One of Ocean Township’s most recognized and revered leaders, Joseph Palaia, died on Sat., Aug. 20. He was 89 years old.
He was a former state assemblyman and state senator.
“We will always remember our good friend Joe,” former Mayor William F. Larkin said earlier this week. “Joe is a legacy to Ocean Township. He always wanted the Deal Test Site to remain open space but he had no idea we would name the park there after him.”
The former 208-acre U.S. Army test site, renamed for Palaia in 1998, was acquired by the township after it was abandoned and Palaia led the charge in efforts to preserve it as open space.
Larkin said he was 17 years old when he first met Palaia, who convinced him to get involved in refereeing high school basketball, but he had known him politically since the 1980s.
“He was just a very good friend once I got involved in politics. He was my sounding board and anytime I has an issue I could go to him for advice from an experienced politician. It is so sad to see someone of his experience pass away,” he said.
Mayor Christopher Siciliano said Palaia’s influence on the township cannot be underestimated.
“He is more than a legacy in Ocean Township and he always helped it in many ways. He is a father of the community and his gifts are immeasurable,” he said.
In addition to the Deal Test Site, Palaia also helped acquire property across the street from the Intermediate School on West Park Avenue to house a school gymnasium and was a major factor in creating the township’s annual Italian-American Festival.
“But his real gifts to Ocean Township were his leadership from being a teacher, to becoming a mayor, to being in the Legislature,” he said.
And Siciliano said that Palaia was always in “campaign mode.”
“He really has an interest in local politics and he did it all,” he said.
Siciliano said he expects a public memorial service to Palaia to be held in the park that bears him name in the near future.
And when the formerNeptune High School, now the Jersey Shore Arts Center at the Main Avenue entrance into Ocean Grove, was facing the wrecking ball it was Palaia who convinced center founder Herb Herbst to pitch in to save the building.
“Joe was a graduate of this school and he requested I get involved. We toured a derelict building and Joe got me involved, saying this was a priceless building and how he would work with me to save it. And he did!” he said.
Herbst said Palaia helped get the property transferred from the Neptune Board of Education and helped get the center’s first big grant.
“”He was always a big supporter. And his start-up grant money paved the way for future grants,” he said.
The center’s 600-seart theatre was named in honor of Palaia in 2000.
Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean said in a prepared statement that he is “saddened” by the loss of Palaia.
“He was one of the kindest and most decent legislators to ever serve in Trenton. As a son of the Jersey Shore, Joe was beloved by the Monmouth County residents. A dedicated public servant, he served for more than four decades as a council member, mayor, freeholder and legislator.
“As a former teacher and principal, Joe brought his passion for education to Trenton as one of the strongest advocates for academic programs to support children with special needs. Joe was one of a kind, and he will be sorely missed,” he said.
Joseph Anthony Palaia Sr. served as the state senator from Monmouth County from 1989 to 2008 and who was a champion for children with special needs. He was a teacher and principal at Wanamassa Elementary School in Ocean Township and spent much of his life in politic, starting as a Township Councilman from 1967 to 1971 and then mayor until 1979. He spent one term serving on the Monmouth County Board of Chosen Freeholders before being elected to the State Assembly. A Republican, Palaia was elected to the Assembly representing the 11th District in 1982 and, after four terms, was elected as a state Senator in 1989, where he remained in office until 2008. He was also known for his advocacy for programs and services for children with disabilities.