Hometown ‘Legends’

Author Barbara Krasner’s new book spotlights the people of Kearny, past and present.

Author Barbara Krasner’s new book spotlights the people of Kearny, past and present.

Author/historian/ genealogist Barbara Krasner will be at the Main Branch of the Kearny Public Library, 318 Kearny Ave., at 6 tonight (Wednesday, Dec. 16) to sign copies of her latest book, “Legendary Locals of Kearny.” If, like her, you love this town — and/ or would like to learn more about it and its people — you’ll be at the library, too, to pick up your own copy.

Krasner, Kearny-born (in West Hudson Hospital) and Kearny-bred (raised on Clinton Ave.), has authored a dozen books, including three previous works about her hometown: “Images of America: Kearny,” “Kearny’s Immigrant Heritage,” and “The Kearny Public Library and Its Town.”

“Legendary Locals,” just released by Arcadia Publishing, focuses on the residents — famous and not — who form the human face of the town. You might even discover that your nextdoor neighbor is among the “legends.”

In a statement provided by Arcadia, Krasner commented: “Previous histories of Kearny have focused primarily on places. This new book presents more than 100 mini-biographies of Kearnians, past and present, who have shaped or are shaping the community. I hope that by reading these profiles, present and past residents will feel pride for Kearny as it approaches its 150th anniversary.”

Krasner, who teaches creative writing at William Paterson University, has an impressive resume, including a B.A. in German, an M.F.A. in writing, an M.B.A. in marketing and an M.A. in history.

She herself is a past resident of Kearny, but that doesn’t diminish her obvious affection for the town. The work she put into “Legendary Locals” is proof of that: Researching biographies, culling historical accounts, poring through state archives and old newspapers, and hunting down sometimes difficult-to-find photos “to put faces to the names.” She also utilized genealogical websites, and, especially for sports photos, contacted various news agencies and other media outlets.

The author told us the book proposal was made in May 2014 and she finished the manuscript in June of this year. We’d call it an A to Z book, except it’s actually A (Saul J. Abraham, first Jewish member of the school board) to Y (Hideko Yamaguchi, who specialized in K-9 search and rescue. [Editor’s note: If Krasner would like to complete the alphabet in a subsequent edition, we have a Z nominee.]

“Legendary Locals” includes the expected — Gen. Philip Kearny, longtime Mayor Joseph M. Healey, football legends Alex and James Webster, musician Tony Mottola, hero chaplain Father John P. Washington, “Gone With the Wind” publisher Harold Latham, etc. But this reader was particularly interested in the unexpected: the “average” Kearny folk who have contributed so much to the community. These include the teachers, doctors, soldiers, civic leaders, business people, volunteers, athletes, artists, writers and just plain “neighbors.”

Krasner said that when she began the book she posted a message on a Facebook page called “You Know You’re From Kearny If . . . .” to seek nominees for the tome and received more than 200 responses. Some of the nominees graciously declined inclusion, and the number had to be further whittled due to lack of information or lack of photographs. “Getting photos was always problematic,” she noted, adding a “special shout-out to Tom Healey,” son of the former mayor. “He had photos, not just of his father, but of many people,” Krasner said. “He was very helpful.”

One of the photo problems, for instance, involved Frank R. Pettigrew, U.S. Army, killed in action in 1945 in the Philippines. “I called every Pettigrew I knew, and no one had a picture,” Krasner said. Finally, she drove to Kearny and walked through the park at Highland and Woodland Aves. that was named in his honor. There, she found a memorial plaque, and that is what illustrates his page in the book.

It was the chapter on the soldiers that we found particularly moving with its stories of so many brave young patriots who left Kearny to serve their country and never saw their hometown again. Among these, you will find Joseph Peden Jr. who enlisted in the Navy in 1940 right out of Kearny High School and died in 1943 when his ship was sunk. He was Kearny’s first World War II victim, and it is for him that Peden Terrace is named.

Gunnell Oval, in case you were not aware (we weren’t), is named in honor of Benjamin Elliott Gunnell, U.S. Army, the first man from Kearny killed in World War I. He died July 28, 1918, at the Battle of Chateau- Thierry.

“Legendary Locals” is also full of surprises. See, for instance, the profile of Alfred Erling King, a Civil War veteran who was instrumental in getting the sunken battleship USS Maine raised from Havana harbor after it sat beneath the waves for 14 years. (Krasner attended Roosevelt School with his great-granddaughter Cindy King.)

See also Rep. Fred Allan Hartley Jr., a former Kearny fire/police commissioner who was elected to Congress and and whose name the Taft-Hartley Act bears. His artist son, Al Hartley, born and raised in Kearny, drew “Archie” of comicbook fame.

Among the author’s personal favorites is Leon Hoffman, who taught her Russian at Kearny High School. (“The fact that Kearny High even offered Russian was a surprise,” she recalled.) Hoffman not only taught the subject for 30 years, but for his students he provided a Russian translation of The Beatles’ “Yesterday.” The entire song.

In addition to profiles of the “Legends,” Krasner offers succinct histories of various aspects of the town, with lots of fascinating details. As she writes in the introduction: History “cannot be kept in a capsule. Much of what we see around the town is the result of the people who came before us” and also “our neighbors, the core of our everyday lives.”

It was in the introduction that we found one of our favorite tidbits, about a certain neighborhood in Kearny circa 1876. In a real estate brochure, which Krasner unearthed at the Kearny Museum, came the description that there could be found “cheap and rural homes” with the former farmland “laid out in lots with broad avenues, handsomely graded streets and plank walks. Here is the site of a great future city; we have one mail out and one mail in per day.”

Which Kearny neighborhood was it? Buy the book and find out.

“Legendary Locals of Kearny” is now available in stores, including Barnes & Noble and Target, and from online sellers. And, of course, tonight at the Kearny Public Library. There, you can get it autographed.

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent