By DON STINE
The Jersey Shore Arts Center in Ocean Grove lost its founder and mentor this week with the death of Herb Herbst. He was 90.
He was remembered this week for his passion, his persistence and for his love of the arts and his adopted home, Ocean Grove.
His stunning achievement was the restoration of the former Neptune High School building and its subsequent transformation into the Jersey Shore Arts Center under his guidance.
“Ocean Grove is a better place because Herb was here. He and his friends spoke up on many issues and made changes. He always gave back and the arts center is his love and his legacy,” his daughter, Melinda Kelley, said as the family gathered at the Herbst house on Surf Avenue Tues., June 6.
Family members said that Herbst, who would have been 91 on July 19, died the way he lived. He was found unconscious at his desk at the arts center on Sunday, just before a multi-media art exhibit, and died on Monday after suffering a massive stroke.
“And that is probably how he would have wanted it,” Kelley said.
His grandson, Brendan Kelley, said that the arts center is an extension of his grandfather.
“He built a community of artists and he really always emphasized community and that got him a lot of love,” he said.
A “Celebration of Life” for Herbst will be held at the Jersey Shore Arts Center on Sun., June 18 at 1 p.m.
Brendan Kelley, the arts center’s building director, said he is confident the center’s Board of Trustees and friends will keep the center moving forward.
“He prepared us well and we will move forward,” he said.
Neptune Business Administrator Vito Gadaleta, who knew Herbst for more than three decades, said his death is a great loss for the community.
“This is a tragic loss for both Neptune and the arts- no question about it. Herb created some great opportunities in different fields in the arts at the Jersey Shore Arts Center and I think it has certainly been a very positive thing. The arts are something that bring joy to people and look at what Herb has provided (at the arts center)!” he said.
Another township official who knew Herbst for decades is Township Clerk Richard J. Cuttrell.
“I just always marveled at Herb’s passion and energy as he went about restoring the old school, not many people out there thought he could do it – but he sure did it. He was very persistent and did a lot for Ocean Grove. He was an advocate for anything Ocean Grove,” he said.
State Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling said he did not know Herbst for a very long time but he was always impressed when he met him and learned of his accomplishments.
“He was a great guy. I really learned to admire his work in Ocean Grove. He loved Ocean Grove and the Jersey Shore Arts Center is wonderful. Everyone that I spoke with has only good things to say about Herb and he will definitely be missed,” he said.
Houghtaling said he went to the old school as a student.
“I always appreciated what he did with the third floor. We were never allowed to go up there as students,” he said.
Like Houghtaling, Neptune Mayor Michael Brantley said he has known Herbst for only eight years but that he, too, was always impressed with the man.
“He was a fantastic person who took the arts center and made it what it is now. And that is all because of his hard work,” he said.
Brantley said Herbst was a hands-on guy and that he would, at times, see him up on a ladder or doing other jobs around the center.
“He was also good at getting donations and getting people to respond. He often had good words of wisdom for me and I appreciate everything he has done. He will be sorely, sorely missed and our prayers go out to his family,” he said.
The mayor said the township will honor Herbst in some way in the future.
Herbst was born in 1926 in Jersey City and served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II.
While obtaining a bachelor’s degree in business at Seton Hall, Herbst became a draftsman with the New York Telephone Company. He eventually became a district manager, worked in marketing, and retired after 40 years on the job. He was also very involved with various school boards over the years.
In 1993, he and his wife, Norma, permanently moved to Ocean Grove after summering there for many years and Herbst’s attention was soon drawn to the old, dilapidated school.
Built in 1896, the three-story school was celebrated at the 1906 World’s Fair as an “Architectural Splendor” but was in ruin in the 1980s and weather and neglect came close to destroying it entirely.
In 1996, the Ocean Grove Historic Preservation Society, led by Herbst, stepped in, took title to the building, and began to not only save the badly-damaged historic building but to also create a home for the cultural arts at the New Jersey shore. The society was greeted by fallen ceilings, ruined floors and walls, and the need to upgrade virtually every aspect of the building from plumbing and electrical to sprinkler systems.
A dynamic and dedicated group of skilled volunteers worked to restore every detail, both big and small, from each stair banister and light fixture to every theater seat and doorknob.
The first phase, completed in 2000, saw the opening of the first floor with five newly-renovated classrooms, restrooms, lobby, office space, and a magnificent 400-seat theater. Subsequent phases saw the construction of dressing rooms, costume and workshop rooms, and a kitchen area in the lower level of the building.
The entire second floor has also been restored and renovated, including classrooms, the theater’s Loge (balcony) with a seating area of 200, two dance studios and a third beautiful ballroom studio. In 2014, the third floor was opened to include a culinary center, two studios, a beautiful lobby, and the 75-seat Herbst Theater.
The Jersey Shore Arts Center was given an award in 1999 by the Monmouth County Planning Board as “One of The Most Significant Projects in Monmouth County.” Chief Judge for Monmouth County Superior Court Lawrence Lawson also took an interest in the arts center and had judges assign selected individuals to perform community service there. Former State Senator Joseph Palaia, a graduate of the school, also provided continuous support, advice, and assistance with legislative grants.