WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Chamber of Commerce’s annual breakfast was held at the Wilshire Grand on Feb. 5, featuring Mayor Robert Parisi’s State of the Township address and the presentation of the Citizen of the Year and Employee of the Year awards. West Orange Fire Capt. William Holder and firefighter Matthew Keenan shared the Employee of the Year award in honor of their response to an accident in July, and Stacey and Rob Reese were named the Citizens of the Year for reviving the West Orange Farmers Market.
As always, Parisi started his speech by acknowledging the accomplishments of a group of West Orange High School students, reading off the many honor societies they belong to, their athletic achievements and the colleges they have been accepted to so far.
Students who were recognized were Emily Baker, Brett Zeligson, Simone Byun, Maya Tobin, Jackson Edwards, Shrey Sanghvi, Anika Fernandez, Natalie Nevins, Ashlea Hume and Elijah Millington. Fernandez is the WOHS 2020 valedictorian, and Zeligson is the salutatorian; Millington was recognized for his acceptance to the United States Naval Academy.
“Wherever life may lead them, these students have already succeeded,” Parisi said at the event. “Our proud community offers congratulations for all of what life has in store for you.”
Parisi talked about Christopher “C.J.” Morgan, a 2015 graduate of WOHS and a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point who died June 6 in a vehicular accident during a training exercise. Morgan was a standout football player and wrestler at WOHS, and his family set up a scholarship in his name through the West Orange Scholarship Fund. In his speech, Parisi said the scholarship has raised more than $100,000 so far, to become the largest endowment in the WOSF.
Parisi thanked the members of the Township Council and the employees of the township in his speech, and the many community organizations that are run by volunteers, before presenting the Citizen of the Year award to Rob and Stacey Reese.
“West Orange’s most famous resident, Thomas Edison, when asked about the struggles in perfecting the light bulb, famously responded, ‘I didn’t fail, I just found a thousand ways to not make a light bulb.’ I cannot help but think about that answer when I think about the history of the West Orange Farmers Market,” Parisi joked. “There were various versions of the farmers market in multiple locations with different hours and different days, each starting with promise, only to close a short time later, unable to overcome the challenges. We set a standard for ways not to run a farmers market.”
Parisi said the Reese family moved to West Orange in 2013 and were frustrated by the closing a short time later of the latest iteration of the West Orange Farmers Market.
“Rather than complaining about it, they set out to do it themselves, organizing a team of volunteers to build something that would bring people together as neighbors and as a community,” he said. “The farmers market they created surpassed all expectations. For 28 straight Saturdays, the West Orange Farmers Market was the most popular place to be, attracting visitors from all of Essex County. They have set a new and very high standard.”
Rob Reese spoke after he and Stacey Reese received the award, saying that they wanted their son to grow up in a town that had a farmers market like the one they created. He thanked the township and the Downtown West Orange Alliance, a partner of the farmers market.
“A farmers market was something that we wanted our son to experience, and I think many of the families felt the same,” Rob Reese said. “By pulling together, we were able to ensure that we could bring a successful one back to West Orange.”
He added that the West Orange Farmers Market will be back in action May 20.
Parisi then turned his speech to West Orange’s first responders. He recalled the July 30 accident that sent two state troopers and five West Orange firefighters to the hospital when a dump truck traveling on the eastbound side of Route 280 struck emergency personnel who were responding to another accident. Two West Orange police officers were also injured in the crash, which damaged a WOFD ambulance and fire truck, state police cars and other vehicles.
Two of the five WOFD members who were sent to the hospital, Holder and Keenan, were seriously injured in the accident. Holder spent a month in the ICU.
“All of us know the dangers that await first responders each day,” Parisi said in his speech. “We may take that for granted sometimes, but it is always only a matter of time before you are reminded. The response that Tuesday morning was not unlike the response to any other accident on the highway hundreds of times prior.”
Holder and Keenan are both continuing their recoveries with physical therapy, and Keenan had a surgery scheduled for the next day.
“They both have long roads ahead of them,” Parisi said. “We are grateful for their service and blessed that they’re with us this morning.”
Keenan thanked his wife and two daughters for their support, as well as the WOFD, WOPD and members of the community who reached out to help him over the last six months. Holder gave a lengthier speech at the event.
“Winning Employee of the Year almost makes up for my San Francisco 49ers losing the Super Bowl,” Holder, who spent much of his childhood in California, joked. “Thank you to all the employees of West Orange, many of whom probably deserve this award today, due to the meaningful work and sacrifices you put in on a daily basis to make West Orange a better place. To my brothers and sisters in public safety, West Orange Fire Department, West Orange Police Department and local EMS, be safe and stay safe. We went through something very significant on July 30. This town went through something very significant. Matt and I are grateful to receive this recognition.”
Holder thanked the members of the community who donated to a meal train for his family, the third graders at St. Cloud Elementary School who made him cards and a care package to cheer him up in the hospital, and New Jersey State Trooper Nick Chilli, a police officer who responded to the accident as well and was at the event. “Please do me one last favor on the way home,” he said to the crowd. “If you see emergency lights, slow down, yield, move over or stop. Follow the law. Most importantly, drive safe.”
After the awards were presented, Parisi began to recount the town’s activities in 2019.
Last winter saw the township buy the Rock Spring Golf Course and turn it into a public golf course, which opened for business in the spring. Parisi gave the audience an update on how the course is doing in his speech.
“Even with a later start to the season and the initial struggles with spring rains, the first golf season as a municipally owned public course, the Rock Spring Golf Club at West Orange, held over 22,000 rounds of golf,” he said. “There are still many decisions to be made about the golf course and the future of the property, but the success of this first year puts us on the right path.”
According to Parisi, town officials will spend the year working on the long-term plan for Rock Spring, and applying for Green Acres funding, so that the majority of the property will remain open space.
He also gave an update on the various redevelopment projects in town. The Edison Lofts project on Main Street will be beginning its second phase soon; the Central Avenue housing project is continuing; and the development at Executive Drive is still in the planning phase.
“Roughly 30 acres of land currently contains four nearly vacant office buildings,” Parisi said about Executive Drive. “The approved project will maintain one building as office space and will demolish two others to make way for 361 market-rate apartments and 64 affordable-housing units. The fourth of these buildings, 10 Rooney Circle, will be deeded to the township at no cost. With the assistance and support of the library board, this building will become a new home to our library, providing larger spaces for public use as well as outdoor spaces and more parking for the Executive Drive development projects. We’ll also provide two acres of land, the construction of a dog park and public parking for visitors to the park.”
Parisi ended his speech by talking about the changes that are coming in 2020. The town will make upgrades to the commuter jitney, will continue to work on finding solutions to the lack of parking in town and, through grant funding, will make improvements to the softball field at Degnan Park. Senior citizen programming will be expanded, and a special needs playground will be built at O’Connor Park.
“Each year may present different challenges but also provides opportunities for improving our community, improving how we deliver services and improving the lives of those that live here,” Parisi said to close the event. “We’re concerned citizens seizing the opportunity to contribute their talents and time to right a wrong or to simply show others the value hidden in each of us. We are connected in our hopes for the opportunity found in good schools, for safe streets to get us to work, for nice parks and programs to play in. We are connected by the warmth and comfort found in the joy of family and friends. This connection, more than just geography, is purpose. No one can say for certain what brought us together, but at this moment we are bound as neighbors and partners in the town of West Orange. Just one town in a country of many towns where we share this time, this journey and the history we made in telling the story about us.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic and Courtesy of Joseph Fagan