By Chris Neidenberg
Without a doubt, the nine 2011 Nutley Hall of Fame inductees honored at Sunday’s public library event achieved fame on stages much bigger than the township itself.
Their visibility was achieved in a variety of ways, including legislating from the chambers of the U.S. Capitol, inventing a drug which comforts psychiatric patients around the world, reaching the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and reporting major sporting events from such hallowed grounds as Fenway Park and Madison Square Garden.
Still, speakers accepting the honors promised never to forget that the seeds for such far-flung successes were indeed planted in Nutley – the inductees’ cherished hometown.
The simple values of home, family and friendship, acquired through their Nutley experience before moving on to bigger things, emerged as a recurring theme during the three-hour festivities.
About 170 persons attended the ceremony, held on the second floor of the Booth Drive building. Proceeds from ticket sales benefit the Friends of the Nutley Library. The facility has hosted the event since its 2003 inception.
On this occasion, the hall’s fifth bi-annual ceremony, its committee bestowed honors upon: business executive Cathleen A. Benko; heralded pro-motorcycle racer Larry “Drums” Brancaccio; MSG Network, FOX 5 and NFL TV sports reporter Tina Cervasio; Columbia University Professor of dermatology and genetics Angela M. Christiano, Ph.D.; the late American art historian and museum director Lloyd Goodrich; U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.); deceased Hoffman-LaRoche scientist and valium inventor Earl Reeder; Rutgers University professor and mediator Linda Lautenschlaeger Stamato, and adventurer, scoutmaster and teacher Al C. Welenofsky.
A Nutley Museum representative accepted Goodrich’s award; Reeder’s widow, Helene, represented her husband.
Each received plaques and will forever be memorialized through placement of brass leaves, inscribed with their names, on a painted tree display in the library.
Additionally, they will have biographies including photos published in a large reference book, currently placed on a special lectern. There, the public can learn more about the 50 honorees enshrined to date.
A panel of judges, separate from the hall’s committee, reviews nominations. Candidates are considered after meeting any of the following criteria: They were born in Nutley; resided in the township for at least 10 years, or graduated from Nutley High School (NHS).
According to the committee’s introduction in its event program, inclusion “is based on outstanding accomplishment beyond our borders on a statewide, national or international level.”
“The achievements of the honorees make us, as Nutley citizens, proud of their association with Nutley,” the committee’s joint statement continues. “They serve as inspirational examples for our young people to emulate.”
“This one (induction ceremony) is a little bit more special to me,” conceded Mayor Joanne Cocchiola, during her welcoming remarks.
Cocchiola cited the honorees’ diverse professional backgrounds and significant achievements, and the fact that she actually grew up with some of the inductees.
“The people being presented awards today, as I read about them, are people I respect and I am very proud of their accomplishments,” the mayor added.
Stamato, a 1958 NHS graduate, told audience members she – and her fellow honorees – should be equally proud of their association with Nutley.
“Is there anyone who comes from Nutley who can say he or she doesn’t love Nutley?” asked Stamato, a Morristown resident who grew up on Highfield Lane. “Nutley is a very, very special place. I was very happy to be here today, to be among all of you, and to be with these inductees.”
Stamato co-directs Rutgers University’s Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution, and is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of negotiation and mediation. The former dean of Rutgers’ Douglass College has emerged as a powerful figure within the university this year. She is one of only two appointees who will lead a replacement search for retiring RU President Richard McCormick.
Yet possibly the most visible and powerful figure in the entire room was Lautenberg.
He is New Jersey’s longest-serving U.S. senator (five terms) and a 1941 NHS graduate, who left Nutley to enlist in the Army during World War II.
Before joining the senate, where he prides himself on his work in areas including transportation and environmental improvement, Lautenberg and two boyhood pals founded Automatic Data Processing, the nation’s first payroll company. It now employs 45,000 people, and has grown into one of the largest computing service companies in the world.
“I’m really excited to be back in Nutley,” said the 87-year-old senator, generating loud laughter when he then asked, “As I look at this group here, I wonder if any of my classmates from 1941 are here?”
“I guess they didn’t want to come,” he cracked, after receiving no replies.
