Looking back at ’21: Greater Morristown tries to turn the corner, in The Hybrid Year

Morristown senior Edward Taborn gets his COVID-19 shot from Leah Hodgson, a nurse from the Zufall Health Center, Jan. 27, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin


For the second straight year, the biggest story in Greater Morristown — and almost everywhere else–was COVID-19.

Vaccines signaled hope as 2021 began. Normalcy appeared within reach. Restrictions gradually eased. Things started to re-open. Then came Delta. And, just in time for the holidays, Omicron.

Even with two shots and a booster, we learned, you still can catch the virus. Local governments, schools, churches and cultural venues dared not let their Zoom subscriptions lapse.

It was The Hybrid Year.

As 2021 draws to a close, the cumulative numbers are sobering. Across New Jersey, nearly 29,000 COVID-19 deaths are confirmed or suspected since the novel coronavirus prompted lockdowns in March 2020.

Here in Morris County, nearly 1,100 individuals have died; health officials suspect the toll is closer to 1,350. Across the United States, the pandemic has claimed more than 823,000 lives. Globally, more than 5.4 million have died.

Behind each of those numbers, there is a name, a tragedy, a loss.

Morristown’s Darell Johnson, left, an early COVID victim, with his family: Emma (front), Katelyn, mom Melissa with baby Maycie, and AJ. Photo courtesy of Katelyn Woebse.

Statewide, transmissions (1.76 rate) and hospitalizations are climbing yet again. More than 63,000 infections have been confirmed in Morris County during the pandemic.

‘Vaccine Fixers’ Kim and Ambrose Dunn-Meynell, with their faithful assistant, Remy. Photo courtesy of the Dunn-Meynells.

Some 3,004 of them have occurred in Morristown. Another 2,468 are from Morris Township, and 873 are from Morris Plains.

When ’21 began, inoculations were so hard to get that Good Samaritans fired up their computers to help strangers schedule precious appointments–sometimes, far away.

Now, vaccinations are easy. Convincing everyone to get them — and to mask up — is the hard part.

‘NO MASK, NO FORTUNE COOKIES.’ Sign at Cottage II in Morristown, Nov. 5, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The Morris Plains Memorial Parade, May 29, 2021. Photo by Dave Sullivan

After a year of virtual everything, punctuated by the occasional drive-in concert, area residents eventually got the green light from Gov. Murphy to gather again.

On a soggy Saturday in May, the Memorial Day Parade returned to Morris Plains — along with a livestream, for those not yet comfortable venturing among crowds.

Video:Larry Ripley takes the NJSO for a march

Morris Arts rolled out its Giralda Music and Arts Festival, albeit two months later than customary. After a year’s hiatus, the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival finally celebrated its 10th anniversary, in September instead of August. A miniature version of the New Jersey Ukulele Festival plinked away in a backyard.

Video highlights from the 2021 NJ Uke Fest

After a run of life-affirming parking deck concerts, the Morris Museum invited patrons back inside the Bickford Theatre.

Council President Stefan Armington exudes holiday spirit, Morristown council, Dec. 14, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Morris School District opened its fall semester with in-person classes…then closed Morristown High School for 10 days in November when COVID cases spiked.

Over the summer, the school district’s board switched from virtual- to in-person meetings. Morristown’s council returned to in-person sessions in December–adding a glitchy livestream option.

Morris Township government meetings remain Zoom-only; Morris Plains council meetings are in-person.

A zoning change for a Red Bulls soccer complex was aproved at this virtual Morris Township committee meeting, Dec. 21, 2021. Screenshot by Marion Filler.
Linda Eder performs at MPAC opening night, Sept. 17, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Vaccinated patrons were welcomed back inside the Mayo Performing Arts Center for the fall/winter season. Crowds so far are not approaching pre-COVID numbers.

The Troubadour folk series in Morris Township opened its doors to vaccinated patrons in September…and closed the doors this month.

Authors took their book talks outdoors for the re-booted Morristown Festival of Books.  Fall and Christmas festivals returned to the Morristown Green.

Chris Grabenstein, author of ‘The Smartest Kid in the Universe,’ at KidFest, at the 2021 Morristown Festival of Books. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey was back in business this month, with an entrancing production of A Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Santa illuminates the Green: Video by Jeff Sovelove for MorristownGreen.com:

As of this writing, organizers of the 30th annual First Night Morris County say their New Year’s Eve show will go — in hybrid fashion.

