Video: Friends and family remember Steve Wiley
By Linda Stamato
Friends of the late Stephen B. Wiley joined his family and many members of the Morristown and Morris Township community to celebrate his life on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship.
I use the singular word, community, for both the town and the township, by choice, to honor Steve’s concept of a single community, with one library and one school district.
Unified schools, for Steve, were about holding the community together to maintain racial balance and integrity. It’s one of many accomplishments that reflect Steve’s time, talent and commitment over the course of a full life of politics, poetry and the practice of law.
Steve passed away last month. He was 86.
Saturday’s memorial began with words from Unitarian minister Allen Wells, who noted that Steve was a founder and president of the congregation hosting the service, as well as Morris County’s first Democratic senator in 60 years. But that only scratched the surface:
“Whenever any of you come to watch a performance at the Community Theatre, now the Mayo Performing Arts Center…or enroll your children in the Morris School District, which Steve helped to create…or if you subscribe to Morris Cablevision, now Optimum.net, or hold an account at First Morris Bank, or stroll through our beautiful Morristown Green, which Steve helped to rejuvenate, or you pay an income tax in New Jersey, which Steve instituted to help reduce property taxes, you pay a tribute to Steve’s efforts to enhance the life of our community,” said Wells.
The minister had to pause after the income tax line, to let the laughter subside.
Steve’s son, Ben Wiley, presided over the hour-long program, which consisted of prepared remarks by several speakers, followed by a brief period of quiet reflection, and a Quaker-style invitation to others to share their thoughts and stories about Steve.
A law colleague, Eugene Huang, reflected on how Steve mentored him when he joined Wiley Malehorn Sirota & Raynes 20 years ago.
“Not only did he expect perfection of his associates. He would show you how to get there,” said Huang, recounting Steve’s attention to meticulously crafted legal documents. Steve was a great listener, able to sift the relevant tidbits from any conversation.
“When he listened to you, you had his full attention,” said the lawyer. “Whatever he asked, you would say yes, because the last thing you wanted to do was let him down. He brought out the best in Morristown, and the best in us.”
In Huang’s best moments, his wife will say: “You’re being a little Wiley!'” That’s high praise, Huang said.
Steve Wiley often was seen as “The Center of Morris County” because of all the involvements he had. A “practical visionary,” capable of seeing what needed to be done and doing it, he had a gift for motivating others to join causes.
This apparently started at Princeton, where, as a student, he convinced Albert Einstein to address a World Federalism gathering.
Steve’s local causes spanned from reviving the Community Theater –where he and his wife, Judy, once enjoyed movies together– to supporting the Library’s capital campaign, to renovating the historic Green. Steve raised millions for these drives.
He spearheaded the legal fight that forged the Morris School District, and his entrepreneurial enterprises included Cablevision and First Morris Bank. As a legislator, he saw the need for a state income tax despite its unpopularity, and as chair of the New Jersey State Board of Higher Education, to fought to defend the board’s existence.
Steve failed in the latter effort — a rare setback– yet his “defeat was more triumphant than victory,” to quote Montaigne.
His aggressive arguments persuaded important constituencies, including every major newspaper in the state, and brought attention to institutions of higher education.
Felicia Jamison, a Morristown civil rights leader, remembered Steve as the lawyer who won a discrimination case for her– and who created the school district that may be his greatest legacy.
“There is no separation between Morristown and Morris Township. It’s one single community… and that’s Stephen B. Wiley’s concept,” said Jamison, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the school merger.
NUTS AND BOLTS…AND SCRABBLE
Betsy Burr, who wore “Senator Wiley” buttons to the gathering, served as Steve’s aide in the Senate. He had an incredible nuts-and-bolts grasp of how things worked–and that encompassed how to work well with others, she said.
“I’ve known a lot of remarkable people in my life,” Burr said. “But he’s head-and-shoulders above them all. He was truly a great man.”
Steve also had a whimsical, silly side, according to his son-in-law, Paul Laud. The man laughed uncontrollably at Laurel & Hardy movies, was a master of understatement, and cheated at Scrabble by inventing words that sounded too real to challenge.
Laud said his father-in-law especially admired people who did things, among them Steve’s Uncle Bob who, it turns out, paid for Steve’s entire legal education at Columbia without telling him, covering up his generosity by telling Steve and his family that it was a university scholarship. Steve could not have afforded law school otherwise.
That lesson on generosity was not lost on Steve.
Scott Wiley remembered Uncle Steve’s willingness to give a fundraising primer to his opera company’s board. After Steve left, trustees discovered he had left behind a large check of his own toward the effort.
Laura Winters, who was Steve’s instructor at the College of Saint Elizabeth when, in his 70s, he turned to writing poetry, spoke of his craft, his discipline as a writer, and his sweetness. Others remarked about Steve’s ability to make others feel appreciated and admired.
Predictably, though, the afternoon’s most moving words belonged to Steve himself, whose poem Five Days opened a window to his soul.
His youngest granddaughter, Rhiannon Wiley, fought through tears as she read it aloud:
Mother and I carried Matthew to Mt. Sinai
For a surgical try to complete his inside connections.
After the operation, I watched him struggle on the other side of the glass.
His body rolled and wrenched.
I cried to see him cry.
Judy was still in recovery.
My father joined me at the gravesite.
Matthew wore new clothes in his little box.
I have his birth pictures somewhere here.
He looked like Judy.
But I don’t need a picture.
* * *
Walking to my car after the memorial, I recalled a special moment with Steve. It took place during the week following 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. I went to dinner at Pamir, an Afghan restaurant in Morristown. There were Judy and Steve Wiley, joining others to demonstrate support for those they thought might become victims of prejudice because of who they were, because of what had happened.
American flags were in the restaurant windows, to tell the public that “it wasn’t us.” No need. Judy and Steve, and others, were there to tell them not to worry. They were in Morristown, after all, a community that understands itself to be one community, a diverse community to be sure, yet a community united—thanks in good measure to the presence of Steve Wiley.
Morristown resident Linda Stamato served with Stephen B. Wiley on the state Board of Higher Education. Kevin Coughlin contributed to this article.