coffee, tell him to get that utility pole number and report it to Public Service."
Addressing matters big and small all fall on the mayor’s plate especially in a small municipality. Certainly, not all solutions are as simple as the street light situation. And some of the naive candidates who run for public office think they know how to govern the municipality. However, with the complex rules and regulations imposed on municipalities by state and federal government it takes teamwork and a knowledgeable professional staff to guide them through the tangled maze of red tape. Pennington always has been blessed with a loyal and dedicated professional staff.
PENNINGTON’S MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE by far was the need to install sewers. Because of many malfunctioning septic systems, Pennington and Hopewell boroughs were ordered by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to build sewers. The town fathers had been dragging their feet resisting the order but now they realized that we had to move forward. Our party had urged building the sewers immediately. It was so bad that folks thought yellow was the proper color of water in their toilets and that "aroma" after a heavy spring rain was just part of Pennington’s charm as the septic systems gurgled up in our back yards. We even had a little ditty, which was attributed to Ezra Bixby whether he thought of it or not:
"If it’s brown, flush it down
If it’s yellow, let it mellow
In this land of sun and fun
We never flush for number one."
And so as soon as we took office our first order of business was to build the sewers, build a new water tower and upgrade the entire water system. We did this in 1976. After more than three decades, the borough repainted our water tower in 2014. Lack of sewers restricted growth but the installation of them led to construction in 1994 of Pennington Point, an 18-acre age-restricted community of 102 homes and development of several single family houses on Baldwin Street.
Everyone knows the mayor presides over council meetings, gives speeches at public events, and shows up to cut the ribbon at grand openings of new businesses. Never miss a "photo op!" Less known is that mayors (and judges) can perform civil weddings. This bringing-together of couples in marriage is one of the most joyful duties of a mayor. But my first marriage was traumatic for me. In order to prepare for it, I consulted my predecessor, former Mayor Bill Wade, for some advice. And I also drew from language in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I crafted language to give couples a choice of a "God" or "No God" ceremony.
A couple called to ask me to marry them and we set a date to meet at Pennington Borough Hall. On the appointed day, I waited, and waited, and waited in the borough office for them to arrive. Then the ‘phone rang. It was the Hopewell Township police telling me that the couple was there, not in Pennington. I married them soon after they arrived at Borough Hall. I do not usually perspire easily but this day I was soaked with nervous sweat. The rest of my weddings went well and I do know of a few grandchildren as a result of these unions.
SHORTLY AFTER TAKING OFFICE as mayor in 1976, I was asked to attend with my wife, Bev, and speak at a local religious organization’s dinner celebration of its 160th anniversary. The dinner was held at the old Grange Hall, now replaced by Borough Hall and the library. I was feeling a bit cocky having pulled off our huge political upset. Surely, I thought, now everyone knows of our accomplishment and who I am.
Halfway through the dinner, the gentleman who was to introduce me leaned over and asked, "Could you please tell me little bit about yourself. I thought you were the other mayor," referring to my predecessor Bill Wade. I felt a little better when during my remarks I heard a man in the front row say to his companion, "This fellow is not so bad after all." I have tucked this incident in my memory bank for all these years because it is very good lesson in humility.
It was the habit of individuals and organizations to post notices all over town on trees and especially on utility poles. It became unsightly and worse, utility companies complained the staples, tacks, and sometimes nails were a danger to their workers who had to climb the poles for repairs. The solution, I thought, would be a common kiosk in the center of town where notices could be posted in an attractive manner.
I mentioned the idea to Republican Councilman George Pearson, an architect, who designed the kiosk, and contractor Tony DiCocco, who built it next to the then Post Office building at the corner of Main Street and Delaware Avenue. We got permission from Emily Brokaw who owned the building. It was a nice bipartisan and town cooperative venture and an attractive landmark. Unfortunately we did all of this only with a handshake agreement. Years later, Dave Clark who owns the Village Salon (the former Post Office) with his wife tore down the kiosk and now that spot is occupied by the PB&PA’s ox.
CITIZEN INVOLVEMENT CONTINUED with Borough Council passing an ordinance to allow legalized games of chance, such as bingo in order for the Penningtin Fire Company and churches to raise money. The matter was debated with some opponents complaining that gambling is immoral, but proponents pointing out that it gives the fire company and churches the opportunity to raise money and that New Jersey recently had established its own lotto games. Few charities took advantage of the opportunity and we now pay a fire tax. Nevertheless, Borough Council recently approved applications from the Pennington Fire Company Ladies Auxiliary for raffle licenses and in November 2014, Borough Council approved a raffle license for St. Matthew’s Church. So at least a few charities benefit from the action we took almost 40 years ago.