Leaving nothing to chance, the First Night team promises a mix of live-, live-streamed and on-demand performances and films.


Major development proceeded in Greater Morristown, despite COVID.

In Morristown, the M Station office project rose on Morris Street, and apartment complexes were completed at Ann and Market streets.

Work also has started on an apartment project on Morris Street that will include 14 units for people with special needs. The town council unanimously deemed this a worthy tradeoff for a tax break known as a PILOT; public opposition prevented construction of a self-storage facility on the site.

A posh restaurant/Topgolf combo, 1776 by David Burke, opened near the Green.

Video: Chef David Burke returns to Morristown:

A boutique hotel never got off the ground at Market Street, however, and new offices pitched for the former Daily Record/New Jersey Monthly building stalled over a lack of parking.

In a technicality worthy of the Electoral College, plans for 21 apartments above existing shops at the corner of South and DeHart streets won a majority of zoning board votes–and still got rejected.

The town council also nixed rooftop dining at the Iron Bar.

Planning board hearings dragged on all year, with no resolution, for apartments and retail space proposed next to the historic Vail Mansion.

It was a good year for parks in Morristown: After years on drawing boards, parks were dedicated at Headquarters Plaza and at the Modera apartments on Speedwell Avenue. And Foote’s Pond Wood on James Street was expanded.

Video: Making a splash at Foote’s Pond:

The Morristown & Township Library also dedicated a statue to the late Steve Wiley, a civic giant who raised millions for the library, the Community Theatre, the Morristown Green, and other institutions.

Rhiannon Wiley, granddaughter of Steve Wiley, speaks at dedication of Steve Wiley statue, July 10, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

And in Morris Township, The Seeing Eye Inc. unveiled a statue to recently retired CEO Jim Kutsch, the first Seeing Eye graduate to lead the famed guide dog school.

Remarks by Seeing Eye CEO Glenn Hoagland, Jason Kutsch, Chairman Tom Duffy, and Jim Kutsch, Sept. 23, 2021. Video courtesy of The Seeing Eye:

Also in the Township, the planning board gave its blessing to RH (Restoration Hardware) to transform the Abbey, a decaying Gilded Age mansion, into a high-end furniture showplace and restaurant.

And the Township committee this month rezoned the former Honeywell tract for a Red Bulls soccer training complex.


Greater Morristown’s congresswoman, Mikie Sherrill (D-11th Dist.), began the year barricaded in the House Chamber, as a mob of Donald Trump loyalists tried to break in. The Navy veteran called it “an obscene attack on our democracy.”

Security personnel, with guns drawn, defending barricaded door of House chamber, Jan. 6, 2021. From video by Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI) – via Michael Moore on Facebook

On the local political scene…

Nothing could stop Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty from claiming a fourth term.

Not a Democratic primary challenge. Not police who campaigned against him. Not an Independent challenge by a couch-surfing former mayor. Not even a state bribery investigation that struck very close to home.

From left: Councilman-elect Nathan Umbriac, Mayor Tim Dougherty, Council Vice President Toshiba Foster and Councilman David Silva, Election Night 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

A local lawyer was disbarred and other public figures await trial in that corruption probe, which centered on Morristown’s former tax appeals attorney, who donned a wire and is facing jail time.

Dougherty garnered a stack of endorsements, topped by Gov. Phil Murphy (who also nominated the mayor’s closest adviser to a judgeship). And records show Dougherty raised at least $42,000 for the primary; a final report for the general election is overdue as of this writing.

The mayor ran unopposed in November, and his slate of council incumbents Toshiba Foster and David Silva and newcomer Nathan Umbriac, facing scant competition, hitched a ride on his coattails.

Video: Morristown mayoral candidates, Democratic primary night  June 2021:

Morristown Democrats closed the year with more drama, voting to oust their chairman, A.J. Oliver, for his anti-abortion activism. Oliver, an Episcopal priest and Army veteran, faced similar blowback during an unsuccessful run for Morris County Commissioner this fall. So far, he has refused to tender his resignation.

In Morris Township, Mayor Jeff Grayzel rolled the dice — and lost. Now he must step down from the governing body he spent 20 years working to flip into the blue column.

