Maplewood TC salutes McGehee at his final meeting

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Maplewood Township Committee meeting on Dec. 20 was bittersweet, as the committee bade farewell to Committeeman Frank McGehee and looked back on his service to the township.

The Dec. 20 meeting was McGehee’s final meeting on the committee, as he concludes his second three-year term. McGehee did not run for reelection; his seat will be filled in the new year by Committeewoman-elect Deb Engel.

McGehee was elected to the committee in 2016, and served for two years as deputy mayor and then two years as mayor.

“Frank has etched his name into the history of Maplewood. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. His contributions into making Maplewood safe, to not only commute to and from work, but also to escape the enclosed spaces of a vehicle and reaffirm a sense of community here in Maplewood laid the foundation for all he would be called to do during his time on the township committee,” Mayor Dean Dafis said at the meeting, presenting McGehee with a proclamation thanking him for his service and highlighting his accomplishments. “He started his first term as mayor during the onset of COVID-19, during the pandemic in 2020. It was a very quick reminder to him and to all of us why public service is not only a high honor, but a tremendous, a great responsibility.”

Dafis highlighted McGehee’s success at keeping the community safe and informed during the height of the pandemic, saying that McGehee was “constantly communicating and constantly holding us all together.”

“Serving with you has been dynamic and incredibly rewarding. We pushed each other, and you and I have transformed the landscape of the township committee. You and I were the new voices, the young voices, the different voices that just blazed through the door and said we wanted an opportunity to serve and we had something valuable to offer,” Dafis said, adding that working on McGehee’s initial campaign “started a friendship that will last for life.”

Committeewoman Jamaine Cripe expressed her deep admiration for McGehee and offered her support should he run for office again, whether that office is local or on a larger scale.

“I just wanted to say a huge thank you for keeping it real, mayor. You have been someone that other women and people of color in this community have looked up to with pride. You did us right. So thank you for your service, thank you for your leadership, thank you for getting us through COVID, my friend. We would not have been able to do this without you and your communication style and just the grace that you showed. Even when we didn’t get along and agree on things in the town, there was just something about the way that you handled the situation that made a lot of us walk away like, ‘You know, it didn’t work out for everyone in the way they wanted it, but doggone it, we’re still united,’ so thank you for your leadership in those places, in those rough spots,” Cripe said. “If you are looking to go higher, Essex County, New York state, give me a call. I’m in the trenches with you, my friend, because I believe that you should be doing a lot more for this community and beyond.”

Deputy Mayor Vic DeLuca, who served as mayor for 14 years before McGehee became mayor, praised his colleague for his work in getting Maplewood through the onset of the pandemic and the fire department merger with South Orange, creating the South Essex Fire Department.

“When we moved from me being the longtime mayor, you coming on, you really stepped up and were a terrific mayor and you got hit in your first quarter with something that has never happened to any of us who served in this role, and that was that pandemic, COVID. You led us, you communicated with the community, you were the right person for that disaster,” DeLuca said, adding that, when it came to the fire department merger, which had been a topic of discussion for a long time, “you kept going and you made it even better; you brought it to the finish line.”

DeLuca also highlighted McGehee’s publicity for the census — “You understood the importance of everyone in our town being counted” — and his work to create stronger ties between Maplewood, South Orange and the joint school district.

“It’s been a great time serving with you these last six years. We’ve had a lot of laughs,” DeLuca said. “I remember a couple of times you gave me hell in the beginning when you first started serving. As Dean said, you were really ready to go and you made it clear to me you were going to go, but we worked out well and I just think that, as Dean said, you will be remembered as one of the most impactful mayors in Maplewood.”

Committeewoman Nancy Adams said she will most remember McGehee’s “energy and enthusiasm,” especially, she joked, during parades, when he would zigzag from side to side to greet community members.

“You brought that enthusiasm to pretty much everything you did, and mostly what I see is your dedication. We had our rough patches because we’re both strong-minded and care deeply about what we’re doing,” Adams said, adding that, nevertheless, they worked well together. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to sit up on the dais as much as you had probably hoped, because, you know, it’s probably nicer than our bedrooms,” she joked.