The Hopewell Valley Historical Society (HVHS) was established in 1975 and I became a charter member and much later an advocate for a Pennington Historic Preservation Commission. I might be the only living charter member of the HVHS still here.
My term of office as mayor was over and the late Beverly Thurman became the first woman mayor of Pennington. Then one night in early January of 1980 the sky was aglow from a horrendous fire that completely destroyed O’Hanlon Hall, the main building on The Pennington School’s campus. It was fortunate no one was injured in the blaze.
Trafton Tredick, a Pennington School alumnus and town resident, suggested a town event to help raise funds for the school to replace O’Hanlon Hall. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Pennington Day was born in 1980 and proceeds from this event helped build Stainton Hall, with much more support from the Stainton Trust. The Pennington Day event now draws an estimated 5,000 people with performances, games, a 5K race, and many booths along Main Street from local businesses and organizations. Over the years the event has raised thousands of dollars for local charities. This is a classic example of how great good can come from a tragedy.
BOTH BOROUGH HALL with its tiny administrative office and an outdated meeting room and the Pennington Public Library had outgrown their space. The solution was to be a new building, including borough offices and an expanded library on the site of the Pennington Grange Hall, which was demolished to make room. The parking lot also was extended and improved. However, before the library found its new home there was great controversy over the location of the Hopewell Township branch of Mercer County Library now located on West Delaware Avenue (Pennington-Titusville Road) between the Wells Fargo Bank and the Central High School property.
In the 1970s, Hopewell Township Mayor Dick Van Noy wanted the branch located much farther west. Pennington Borough Council wanted it closer to Pennington. Councilman Tom O’Neill and Mayor Tucker fought a great battle for the present location. It was made possible largely because Pennington provides sewer and water service to the building. We could do this because a tiny piece of library land is in Pennington Borough.
For many years Pennington was served by only one full-time police officer, the last being the late Chief James DelleMonache supplemented by several part-time special officers and State Police coverage at night. The law changed and "specials" no longer were allowed to carry guns forcing their elimination. Also, the State Police withdrew coverage from almost all small municipalities including Pennington. (Only a few, if any, towns still have State Police coverage.)
Chief DelleMonache retired and Pennington needed to build a new police force. George Seems, a young, ambitious former special cop realizing his dream, was elevated to chief. Tragically, he was convicted of the attempted murder of his wife, Linda. He served several years in prison and died after his release from jail.
After several unsuccessful attempts to find the "right mix" for a replacement chief, Mayor Sue Riley and Councilwoman Susan Porcella were able to recruit a "local boy," Bill Meytrott, former Marine and retired Raritan Township Police chief, as Public Safety director. With several years as chairman of council’s Public Safety Committee, I worked closely with Director Meytrott and we formed a good friendship over the years. We both also serve on the board of the Hopewell Valley Veterans Association (HVVA). This brought back memories from years ago when during my campaign for mayor, I spent quite a bit of time visiting with Bill’s father as he spoke with great pride of his son’s accomplishments.
JUMPING AHEAD IN THE STORY, the Hopewell Valley Veterans Association (HVVA) was established in 2005 with Col. Kenneth Baker as president. Hopewell Township had acquired land for open space from Martin Alliger and thanks to the strong urging of retired Senior Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Sevy DiCocco, and with the efforts of the HVVA, a veterans memorial was built. With Mayor Vanessa Sandom as a strong advocate and a good effort from then Township Administrator Bruce Hiling, a retired Army officer, funds were raised from corporate and individual sponsors plus much in kind work from professionals for a magnificent memorial. The Vets Association now hosts Veterans Day and Memorial Day ceremonies at the site every year.
After a long hiatus away from government, I was asked to run for Borough Council in 2002. I ran with Jim Lytle and we both won. I was re-elected to three more terms, this one ending in December 2014, giving me 16 years in office, four years as mayor (1976-1980) and 12 years on Borough Council (2003-2015).
Pennington continued to grow and the Public Works Department headed by Superintendent Jeff Wittkop outgrew its facilities at the landfill site on West Delaware Avenue. A new building on Hopewell Township land just off North Main Street was built and dedicated. But before that, there was a spirited discussion as to whether or not the Public Works Department should be privatized. The effort failed and Pennington maintains its own Public Works.
