By Kevin Coughlin
Anyone who wants to appreciate the late Steve Wiley’s impact on Greater Morristown should attend Saturday’s homecoming game at his alma mater, Morristown High School, an admirer suggests.
“Today, we live and work and go to school in one of the only truly diverse communities in New Jersey,” said Nancy Bangiola, who has served as board president of the Morris School District and the Morristown and Township Library.
“Look at the football team, the cheerleaders, the band, the kids in the stand, the supervisors and coaches on the field and you will see something really beautiful and I think, unique. We all play together and celebrate together and solve our problems together. We like each other.
“Steve Wiley did that. And I am so grateful,” Bangiola said on Monday.
Stephen B. Wiley, who led the fight to create the Morris School District more than four
decades ago, died last week from Parkinson’s disease. He was 86.
His achievements read like the resume of a Founding Father, which he was — of the modern Morristown that so many people are just discovering.
“Anything that’s great in Morristown, Stephen B. Wiley had something to do with it,” civil rights activist Felicia Jamison said.
A successful attorney, banker and politician, Wiley spearheaded multi-million-dollar fund drives to secure and enhance public institutions that are bedrocks of the community: The Community Theatre (now the Mayo Performing Arts Center), the Morristown & Township Library and the historic Morristown Green.
“I once told him that if I had money, I would never have accepted an invitation to lunch with him,” joked a longtime friend, Peggy Carroll.
“I’m sure people say, here’s Wiley again looking for money,” Wiley told MorristownGreen.com in 2008.
Yet hardly anyone rebuffed him.
“It’s got to be a worthy project,” Wiley said. “I mean it’s gotta really be worthy, it’s like a poem. Does it move you? Do you feel it or don’t you? If you don’t, dare not get into it.”
Yes, Wiley wrote poems — three volumes, all after his 70th birthday. He was a pretty fair furniture maker, too, using woodworking skills he learned as a summer farmhand during World War II.
Wiley played guard on the Colonials’ unbeaten football team of 1946, and went on to Princeton, Columbia Law School, and the U.S. Army. He became a partner in Meyner and Wiley, and founded Wiley, Malehorn, Sirota and Raynes.
The founding firsts kept coming: First Morris Bank and Trust (now part of Provident Financial Service), and Morris County’s first cable TV service (now part of Cablevision).
“We would not be who we are today without his leadership. His memory will live on in our work each day,” Debbie Sontupe, executive director of the Morris Educational Foundation, said of the nonprofit’s founder.
Along the way, Wiley became the first Morris County Democrat in 60 years to win election to the state Senate; New Jersey Monthly ranked him as the state’s top legislator.
‘TWO TOWNS, ONE COMMUNITY’
But many consider the Morris School District as his most significant civic contribution.
The son of a Morristown school superintendent, Wiley led the legal fight to prevent his then-hometown, Morris Township, from building its own high school in the early 1970s.
Separate, segregated high schools would hasten white flight from Morristown, dooming it to the same turmoil afflicting New Jersey’s urban centers, he feared.
Having “a minority center and a white ring around it is nothing but a guarantee of an explosion, and you’re going to lose everyone… to me, the key to the success and stability and prosperity of this area, economically and otherwise, is the school,” he reflected later.
The bitter battle went to the state Supreme Court, and forged the regional district that serves Morristown, Morris Township and (for high school) Morris Plains.
Video: Morristown High School 2012 tribute to Steve Wiley
“He never understood why anyone would want to segregate the races,” said Wiley’s daughter, Kate Laud. “He played on a football team with blacks and whites…He felt it enriched everyone to go to a high school with as many different kinds of people as possible.”
Felicia Jamison’s late husband, Charles “Moose” Jamison Jr., played alongside Wiley on the high school’s unbeaten team.
“I can’t envision what Morristown would look like without Stephen Wiley,” Felicia Jamison said at a Wiley tribute gala in 2012.
“You wouldn’t have had the rich experience of (blacks and whites) living and working together. You wouldn’t have had an example of a pluralistic democracy.”
Wiley prevailed during the long trial by stressing common interests of Morristown and the Township.
“I called real estate people [as witnesses] to point out that this really is one community, maybe two towns but it’s one community. Everybody goes to the same shoe store. Everybody goes to the same theater if there is one,” he recounted to MG in 2008.
“If you don’t have a good Morris School District, a school system that is attractive to parents who could [leave], who have a choice, you’re gonna have trouble.”
The worst blow-back for the Wiley family was not over schools, however. It came from opponents of the state income tax during the 1970s.
“People were picketing our home on Canfield Road,” said Kate Laud.
She spent a summer in her father’s legislative office, trying to help him convince citizens that an income tax was more progressive than property taxes.
“We got terrible calls from people,” she said.
Wiley ran for governor in 1985, finishing fourth in a six-person Democratic primary.
Courtroom triumphs aside, Wiley discouraged his daughter from pursuing a law career. Too “tedious,” he warned.
Wiley loathed legalese, priding himself on clear, concise legal briefs.
When Kate wrote for The Daily Dartmouth, her dad would send back copies of her newspaper stories with corrections in red ink.
As a young lawyer working for Wiley, Art Raynes was taken to task for a typo in a letter.
“Do you want 110 lawyers at McCarter & English to think Art Raynes is a sloppy
lawyer?” Wiley asked. The lesson stuck. Raynes made partner.
Kate went into finance, and early on she hoped to work with her dad at First Morris Bank. He declined to offer her a job, saying people would suspect nepotism and hold it against her. At first, his daughter took it personally.
“But he was right,” said Kate Laud, now an associate vice president of finance for the University of Vermont Foundation.
