By Kevin Canessa Jr.
Former Observer Editor
I first met Raymond J. McDonough in January 1992. He was still a councilman in Harrison, and I was just a high-school senior at St. Peter’s Prep and a rookie stringer at another newspaper that covers Hudson County, let’s just say, at the time. I remember being in awe of him back then, because he’d already served on the council for about 14 years. And I found it pretty remarkable that anyone could be that dedicated.
Of course, sitting in the mayor’s chair at the time was Frank E. Rodgers. Talk about longevity.
I left West Hudson County in 1993 to go away to Rhode Island for college. But in that time frame, in 1995, Rodgers retired as the nation’s longest-serving mayor — and McDonough, almost rightfully — ascended to the mayoralty.
No one was better suited to replace the legend that was Rodgers.
And in his own way, from 1995 to the day he died on Feb. 12, 2014, McDonough was himself a legend who, with a little help, transformed Harrison into the bustling place it’s becoming now.
In 2006, I landed my dream job — the editor of this newspaper. And not too long after I was hired, I went to Harrison Town Hall on a whim because I wanted to re-introduce myself to the mayor. It had been 13 years since I’d dealt with him professionally — though I did occasionally run into him at Tops Diner some summers when I was back in New Jersey.
When I walked into Harrison Town Hall, surprisingly, he was standing not too far away from the huge doors into the place on the Harrison Avenue side. And astonishingly, I didn’t even need to remind him who I was.
“Kevin!” he shouted from across the hall. “So good to see you. Wow it’s been a long time!”
It was as if I’d left for Rhode Island a week before.
“Come on with me to my office,” he said.
And that’s what we did.
We sat and talked for an hour. We caught up — and didn’t speak politics for a second that day.
But as time went on, we developed a trust for each other that was rare between an editor and a mayor. Numerous times, he called me into his office to inform me of yet-to-be-announced plans for the town.
Whenever anything was happening with Red Bull Arena, there I was.
Whenever there was something new on the redevelopment front, there I was.
When he got word from U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez that Harrison was getting a brand-new PATH station, I was sitting in his office before anyone else — media or otherwise — knew a thing about it.
And it translated into other areas of the town, too — most notably in the police department — where two of the greatest policemen I’ve ever known, Derek Kearns and Michael Green developed into two of the most trusted confidants I’ve ever had as a journalist.
Ray McDonough was a very simple man. Sure, he had his political enemies — just ask Steve or Maria McCormick. Even Councilman Anselmo Millan at one point went from being McDonough’s trusted friend, to bitter enemy, back to a trusted ally.
But for the most part, all he ever really wanted was for the only town he ever called his home town to be a better place. That’s why he worked so hard to get a hotel here. That’s why he fought with every bone in his body for positive redevelopment. That’s why he was almost single-handedly responsible for landing the Red Bulls.
He only really ever wanted good things to happen to the people, too. He genuinely cared about the people of the town, whether they were from the old country in Ireland — or new arrivals from Colombia or Peru.
I’ll never forget when a resident came up to him once and told him he was out of work — and hadn’t eaten in days. They two hopped in the mayor’s car — and a few moments later, they were sharing a meal at Tops.
That’s the kind of man Ray McDonough was. The Jesuits would have loved him, because he was a great example of a “Man For Others.”
I loved Ray McDonough. He was a tremendous influence in my life. And when I left The Observer in 2008, he was one of the few people I really can say I miss to this day.
It kills me that I never got to tell him what a truly great man he was.
But as the tributes flow in from all corners of the globe upon his death, it won’t take much to demonstrate that greatness.
And it won’t be hard to tell just how much he’s going to be missed.
Kevin Canessa Jr. was editor of The Observer from 2006 through 2008.