Major debates during my tenure on council included three well-attended and vigorously debated meetings on establishing the Historic Preservation Commission, which we did after a close vote. This led to the restoration of the Presbyterian Church’s Corner House, the home of the late Dr. Milton Marion, the former Tea Garden on South Main Street, and the former Lowellden, now the Wesley Alumni House on the campus of The Pennington School. Actually, some who vigorously opposed creation of the commission now admit it was the right decision.
About nine years ago we created a joint Hopewell Valley Senior Advisory Board (SAB) representing both boroughs and the township. Soon thereafter Senior Coordinator Abigail Meletti was hired and she is doing great job with a full slate of events and programs for our Valley’s senior citizens. I served as Borough Council liaison to the Senior Board. All was going well until Pennington inadvertently failed to include a line item in our budget to support the program.
Some Council members strongly opposed the senior support calling it a special interest group — all of the fuss over only a fair, reasonable, and affordable $5,000 contribution to Hopewell Township for our share. Dozens of seniors attended and spoke at two heated room-filled council sessions. I strongly supported the seniors and, unfortunately, crossed swords with some of my council colleagues to make sure that Pennington seniors could participate on equal terms with township residents. Hopewell Borough had approved a $5,000 contribution for their share.
After rallying senior citizens to support Pennington’s contribution to continue with Hopewell Township for the Hopewell Valley Senior Program, which I strongly supported, the program continues and the Pennington budget now does have a modest line item for support.
As of November 2014, the seniors were still trying to have a senior center. Efforts to establish it with the YMCA on West Franklin in Pennington and at Pennytown on Route 31 North did not bear fruit. A building at the Capital Health site off Scotch Road was given to the township to share as a senior center with Hopewell Valley Emergency Services. The issue is sufficient parking, which it is hoped can be resolved by the Hopewell Township Planning Board soon.
WE HAVE BUT TO DRIVE AROUND our Valley to see the efforts of the Hopewell Valley Arts Council to raise funds with a stampede of 68 oxen beautifully decorated by area artists. The oxen are strategically located at several sites in the Valley and they have raised the curiosity and affection of residents and visitors. It has brought our community together in a wonderful cause. To say the least it has taken the Valley by, well actually, by stampede!
Borough Council became concerned with the safety of pedestrians on some of Pennington’s sidewalks that were is disrepair. We feared someone could trip and be seriously injured. And since the Hopewell Valley Regional School District stopped busing local students we wanted to assure safe passage over safe sidewalks for the children. Council had the town engineer inspect all the sidewalks and required those that did not meet proper standards to be repaired by homeowners. In order to encourage prompt attention, we waived the inspection fee if the work was accomplished in the required time frame. The response was good and almost all work was accomplished promptly.
Continuing with safe passage for pedestrians, especially school children, we installed pedestrian-activated flashing lights at the crossings of South Main Street and West Curlis Avenue across from the Toll Gate Grammar School and on West Delaware Avenue and Green Street by The Pennington School. The school contributed $14,000 toward the cost.
I will leave office with the town looking much better thanks to our Streetscape beautification effort, which we hope will help attract customers to local businesses. This effort was made possible because Councilman Tom Ogren was able to obtain grants to fund the project. Council now (in late 2014) is considering extending the Streetscape design along Delaware Avenue. Tom Ogren has been Pennington’s super grant-getter obtaining about $2 million in grants for several projects. The Economic Development Commission (EDC) honored him in 2014 for his work.
The Pennington Borough Council meets at least 13 times a year, a dozen monthly meetings plus a special "wind up" session in mid-December not including some special meetings, committee meetings, and numerous functions that elected officials, especially mayors, are expected to attend.
I would like to claim perfect attendance, but I missed three of those 208 regular meetings, none as mayor, over 16 years in office because of a hospital stay on two occasions. The duties go well beyond merely showing up for meetings and much interaction is required.
Certainly there have been debates, some partisan political conversations, and some philosophical chats among same party colleagues. It’s all part of the political process and often part of trying to balance contending interests and achieve results. I like to think that I was able to work effectively with both sides of the political aisle. I thank all of my colleagues for their help and support over the years and I thank the people of Pennington for putting their trust in me.
Edwin Weed Tucker