Former Mayor Ralph Conte dies at 94

Former Bloomfield Mayor Ralph Conte with President John F. Kennedy, in Newark, at a 1963 Columbus Day event.

Ralph Conte, Bloomfield’s first Democrat mayor, died April 6, in Hamburg. He was 94 years old.

Conte led the 1962 charge against the rock-ribbed Republican council, sweeping into power with Joseph Barry, Richard West and Vincent Rospond. The election gave the Democrats a council majority for the first time. Conte did not run for reelection.

Born in Newark, June 7, 1929, he grew up in Bloomfield, on Ampere Parkway. He graduated from Bloomfield High School in 1946 and attended Seton Hall University.

His studies at Fordham Law School were interrupted by military service. He was stationed in Berlin, 1951-53. In 1957, he married Ann Randazzo, whom he met at a church social.

The couple lived on Barbara Street and had five children: Joseph, Mary, Ralph, Christian and Anne Marie. His wife and children survive him. A devout Catholic, Conte was a lector at St. Valentine Church.

Fresh out of law school, he worked for Jack Soriano, a Republican running for council, and then in the office of Congressman Peter Rodino, who later distinguished himself as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon.

“Peter Rodino was the root of his success,” Barry said in a recent interview. “When Ralph won the election, Soriano was not happy and they fired Ralph and Rodino hired him.”

Conte then went to the law office of Felix Rospond, the uncle of his future running mate. The law firm eventually became Rospond, Rospond and Conte.

He moved to Roseland in 1971 where he became township attorney and also served as councilman and municipal judge.

In 1993, he moved to North Carolina, returning to New Jersey to reside at Crystal Springs, a Hamburg golfing community. He is interred at the Northern New Jersey Veterans Cemetery in Sparta.

In a 2014 talk to the Historical Society of Bloomfield, Conte called the two-party system “the basis of any good government and it became a reality in 1963.”

Conte said he abolished bidding not requiring bids from at least three vendors. He also said Bloomfield was one of three Essex County communities without an adult school program. Crediting West for being the driving force, the Committee for Adult Education was formed. Adult classes began at BHS in September of 1964, with 562 students. By 1980, there were 4,000 students.

School improvements were financed and built under his leadership: a BHS gym, all-purpose rooms at Brookdale, Fairview, Franklin and Berkeley schools and a maintenance building at Demarest.

“Keep in mind,” Conte told his HSB audience, “the fiscal functions of the schools were performed by a board of school estimates composed of the mayor, two council members and two board of education members.”

The unanimous accord to make these improvements, he said, was “one of the proudest moments for this community.”

The Bloomfield Public Library was also financed and built while he was mayor. A life-long learner himself, Conte went back to Seton Hall in the ‘90s for an advanced degree in theology, according to his daughter, Anne Marie.

“He would read Kant, just to think through life,” she said. “He would constantly study.”

The Municipal Youth Guidance Council was created during his tenure. Without this, he believed a little problem would become a police and court matter.

“There are kids that need guidance, not punishment,” he said.

But there were bitter defeats. Conte pushed for a municipal swimming pool in Memorial Park, but the bond ordinance was tabled.

“Talk about disappointments,” he said. “That was a major one for us.”

He wanted a shopping mall along Bloomfield Avenue, in the vicinity of Watsessing Park, but could not muster the support. This, he said, was his greatest disappointment.

But not everything brought out the fireworks. Conte also performed ordinary tasks.

In September of 1963, at a day of community penance on the Green, following the Sept.15 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Montgomery, Ala., which killed four girls, Conte, in a pouring rain, according to The Independent Press, read a telegram from Gov. Richard Hughes who said a part of America was destroyed by the bombing, “just as it is with every defiance of the Constitution and the law of the land.”

In October, 1963, he signed, along with the mayors of Nutley and Belleville, a proclamation honoring the Tri-Town Business and Professional Women’s Club which advocated for equal pay for equal work. On Nov. 23, he called for a 30-day period of mourning for President John Kennedy, who was assassinated the day before.

Conte had met the president at the Newark Columbus Day celebration a month earlier. As he explained it to the HSB audience, he got into line to be photographed sitting beside Kennedy. But after his turn, the photographer said he missed the picture. Conte was then coerced by a friend to get back into line. Reluctantly, he found himself seated next to Kennedy again and apologized for showing up a second time. The president, he said, told him that was OK.