Passing up a re-election bid to the Township committee, Grayzel instead challenged Republican state Sen. Anthony M. BuccoBucco breezed to victory in November, winning a full term in the 25th District seat held for years by his late father.

Assemblywoman Aura Dunn, state Sen. Anthony M. Bucco, and Morris Township Mayor Jeff Grayzel, at 2019 Morristown Menorah lighting. Photo by Jeff Sovelove

The mass murder of nearly 3,000 Americans was marked in Morristown on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. A Tunnel to Towers parade wound from the Green to town hall.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, under investigation for his dealings in Ukraine, and former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, a convicted felon pardoned by President Trump, made appearances.

Video: Never Forget

Two 2021 murders rocked the same Morristown public housing neighborhood; another occurred at the Morristown train station.

A man was shot dead this summer on Clyde Potts Drive. A suspect was arrested in Tulsa, OK, about 30 hours later.

An ex-convict with ties to the vicinity was charged with fatally beating his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son in a Route 10 hotel, also this summer.

Crime tape at Morristown train station, March 29, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In March, authorities arrested a homeless man at the train station, where they say he used a brick to bludgeon another homeless man to death after the victim had bought him pizza at a nearby 7-Eleven.

The pandemic, meanwhile, delayed trials for a man accused of a January 2018 stun gun sexual assault in Morristown and for another man charged with tossing an illegal handgun into a Flagler Street dumpster while fleeing police in December 2019.

Morris Township saw a steady stream of car thefts and burglaries, invariably involving unlocked vehicles.


Greater Morristown mourned some cherished community figures this year.

Marie Fornaro served the Morris School District as a board member and volunteer, and was a pillar of Morristown’s League of Women Voters chapter.

Marie Fornaro of the League of Women Voters of the Morristown Area, addressing Madison event celebrating women elected officials, August 2020. Photo by John Lester.

Dave Baker of Morristown worked with attack dogs as a G.I. in Vietnam. For the rest of his life, he helped poor children in that country seek better lives.

Dave Baker at 2013 opening of daycare center in Phuoc Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Jimmie Hilliard.

Linda Smith, a key player in the grassroots rescue of Morristown’s crumbling Community Theatre (now the Mayo Performing Arts Center), also helped put the town on the music map as co-producer of the Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival.

Headliner Davy Knowles, flanked by Festival Promoters Don and Linda Smith,at the 2019 Morristown Jazz & Blues Fest. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Michael Fabrizio was a central figure in the revitalization of Morristown’s downtown as the first executive director of the Morristown Partnership.

Michael Fabrizio, the new executive director of the Morristown Parking Authority. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Michael Fabrizio, executive director of the Morristown Parking Authority, January 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Sam Champi was a beloved coach of generations of Little Leaguers.

The late Sam Champi, by a plaque bearing his name. He coached in the Morristown National Little League from 1978 to 2015. Photo via Facebook.

Renard “Bay Bay” Haskins made wrestling history at Morristown High in the early 1970s.

Renard Haskins, 1953-2021.

Carolyn Ward championed the local cultural scene for 15 years as leader of nonprofit Morris Arts.

Carolyn Ward

Marion Harris of Morristown was a fierce advocate for historic preservation, and a mentor and role model for others committed to promoting our heritage.

Marion Harris of the Morristown Historic Preservation Commission addresses Schuyler Lofts hearing before the Morristown zoning board, Dec. 4, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Bishop John Shelby Spong, who spent many of his later years at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, was a theologian, author and lecturer who challenged dogma and preached inclusion–sometimes, at his own peril.

Video: Bishop John Shelby Spong is laid to rest in Morristown:

Linda Murphy was a math teacher and Morristown High School principal whose caring nature was acknowledged by countless hugs from students in diploma lines.

MHS Principal Linda Murphy addresses Class of 2012. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown High School Principal Linda Murphy speaking at 2012 commencement. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Mackey Pendergast, New Jersey’s Superintendent of the Year, and a steady leader through the turbulent pandemic, stunned the Morris School District by announcing his retirement. His interim replacement is the man he succeeded in 2015, Thomas Ficarra.

Steve Wiley statue is flanked by Morris District Supt. Mackey Pendergrast and board members Ann Rhines and Susan Pedalino, at dedication of Steve Wiley statue, July 10, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The regional district also say goodbye this month to Ann Rhines, a board member for nearly 20 years and a retired teacher whose career started in 1962.

