Thank You, Councilman Bruce L. Kuczynski
His death came only three weeks after that of another close friend, community activist Leigh Davis, and the overwhelming sense of loss and sadness is the reason it has taken me the better part of a year to honor him with a tribute on this blog.
Public issues are very personal to me, and after the 1994 takeover of Congress by Newt Gingrich and religious-political extremists who sought to shred what was left of our social safety net, I wanted nothing more to do with the political world. That sentiment did not last very long, as I became determined to do whatever I could to oust this group in the 1996 elections. As a first step in that direction, I joined the re-election campaign of then Mayor James Polos in late 1995, hoping to make contacts that would help me get a campaign position in the next year’s national elections.
That is how I came to meet Bruce. He served as a Borough Councilman from 1993-2001, and from the beginning, I saw him as the antidote to Newt Gingrich. Where Gingrich was extreme, Bruce was level-headed. Where Gingrich was dedicated to helping only the wealthiest citizens, Bruce was committed to the well-being of everyone. Where Gingrich was exclusionary, Bruce included all who sought to participate in government. Where Gingrich was self-centered, Bruce’s first priority was always the community he served.
And I learned that “politician” and “good person” were not and are not, mutually exclusive, even here in New Jersey, so known for corruption that it was later referred to in a documentary as “the Soprano state.”
It was Bruce and the team of genuine, honorable companions on the Borough Council who first inspired me to consider serving in elected office.
In the spring of 2000, with a contested primary, I expressed my interest in running for council. Bruce and the late Council President Leon Cohen each were willing to step aside so I could pursue one of the two council seats. But when the party chair made it clear he preferred to run incumbents with strong records of public service, I had no problem stepping aside. When Leon got sick, I walked the town with Bruce, with my deepest wish being that I could get others to see him and Leon as I did. But it was not to be. A nor’easter blew in the night before the primary and stuck around all day, an apt metaphor for the political storm of anger that had taken over our town. When the day ended, the better candidates Bruce and Leon were defeated by a two to one margin.
Just a month later, Leon died of a sudden heart attack.
Bruce deserved so much better than that election, and the people of Highland Park knew it. For years, people of all political stripes commented about how he would make a terrific mayor for our borough. I dreamed of serving as a council person under his administration.
During the years of upheaval and controversy that followed, Bruce and I developed a strong friendship. He was always there to listen, to provide moral support, to give advice. Sometimes I would just show up at his house, to find him gardening outside or playing with his several cats indoors.
Every year, he grew a beautiful garden that provided much solace, and tended it with love. Yet no matter how busy he was, he always took the time to listen without judging and to offer whatever help he could.
In the later years of the last decade, he began traveling overseas a lot for his job, and reaching him became harder. But I never doubted his friendship. I also never knew that he was sick.
When Bruce left the Borough Council at the end of 2000, I read a public statement of tribute to him into the official minutes of a council meeting. More than ten years later, so much of what I said then is still true, which is why I choose to repeat it now.
“Once in a great while, somebody comes along who embodies the best in all of us, someone who gives selflessly for the greater good and devotes himself or herself wholeheartedly to serving the community. This type of person, not some overpaid celebrity or sports figure, represents the real essence of a role model. When people of this genuine good character come into our lives, I believe we need to acknowledge them and recognize the strength of their contributions.
…Bruce—there really aren’t any words that do justice in describing this kindhearted man and his myriad contributions to the borough these last seven years (1993-2000). He has been a champion of human rights, someone who always responded to public concerns, someone who took the time to listen to people and find answers to the concerns they raised. He is also a brilliant scientist and a Councilman who saved taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars through the many grants he brought to our Public Safety Department.
During this last year (2000), I have had the good fortune to develop a close friendship with Bruce. I can honestly say that I have never known a public servant with such strength of character, compassion, and dignity. I have never known a person, much less a politician, as forgiving and as honorable as Bruce Kuczynski.
In his poem “The Wasteland,” T.S. Eliot says, ‘What have we given…The awful daring of a moment’s surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract. By this and this only, we have existed…’ Giving of oneself, not just writing a check—this is the type of giving that Frank (Reff, former Councilman) and Bruce have done for Highland Park, giving moments, days, months, and years selflessly without expectation of anything in return. It is the kind of giving that cannot be undone by a budget cutter’s axe, a retirement, or the results of an election.
So I want to thank Frank and Bruce for touching countless lives in our borough and renewing my faith in people’s basic goodness and for inspiring so many, including me, to be better people…”
What better day than Thanksgiving to honor this man who gave so much to this community, who embodies all the best of what this country can be?
One holiday season, in the thick of all the political tumult, I gave Bruce a DVD of “It’s A Wonderful Life” because I felt that like Jimmy Stewart’s character, Bruce deserved to know how much of a difference he had made to so many, regardless of the 2000 primary election numbers.
Bruce Kuczynski touched many lives, and in doing so, he changed them for the better. Our community remains diminished by his loss, yet at the same time, we are so much better off for having had his gifts even if only for a short time.
Rest in peace, my mentor and friend.