After moving with his parents – Polish and Russian immigrants – from Paterson, Lautenberg settled in a second-floor apartment at Church St. and Franklin Ave. across from the current NHS. Event narrator, WABC radio morning traffic reporter Debbie DuHaime, noted that during Lautenberg’s days in the township, the high school was located in the current Walker Middle School across the street. Lautenberg started in business working in his parents’ candy store on Church St.
He praised Nutley for teaching him, “about working hard, about paying your dues and about what you had to do to get a start in life.”
Perhaps the second most visible inductee was Cervasio, described by Duhaime as, “one of the most recognizable sports reporters in the New York metropolitan area.”
For Cervasio, it all started when she began rabidly following Maroon Raiders football.
She eventually broke into tears after recalling how much her interest in the local Nutley-Belleville sports scene helped her achieve her dreams. Cervasio cited strong familial ties in both municipalities.
“We didn’t go to Yankee Stadium or Giants Stadium,” she recalled. “We’d go back to Belleville to watch our relatives’ beloved sports teams.”
A 1992 NHS graduate who attended Washington Elementary School, Cervasio attended the University of Maryland. Cervasio counts herself as blessed for making, “some crazy friends in Nutley.”
She got her first big break as a pre and post-game TV host for Boston Red Sox games on the New England Sports Network before returning to the New York area.
Though she cannot cover the Knicks due to the NBA lockout, Cervasio expressed excitement about working her first national NFL telecast for the Fox Network on Nov. 27 as a sideline reporter.
The TV/radio personality said she hopes her induction serves as a role model for today’s Nutley youth.
“I had a passion for sports,” Cervasio noted, thanking her father for encouraging her to pursue sports broadcasting. “If you have a dream, if you have a passion and if you set goals, you can get to them.”
Brancaccio and Welenofsky made their marks participating in sports, but certainly not the type Cervasio covered.
Brancaccio, a 1975 NHS graduate, started with the All Harley Drag Racing Association (AHDRA) in 1979. He eventually competed simultaneously on other bike drag racing circuits, including the East Coast Racing Association.
The eventual results? Ninety-five national wins, setting various speed records and becoming the reigning National Top Fuel Champion in the American Motorcycle Racing Association.
“In registering for events, I’d always put my name and then ‘Nutley, New Jersey’ next to it,” a beaming Brancaccio recounted, adding that he also puts Nutley decals on certain event vehicles. “I’m very proud of Nutley.”
Welenofsky is a senior citizen who still pursues rigorous athletic endeavors on land and across mighty waters. Such pursuits have taken him around the world.
Welenofsky has climbed 49 of the 50 highest points in each of the United States; climbed 50 mountains in 2010 despite hip replacement surgery; scaled Africa’s highest peak, Mt. Kilimanjaro, in 2001, and canoed the entire length of the Mississippi River and all of the Great Lakes. In addition, Welenofsky is a decorated Boy Scout and longtime scoutmaster.
Recalling how he was cautioned in 1960 that marriage would change him, Welenofsky joked, “I’ve been adventuring for over 50 years, but I never married, so nobody changed me. 50 years later I’m proving it’s still okay to do things when you’re past your prime,” he joked.
As for the other honorees:
Benko – Now chairwoman of DeLoitte, LLP, the 1976 NHS graduate was honored for distinguishing herself in the business world. Her official profile describes her as, “a leading authority in business strategy and transformational change.” Benko said her success might never have happened when, not sure if she wanted to continue past high school, she earned a $500 scholarship from the Nutley Lions Club.
“Thank you all. I’m proud to be from Nutley because we are the best,” she said.
Christiano – after suffering hair loss, the researcher actually detected an important gene believed to contribute to baldness. The former Paterson Ave. resident and 1983 NHS grad likened her story to that of the kids’ fantasy tale, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” when, as an NHS senior, she was admitted into a study program at Hoffman-LaRoche. It furthered her interest in science.
“If you want to find out what’s going on in town, just go to the ShopRite,” Christiano joked, drawing a few laughs. “If you go to the ShopRite, you’ll find out everything.”
Goodrich – Cited for helping greatly expand appreciation for American artists upon founding the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, with philanthropist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. He grew up on Nutley Ave. and died at the ripe age of 90 in 1987.
Reeder – A Nutley resident from 1959 until his death in 2003, discovered Valium, by happenstance, as a potent muscle relaxant after finding an untested derivative while cleaning out a closet. Upon successful tests, Valium was approved as a drug and became America’s highest-selling pharmaceutical from 1969-1982.