Maybe they should chisel one more guy next to Washington, Hamilton and Lafayette on the Morristown Green.
Because when anyone talks about Steve Wiley, it’s in monumental terms.
“What does Steve Wiley mean to the Library? Everything,” said Maria Norton, director of the Morristown & Township Library. “Without his leadership, our new wing would still be a dream.”
The Community Theatre? “Steve’s leadership, perseverance and dedication were responsible for helping to raise over $8 million” to transform an abandoned movie theater into a showcase, said Allison Larena, president of the renamed Mayo Performing Arts Center.
Steve raised millions more to keep the historic Green from becoming a weed patch. The lawyer went to bat for the former Morristown Memorial Hospital. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Morris School District and Year 20 for the Morris Educational Foundation, which has raised more than $1.4 million for school programs. Guess who was behind those organizations?
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To help celebrate these milestones, members of Steve’s fan club are throwing a cocktail party on May 10 at the Morris Museum–the man played a role there, too–to raise funds for a Stephen B. Wiley Scholarship.
Starting next year, the college scholarship will be awarded to a Morristown High School senior with financial need, who has “proven involvement as a community-minded individual and . . . a record of leadership, integrity and kindness,” said Connie Hagelin, who worked with Steve for years on the Foundation board.
Tickets to the soirée are $150. Entertainment will be supplied by the MHS Strings and pianist Charlie Savage, a winner in this year’s edition of Morristown’s Got Talent!, a production of the Foundation. Students will premiere a documentary about Steve in the Bickford Theatre, and K-12 artworks from the Morris School District will fill the museum. The District and Foundation anniversaries also will be observed with festivities at the high school on May 20.
Now 80 and retired in Vermont, Steve is not expected to attend for health reasons. There should be no shortage of people eager to sing his praises.
It wasn’t always that way.
Steve’s battle to block Morris Township’s secession from Morristown High School went all the way to the state Supreme Court in 1971, drawing national attention.
A Township resident at the time, Steve represented some Morristown residents who felt that pulling out the Township’s students was a racist act that would leave Morristown High segregated for the first time since 1869, said former Morristown Councilwoman Margret Brady.
“By the time the court-ordered hearings were held, bitterness was all that most can remember. Wiley bore the brunt of many of the attacks because as a graduate of MHS in 1947 and the son of J. Burton Wiley, the former longtime superintendent of schools for the district, his friends and neighbors felt he should have been protecting their interests rather than the minorities he represented, ” Marge said.
“That was a bloody, fierce battle . . . and I was not a popular person,” Steve told MorristownGreen.com in 2008.
Yet it was imperative to take a legal stand, he said, to halt white flight from Morristown.
“…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. So anyway, to me the key to the success and stability and prosperity of this area, economically and otherwise, is the school.
“If you don’t have a good Morris School District, a school system that is attractive to parents who could, who have a choice, you’re gonna have trouble. You are gonna have trouble,” he said, rattling off a list of New Jersey cities that hit the skids in the ’70s.
Don Jay Smith, former chairman of the Community Theatre, said Morristown and the Township have talked about consolidating services for years.
“But only one merger ever occurred–the school district–and Steve pushed it through,” Don said.
If that’s not proof of Steve Wiley’s powers of persuasion, consider this: The Democrat won a state Senate seat in Morris County, where only Republican is spoken on Election Day.
“He’s really good at engaging people in conversation,” said Don, ascribing Steve’s fundraising prowess to a warm personality, strong organizational skills, relentless follow-through, and a penchant for surrounding himself with good people and sharing the glory.
“Our schools teach the ABC’s with distinction, but young people in Morristown High and the grade schools also learn the D’s, E’s and F’s. By association and experience they learn about democracy and diversity, about equal opportunity and ethnic strengths, about freedom and fraternity, about the whole alphabet of America.”
Stephen B. Wiley, 1992
“He was like the Pied Piper of Morristown,” said Connie Hagelin. “He had a way of talking to everyone as if you were doing the most amazing job… It wasn’t just the money he raised. It was the spirit he infused in the community.”
Glenn Coutts and Steve Wiley went from boyhood neighbors on Georgian Road to teammates on the unbeaten 1947 MHS football team. Glenn played center and Steve was a guard for that single-wing offense. Over the years, Glenn has marveled at his friend’s performance for the community.
“He’s not going to make a lot of noise. But he could sit down with you and others, and he would find the right way, and when you’re done, you would be convinced we’re doing the right thing. He would answer the questions that needed to be answered.”
The hardest two years of Art Raynes’ law career were his first two years working for Steve Wiley. Looking back now, as a partner in the firm, he treasures the experience.
“I’m the luckiest lawyer around, because my first few years I worked with him,” Art said, describing his mentor as a big-picture guy who paid attention to tiny details.
Educated at Princeton and Columbia, Steve did his homework. His victory in a $1.6 million whistleblower case against Mobile “was as fine an example of lawyering as you will ever see,” Art said.
Steve won an antitrust case by whipping out a pencil and calculating that a financial expert had made an error.
“I felt sorry for that math expert” on the witness stand, Art said.
There was no gloating. While Steve enjoyed beating younger guys in tennis, he was a gentleman who “treated everyone with respect. If he said something was going to happen, he made it happen. If someone asked a question he couldn’t answer, he made a note and got back to him.”
A gifted orator and an “unbelievable wordsmith,” Steve took pride in crafting legal documents that made sense, Art said. The law firm wasn’t too surprised when Steve published three volumes of poetry after age 70.
In his book The Miracle on South Street, historian John Cunningham praised Steve as a Renaissance Man and the “heart and soul of Morristown.” Now, John simply calls Steve “Mr. Morristown.”
Barry Goffin considers Steve a role model, and credits him with helping First Night Morris get off to a great start 20 years ago. “Very quietly, he exceeded expectations in everything he did,” said Barry, co-owner of the 23 South Boutique and an original board member of First Night.
Art Raynes sees Steve Wiley’s legacy everywhere.
“You can’t walk a block in Morristown without seeing something he made better,” he said.