During public comment, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum popped in to give her two cents about McGehee’s tenure on the committee, especially his time as mayor during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t know if the community will ever understand how important it was for us as mayors to have each other to lean on, and to get advice and guidance, and at times being so emotional with what was happening, and to just have that point of contact every morning and to be able to end on a positive note that we’re getting through it,” Collum said, also touting the fire department merger. “People really started to see the full breadth of SOMA and MAPSO, and how closely we work together, whether it’s currently the recycling — great job, Nancy, also — and, you know, even down to the way we were addressing policing, which was so very stressful; our fire merger; and then public celebrations together, unveiling Juneteenth; and all those items were so special.

“Frank, from the bottom of my heart, this is not even close to a goodbye, because you’ve become such an important person in my life — as a friend, as somebody I respect, as a mentor, as somebody I laugh so hard with sometimes I feel I’m just going to burst,” Collum continued. “You’re everything great in a public servant. I value everything you’ve done for Maplewood and, by extension, South Orange. You are a true gentleman, and you inspire people in everything that you do.”

Former Committeeman Greg Lembrich also spoke during public comment to praise McGehee.

“It was truly my pleasure to serve with Frank for five of his six years on TC, as well as this year on the SEFD management committee, and, whether as a committee member, deputy mayor or mayor, there are three qualities that have always shined through during Frank’s six years on the township committee: service, leadership and compassion,” Lembrich said. “While so much of politics today on the national level, on the state level, is focused on tearing people down and spreading fear, Frank really builds people up and always instills hope.

“While local elected office is often a thankless job, Frank has a seemingly boundless energy and spirit for it,” he continued. “The hallmark of Frank’s service is that he consistently has used his platform, particularly as mayor, but throughout his time on the committee, to shine a light on the underserved in our community, and he’s used his power and his persuasive and very articulate voice to give a voice to those in our community who otherwise would go unheard.”

During his final update, McGehee thanked the community, township personnel, his committee colleagues and his family for their support, assistance and durability during some incredibly tough issues, including Maplewood’s forced reckoning with racism in the police department following the incident on July 5, 2016, when Maplewood police were seen to be herding black teenagers into Irvington, among other infractions.

“It has been an honor to serve on our township committee for the last six years,” McGehee said. “We have done so much and been through so much more, from the coronavirus, which changed everything to this day; to Ida; to the aftermath of July 5, 2016; to fighting against Asian hate, antisemitism; representing commuters when the NJ Transit tunnel work resulted in no trains running into the city; and the Black Lives Matter movement. And together during this time, we’ve made tremendous leaps. The merger of our fire department with South Orange; the commencement of our new master plan, the first in nearly two decades; the growth of new small businesses — arguably more in the last six years than ever before in the history of our town and we have the ribbon-cutting pictures to prove it; new traffic-calming measures, including the bump-outs, lighting and signage.”

McGehee listed many more moments of progress but also dwelled on some of the tragedies that befell Maplewood during his tenure.

“Together, we’ve suffered great losses,” he said, specifically mentioning the deaths of Maplewood Bike Shed owner Danny Ives, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2020; Columbia High School soccer star Moussa Fofana, who was murdered in 2021; sports coach Patrick A. Jeffrey, who was killed during Tropical Storm Ida in 2021; Maplewood Police Chief Jimmy DeVaul, who died earlier this year; and the “42 amazing Maplewoodians that we lost due to COVID.”

“There’s also been countless hours of hard work that the public does not see: the hundreds of ordinances, over 1,500 resolutions and thousands of hours — and I do mean thousands of hours — of reading, meetings, phone calls, texts and correspondence,” McGehee said. “To my colleagues, both past and present — India (Larrier), Greg, Nancy, Vic, Dean and Jamaine — thank you. But we’re more than colleagues. We’re family, with tons of fond memories, passionate moments and, most importantly, times of laughter. We have a special bond as members of the township committee, and each of you played a key and collaborative role in our town’s success. Be proud of your service and dedication to our community that we call home.”

McGehee also recognized his colleagues on the county and state level, as well as Collum and the South Orange Board of Trustees.

He stressed the importance of the government accurately representing its people and encouraged residents to continue to participate in local government and to vote in elections. McGehee mentioned that, though he was the 15th mayor of Maplewood, he was only the second black mayor of Maplewood.

“Our voice, at all levels of representation in New Jersey, matters, so that our values are reflected and heard,” he said.