Lawyer, leader, poet, gentleman: Steve Wiley honored at Morris Township gala

Steve Wiley artwork at Morris Museum Gala.
Steve Wiley artwork at Morris Museum Gala.

Many people tried to sum up Steve Wiley at a gala benefit in his honor on Thursday.

This is the guy who raised millions to save the Community Theatre, beautify the Morristown Green and expand the Morristown & Township Library. The guy who founded banks and cable TV companies, and helped launch First Night Morris and the Morris United Way. The guy who convinced the state Supreme Court, in a historic case, that the Morristown and Morris Township school systems should be merged to avert segregation at Morristown High School. The guy who retired from a successful law practice to write volumes of poetry.

Once again, as he has done in so many courtrooms, Steve delivered the best summation:

From dreaming to wishing
From wishing to planning
From planning to doing
From doing to done.

The words were read by Connie Hagelin, co-chair of the tribute at the Morris Museum in Morris Township. At 82, Steve Wiley was not up to making the trip from his retirement home in Vermont.

Dozens of Steve’s friends and relatives attended the $150-per-person event, a fundraiser for a Stephen B. Wiley Scholarship that will help cash-strapped students from his alma mater, Morristown High School, and the Morris County School of Technology. Candidates must be community minded and demonstrate “a record of leadership, integrity and kindness.”

The gala was timed to mark the 40th anniversary of the merger known as the Morris School District, and the 20th anniversary of its fundraising arm, the Morris Educational Foundation. Steve was its founding chairman.

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Accolades flowed like the Whippany River during Tropical Storm Irene. Which is pretty remarkable, considering Steve Wiley also is the guy whose one term as a Democratic state senator from Republican Morris County produced the state income tax.

Even more remarkable was City Living, an 18-minute video tribute produced by MHS students born decades after the landmark merger battle.

Five months in the making, the documentary was finished just hours before people started filing into the Morris Museum on Thursday night.

“Deadlines really help focus you,” said MHS junior Sean Mowry, who wrote the script.

“I never despaired,” said Shannon Kikuchi, executive producer, who squeezed in the project while acting in the school musical and working on the school literary magazine.

Steve Wiley artwork at Morris Museum Gala.
Steve Wiley artwork at Morris Museum Gala.

Michael Butler, the teacher who oversaw the production as head of the MHS broadcasting department, said he started getting emotional during an advance screening for members of the Morris Educational Foundation. “I’m ecstatic. I’m really proud of them,” he said of his students.

The audience gave them a standing ovation.

“Their production was worthy of its subject,” said Art Raynes, a truck driver’s son who rose to partner in Steve’s firm thanks to mentoring by the boss.

Art described him as someone who led by example. Steve wrote beautiful legal briefs and once called his young protégé to task for a typo in a letter.

“Do you want 110 lawyers at McCarter & English to think Art Raynes is a sloppy lawyer?” Steve asked. The lesson stuck.

On the morning after knee surgery, Steve was back to work, Art recalled. He expected the same energy from his staff. One job applicant, asked by Steve to rate his energy level from 1 to 10, answered “nine.”

“Let’s eliminate the lazy guy,” Steve told the partners.

The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, rocked by scandals in recent years, was fiscally sound and on the rise academically when Steve served as chairman, according to Art. He also credited Steve with establishing the first legislative committees in the state Senate.

Steve made every lawyer around him “better in 20 ways,” Art said. Instead of taking victory laps after big verdicts, he wrote thank you memos to the whole firm. “He made everyone feel appreciated.”

Janitors and CEOs were accorded the same respect, added law partner Jim McCreedy. “He was always a gentleman.”

Three volumes of poetry came after Steve turned 70; he was inspired by a professor at the College of Saint Elizabeth.

“None of us knew he was doing it,” Jim said. “All of a sudden, he announced he’d written a book of poetry. It was amazing, like everything he did.”

Steve’s father, J. Burton Wiley, came to Morristown in 1912 and helped create the high school. It may be the reason why Steve maintained his ties to Greater Morristown after graduating from Princeton and Columbia universities, said one of Steve’s older brothers, orchestra conductor Jackson Wiley.

Their father also taught Steve proper use of a scythe–their grandfather died in a scything accident. Tools figure prominently in Steve’s poetry, Jackson noted, reciting from Crosscut Dancing. It concludes:

With two men
A forest is a field.

Pulling together, Steve Wiley and community members changed the landscape of Morristown.

“I can’t envision what Morristown would look like without Stephen Wiley,” said Felicia Jamison, a civil rights activist whose late husband, Charles “Moose” Jamison Jr.,  played alongside Steve on the high school’s unbeaten 1946 football team.

“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,” Felicia said.

“You wouldn’t have the Green. You would have some trees.”

On May 20, festivities at Morristown High School will celebrate two anniveraries: 40 years for the Morris School District and 20 years for the Morris Educational Foundation.

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  1. Thanks, Melody. And thanks for a great lunchtime seminar at the Children’s Day of Art!

  2. You did a wonderful job of making us feel we were all there with you. Thanks for such a fine job to the man who cares about the children young and old of Morristown. we are blessed to have him ….thanks melody

  3. How beautifullly you captured not only the evening but also the man! The essence of Steve Wiley is a difficult one to paint for others but you have done just that. Thank you for sharing the story of this magnificent man who forever changed our community in the largest and the smallest ways. I hope people will take the time to send him a note via your website to let him know how much he is appreciated. Contributing to the Stephen B. Wiley Scholarship would be another great way to thank Steve,