WEST ORANGE, NJ — Mayor Susan McCartney was sworn in as West Orange’s first female mayor in the town’s 160-year history at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange on Jan. 2. The oath of office was administered by former West Orange Mayor and current state Assemblyman John McKeon. The Bible was held for the new mayor by her husband, Joseph McCartney, and they were surrounded by family. In her brief remarks, the new mayor pledged her ongoing commitment to moving West Orange forward.
At the ceremony, Tammy Williams was sworn in as the new West Orange Township Council president, and Asmeret Ghebremicael and Susan Scarpa were sworn in as first-term council members.
The oaths of office were administered by U.S. Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr. for Williams, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. for Ghebremicael and McCartney for Scarpa. A crowd numbering several hundred, including elected officials, friends, family and West Orange residents, packed the room to witness the celebration.
The backdrop for the inauguration ceremony was a 48-star American flag that had been draped over Thomas Edison’s coffin in 1931. It had previously not been seen in public for 91 years.
At the time of Edison’s death, Bernard Degnan served as commander of the veterans’ group American Legion Post 22 in West Orange; he also was a commander of Glennon-Sayers Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 376, though it is unclear whether he headed both posts simultaneously. Degnan was a World War I veteran who served with the U.S. Marines in France and was twice wounded in battle. He received a Purple Heart when it was reinstituted 15 years after the war ended. Degnan was first elected as a West Orange commissioner in 1934 and served as mayor from 1938 to 1951. He is the namesake of Bernard Degnan Memorial Park in West Orange.
The World War I veterans of West Orange wanted to pay homage to Edison. Degnan secured an American flag from the American Legion Post 22 building on Pleasant Valley Way. He brought it with him and gathered with other members of the American Legion and VFW in the viewing line to pay their final respects to Edison.
The West Orange Weekly Review newspaper, in its first edition following Edison’s Oct. 18, 1931, death, documented what the veterans did when they approached the coffin. Apparently, according to the Oct. 23, 1931, article, a brief ceremony took place; the newspaper account reads, “The local posts of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War attended in a body and draped the coffin with a flag. Mrs. Edison witnessed the ceremony.”
The flag remained on the coffin only for a brief time. Degnan, who brought the flag with him, removed it upon leaving. He kept the flag until his death in 1967, when it was passed on to his son Pete Degnan Sr.
Pete Degnan Sr. is now 90 years old and contacted me last month to say, “Joe, the time has come for me to give you the flag.” I met with him; his wife, Joan; and sister Mary this past Dec. 8 at his home on the Jersey Shore. Degnan turned the flag over to me, and I told him that I will do my best to prove a worthy steward of the keepsake, using it to promote and preserve this important chapter of West Orange history.
At the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 2, McCartney’s grandchildren led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance while saluting the historic flag.
Photos Courtesy of Joseph Fagan