East Orange community gathers to remember Mayor Bowser

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EAST ORANGE, NJ — East Orange residents gathered at the Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts to honor Robert Bowser on May 7, paying tribute to the former mayor of the city who died on April 2. First elected in 1997, Bowser was the mayor of East Orange for 16 years and is credited with bringing financial stability to the city, reducing violent crime and emphasizing public education. His family and other public officials spoke about him at the event, which also featured performers from the school’s middle school choir.

“Bob Bowser stepped into office and did the extraordinary over four terms,” event host Darryl Jeffries, who was the city’s public information officer during the Bowser administration, said. “He was a force of nature. Bob Bowser’s stewardship as the city’s standard-bearer put East Orange back on the map across the region, state and nationally. His leadership led to one of the most dramatic and historic turnarounds in a city facing deep fiscal challenges and a city in need of revitalization in its neighborhoods, commercial corridors and civic pride.”

Born and raised in East Orange, Bowser was a graduate of the former East Orange High School. He played basketball, pitched for the baseball team and was the first black starting quarterback on the football team. He graduated in 1953 and attended the Newark College of Engineering, which is now the New Jersey Institute of Technology. After graduating with a degree in civil engineering, he worked as a city planner for the Newark Central Planning Board and was a traffic engineer for the township of Montclair.

Bowser eventually started his own engineering, planning, surveying and architectural design firm, and became the director of the East Orange Department of Public Works. He volunteered for the Girl Scouts of Essex County, the Brick Church Lions Club, the East Orange Kiwanis Club and the Rutgers University Urban Gardening Program Advisory Board. He founded the Essex County Touch Football League and was its executive director for 28 years.

Former Gov. Jon Corzine spoke at the memorial, saying that Bowser was a colleague that he trusted during his time as governor.

“I trusted him, and if you know anything about politics, that’s hard,” Corzine said. “Four terms and 16 years of service is really remarkable. East Orange was a city on the move and continues to benefit from his leadership. He was a smart and savvy guy, and he was willing to fight for the things that needed to be done. People respected him. He was respected for his ability to speak the truth. He was a straight shooter, and he cared about getting the issues of East Orange on my agenda, and, believe me, he did. I knew a man who did the best he could for East Orange.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver also spoke at the event. Oliver ran against Bowser in his first mayoral campaign in 1997 and lost the Democratic primary to him by only 52 votes. In her speech, Oliver joked that she later thanked Bowser for winning that election.

“I thanked him profusely for winning that election,” she said. “I tell young people now, don’t strive to sit in the big chair until you have life experience and wisdom under your belt. He had that experience. Bob did an exceptional job leading this community. Being mayor for 16 years is a feat. After the first term and after the second term, if you’re not holding it down, we’ll pull another lever. He was holding it down.”

Current Mayor Ted Green spoke at the memorial, as did Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, former East Orange Police Director Jose Cordero, and former East Orange municipal judge and current Newark judge Sybil Elias. Bowser’s son, David Bowser, gave the eulogy.

“My father knew those streets that you came in here on better than anyone else,” David Bowser said in his speech. “When he called me and said, ‘I’m running for mayor of East Orange,’ I have to tell you, I thought he was out of his mind. My father was working in the family business, but when you get into the political area, it’s a whole other deal. You get a Ph.D. in political science real quick when you’re running for mayor of East Orange.”

According to David Bowser, the first 1997 election was a shoestring campaign that friends and family helped organize. Many people Bowser had not seen since he graduated high school spread the word about his campaign and helped to put him in office.

Bowser is survived by his wife, Marilyn; son, David; and daughters, Lisa and Leslie.

“The native son that was my dad really connected with where he was born and raised,” David Bowser said. “He made a hell of a significant difference, and that’s something that we can all take from him. So, Dad, thanks for making East Orange a better place.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic