Neighboring towns both claim general

KEARNY — Now that Kearny’s adopted general is, in spirit, anyway, keeping company with the likes of Belleville-born singer Connie Francis, Chuck “Bayonne Bleeder” Wepner and actor Ray Liotta, Harrison is trying to get into the act by claiming him as its native son.

On May 7, at a star-studded event hosted by the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, U.S. Civil War Gen. Phil Kearny, for whom the Town of Kearny was named in 1867, was among 15 honorees inducted into the N.J. Hall of Fame.

That happened only after Barbara Toczko, president of the Kearny Museum Board, spearheaded a two-front campaign – first in recruiting sufficient votes to get the general’s name on the ballot and then marshalling the votes for his induction.

“Barbara did not give up,” Third Ward Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle asserted. “She put pressure on due to the timing of the town’s 150th anniversary [being celebrated this year].”

Accepting the Hall’s tribute were two of the general’s great-granddaughters Anne Kennard and Beverly Anderson.

“We were honored to stroll down the red carpet and feel our general was in his place of honor at long last.”

But two Harrison’s veterans’ advocates say that Kearny is a bit late coming to the party.

Bob Gerris, commander of American Legion Post 282, and Ted Clancy, adjutant of the Sgt. William Sawelson VFW Post 340, maintained that Harrison has just as much a right if not more to the general’s legacy.

“On the occasion of Kearny’s Sesquicentennial, the Harrison Veterans’ Association — the VFW and American Legion — would like to join in honoring Gen. Phil Kearny, Harrison’s most famous veteran,” Gerris told The Observer last week.

“Little attention has been paid,” Gerris continued, “to the fact that at the time of his death in 1862 at the Battle of Chantilly (Va.), the general was a resident of Harrison Township, which had broken away from Bergen County in 1840, and the general’s estate, Belle Grove, was then in Harrison.”

Said Clancy: “I concur.  Bobby’s an historian and after he showed me his research and after we had conversations back and forth on the subject, I’m convinced that Gen. Kearny was, at the time of his death, a Harrison resident and, therefore, we want to honor him as such.”

Probably the best way to do that, Gerris said, is to “start a fund for some type of memorial to the general in town — a plaque perhaps outside Veterans Plaza by the Harrison Courts.”

Gerris said he would make such a pledge part of the keynote speech at Harrison’s annual Memorial Day ceremonies, which, this year, is scheduled for Saturday, May 27, at Veterans Plaza, immediately following a noon Mass at Holy Cross Church.

Kearny has several memorials to the general: one is a bust inside the Town Hall lobby, another is a statue of the general outside the Kearny Post Office on Midland Ave. and another near the VFW on Belgrove Drive.

At Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C., there is a monument depicting the general on horseback at his gravesite.

The N.J. Hall of Fame mobile unit – which will be outfitted, for the first time, with an exhibit on Gen. Kearny – is slated to visit Kearny on Sept. 23 as part of the town’s anniversary events. The unit will be stationed on the north side of the Public Library, on Garfield Ave., between Kearny Ave. and Chestnut St., from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.