Over the years, she said, her father shared priceless advice on how to succeed in the male-dominated world of finance.
“Criticize privately. Praise publicly,” he told her.
Slideshow: 2012 Gala Honoring Steve Wiley. Please click icon below for captions.
SAVING THE THEATRE, SEEDING THE GREEN
By the early 1990s, Wiley and many others assumed the crumbling Community Theatre would be demolished.
But a celebrated pianist coaxed the famed Kirov Orchestra from Russia. The 1994 concert galvanized local volunteers. Soon, Wiley was leading an $8.5 million campaign to restore the once-grand movie palace.
Fondly, he remembered his high school graduation at the Community Theatre. Actress Meryl Streep and countless others had first dates there. Wiley tapped those memories to raise money.
“What we did was … remind people of what a great place that was, and we were satisfied what a good, great place it could be, and showed them that we thought we had the ability to get from here to there. That was exciting, just exciting,” he recounted in our 2008 interview.
Rechristened and refurbished, the Mayo Performing Arts Center now presents world-class stars like Tony Bennett, Ringo Starr and Kristin Chenoweth. Some 200 shows a year draw more than 200,000 patrons to South Street, generating an estimated $14 million for the local economy.
Wiley’s “hard work and generosity helped the theater position itself as a mainstay in the community that will be admired and enjoyed for generations to come. What a wonderful legacy he leaves us all,” said Allison Larena, president and CEO of the Mayo Center.
Across the street, Wiley helped raise $8 million to expand the library.
“It was so clearly needed, it was almost embarrassing not to have it,” Wiley said of the new wing.
“Of course it was a different kind of a project, it didn’t have quite the gut appeal that the theater did, but there was enough. And the library, like the theater, has lots of old friends.”
Thanks largely to Wiley, the library grew to meet community needs, “from lending books to teaching computer skills,” said Peggy Carroll, who handled publicity for the fund drive.
“He had a knack for making everyone feel at ease and believe in themselves. I can’t imagine what we would have done without him,” said former library Director Maria Norton.
Wiley tried to enlist others to lead these drives. But nobody else had his expertise and contacts. He had to promise his wife Judith that the Green would be his last campaign, Carroll said.
Some $4.6 million was raised, though only a portion was for the 2007 renovations.
“The Green trustees never had any money,” Wiley explained. “They had no revenue. All the money they had was what they begged for from the town, which is a terrible way to do business.
“So my sense was, if we were gonna do anything, let’s do it right. Let’s raise an endowment that will be big enough to generate enough revenue and we’d be able to meet all the cost without bothering the town anymore.”
Wiley insisted that no renovations should occur until the fiscal target was reached.
Glenn Coutts Sr., president of the Trustees of the Morristown Green, remembered his high school football teammate as a “visionary, a gentleman and a friend.
“His stalwart fundraising efforts were crucial to the beautiful restoration of the historic Green that we all enjoy today,” Coutts said in a statement. “Steve’s legacy of community pride, leadership and generosity of spirit will live on in the beauty of the Morristown Green.”
‘IF YOU HAVE IT, USE IT’
Wiley’s love of precise language made him a formidable competitor at Scrabble, Ghost and Dictionary. But poetry puzzled him; it seemed obtuse.
So, at age 70, he took a course at the College of Saint Elizabeth.
With encouragement from Professor Laura Winters, he began writing volumes of crisp, evocative poems about Morristown, nature, and the Lake Champlain region of Vermont where he courted his wife and spent his last years.
“I am prompted to write a poem when something moves me,” Wiley told MorristownGreen.com.
“Either my heart skips a beat or I catch my breath or I have a feeling in my chest, something prompted that. I try to think of what it was that prompted it and naturally if I do it fairly contemporaneously, it’s relatively easy. I know what prompted that.
“Then I enjoy trying to transmit that feeling to someone else. If I can write it up the way I remember it, accurately and clearly, another person ought to have the same fun, feel the same impact that I felt.”
He tackled retirement with the same gusto he gave everything else, and advocated the same for anyone else blessed with health and strength.
“If you have it, use it,” Wiley said. “And use it in something that’s productive and helpful to people, and satisfying to you.”
DYING IN PIECES
Dying in pieces is not all bad
and if you live at all
that kind of dying is guaranteed
you learn to value what you lose
I never thought much of my sense of smell
the fragrance of spring
the warning of the skunk
or so I thought until my nose passed on.
Now I appreciate what I have lost
I’m pleased to hear from others
how fresh and sweet the corn smells. — Stephen B. Wiley
* * *
A celebration of Wiley’s life is scheduled for Nov. 21, 2015, at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship. He served as president of that board, too.
Wiley is survived by his wife of 62 years, Judith Alexander Wiley; their three children, Jonathan Wiley of South Londonderry, VT.; Katharine Laud of Shelburne, VT., and Benjamin Wiley of Singapore; and by grandchildren Matthew Laud, Charles Laud, Caleb Wiley, Martha Laud and Rhiannon Wiley.
He also is survived by a brother, Joseph Burton Wiley II of Sergeantsville. His sister, Margaret Anderson, and brothers Jackson Wiley and Andrew Wiley predeceased him.
MorristownGreen.com extends condolences to the Wiley family, and especially to MG cartoonist Paul Laud, who has lost his father-in-law.
Memorial contributions in Wiley’s memory may be made to either the South Hero Rescue, P.O. Box 365, So. Hero, VT 05486, or to Trustees of the Morristown Green, c/o Linda Coutts Snyder, 46 Washington St., Morristown, NJ 07960.