For almost a quarter century, Leslie Bensley has been the face of Morris County tourism, and a leading proponent of heritage tourism across the state. The Township resident retires this month from the Morris Tourism Bureau she created.

Leslie Bensley waves pom-pom at her retirement party at the Grand Café, Dec. 8, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Major funder Dillard Kirby speaks at MPAC screening of jetport movie. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Dillard Kirby speaks at MPAC screening of jetport movie in 2016. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

One of Morristown’s great philanthropists, S. Dillard Kirby, retired as president of the S. M. Kirby Foundation. 

He is succeeded by his niece, Laura Horton Virkler, in the newly created position of voluntary chairperson for strategic planning, and Justin J. Kiczek, promoted from executive vice president to executive director for daily operations.

Cleveland Johnson, who helped inject some hip style and edge to the Morris Museum in Morris Township, retired as CEO and president.  Andrew Sandall, former head of the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts in Madison, will succeed him.

Morris Museum Executive Director Cleveland Johnson and Charles Craig at ‘The Social Fabric’ exhibition, Morris Museum. June 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown’s then-Acting Police Chief Darnell Richardson at start of 2019 Garden State Fondo. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

At the Morristown police bureau, Records Support Technician Aracelys Castillo is calling it a career after 35 years.

Her boss, Darnell Richardson, just got promoted to chief after serving as acting chief since 2018. The Morristown High School alumnus is the town’s first African American police chief.

At the Morristown Parking Authority, Nicole Fox was hired as executive director this summer, after the death of Michael Fabrizio.

Nicole Fox, executive director of the Morristown Parking Authority, Nov. 11, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Music directors are vital to churches. This year brought transitions at St. Peter’s and the Morristown United Methodist Church.

Josh Stafford, winner of a prestigious international organ competition in 2016, left St. Peter’s for a church position in Florida. His successor, Anthony Hammond of Edinburgh, Scotland, also brings an impressive resume.

And the talented Sarah Michal has been succeeded at the Methodist Church by Lynn Gary Atkins, a Jersey Shore native who also has served in Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Jewish congregations. He has studied at the Westminster Choir College, holds a doctorate in choral conducting, and leads the Philadelphia Handbell Choir.


Patrick Dempsey, of Grey’s Anatomy fame, shot scenes for a pilot of Ways & Means, a Congressional drama, at St. Peter’s in February.

Video: Patrick Dempsey takes Morristown by storm:

Closed Until Further Notice, a documentary series about Morristown businesses that weathered the pandemic, premiered in September at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.

Zack Ryan of StrixMedia addresses audience at MPAC premiere of ‘Closed Until Further Notice,’ Sept. 28, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Cocoa, a comedy about a chocolate cake recipe that makes you lose weight, shot scenes in Morristown and Morris Township in October, with cameos by John Bianco of The Sopranos  and St. Peter’s Rector Anne Thatcher.

LET THEM EAT CAKE: ‘Cocoa’ shoots in Morristown:

Morgan Freeman and Florence Pugh came to Morristown’s Loyola Jesuit Center last month for scenes in A Good Person, written and directed by Pugh’s boyfriend, Zach Braff.

Morgan Freeman at the Loyola Jesuit Center, location for scenes in Zach Braff’s ‘A Good Person,’ Nov. 16, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

One thing is oblivious to the pandemic: Weather.

Greater Morristown had its share of the latter in 2021.

Winter Storm Orlena dumped 20 inches of snow on Morristown in February. It could have been worse; parts of Morris and Sussex counties were buried under 30 inches.

Maple Avenue, Groundhog Day, 2021. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

And during the summer, back-to-back tropical storms — Henri and Ida — flooded a stretch of Morristown’s Martin Luther King Avenue, within days of the town planning board approving 15 apartments for that very spot.

Aftermath of Ida: Morristown’s Second Ward, Sept. 2, 2021. Video by Richard Modzeleski:

Which brings us to… 2022.

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  1. Morristown owes Kevin Coughlin a debt of gratitude. Without his ongoing efforts to keep us informed, few would have a factual basis of these events as they occurred. Keep up the good work as you continue to keep us informed in 2022.