By Ron Leir
James Fife, who taught history to a lot of Harrison High School students over the years, is now in the official Harrison history books.
Fife, who will mark his 73rd birthday on April 15, became the municipality’s interim mayor by a unanimous vote of the Town Council at a special meeting held last Monday night.
Fife takes over for former longtime Mayor Raymond McDonough who died Feb. 12 after collapsing at his Town Hall office. McDonough, 65, was starting his 20th year as the town’s chief executive.
Fife, who will serve out the balance of McDonough’s term which ends Dec. 31, told The Observer last week he plans to run in the Democratic Primary in June as the head of a ticket whose members were all aligned with McDonough.
As was required by state election law, Councilman James Doran, who chairs the county Democratic Committee of Harrison, presented the council with the names of three nominees for the open mayoral seat: Harrison Board of Education member Maria Vila, Harrison Fire Director Harold Stahl and Fife.
The council voted 8-0 to select Fife, chairman of the Harrison Redevelopment Agency and president of the Harrison Board of Education.
A statement released through Town Clerk/Town Attorney Paul Zarbetski said: “It is with mixed emotion that the Harrison Town Council announces that James A. Fife has succeeded our friend and leader, Raymond J. McDonough, as mayor of the Town of Harrison. While the council members are still in mourning and sad over the great loss of Raymond, they are also grateful to have found a replacement with impeccable credentials and unquestionable character.”
Last week, Fife tendered his resignation from the Board of Education – after seven years of service – to avoid a conflict of interest. In Harrison, members of the school board are appointed by the mayor who chairs a Board of School Estimate which certifies the school budget.
He also resigned last week from his seat on the Harrison Housing Authority but he’ll continue to serve on the HRA, as the mayoral representative. He will need to fill a vacant seat on that board.
Fife said last week he was looking into the legalities of whether he can keep his seat on the Hudson County Community College Board of Trustees which he’s occupied the past five years.
During an interview at the mayor’s office at Town Hall last Wednesday – the first he has given since taking office – Fife said he “had some prodding from Dr. [James] Doran [the councilman who is also Harrison superintendent of schools]” to allow his name to be brought before the council.
“He contacted me [on behalf of the Dems Committee] and I talked it over with my wife Linda because we like to go away weekends during the winter to Okema Mountain in Vermont,” Fife said.
In the end, Fife said, he agreed. “I felt it was almost my duty to continue Ray’s [legacy]. It had to do with continuity. Redevelopment is the biggest thing we have going on right now in Harrison. We’d like to continue the progress made to date and, from my work with the Redevelopment Agency in the last 12 years, I know all the developers.”
Staying the course, Fife said, “assures them that no one’s going to be upsetting the apple cart.”
And, on the municipal government front, Fife – who was planning to meet formally with the various department heads at some point soon – also figures to stay with the troops already on board.
“I don’t see making changes because everything’s running smoothly,” he said.
And Fife hopes to keep the same elective team in place beyond year’s end by entering the Democratic Primary in June “aligned with the county ticket.”
That would place Fife as the head of the local Dems slate, running with incumbent council mates Jesus Huaranga in the First Ward, Anselmo Millan in the Second, Laurence Bennett in the Third and Doran in the Fourth.
“I’ve spoken to the all the council members personally and told them I’m going to run in the primary,” Fife said.
Nominating petitions have yet to be filed for the primary.
Bennett told The Observer he’s behind Fife all the way. “I’ve known him 50 years – I had him as my swimming instructor – and through his work on the Redevelopment Agency, as an educator and [school] administrator and I know he has the experience to be able to move Harrison forward and the programs that Ray started.”
Although the June campaign would mark his first bid for elective office, Fife is by no means a newcomer to the political arena. When he was head of the Harrison Education Association, Fife said he recruited teachers to work on political campaigns for the then-Mayor Frank E. Rodgers and he recalled Rodgers taking time to congratulate those workers at campaign functions held at the old Carbone’s Restaurant.
Fife grew up in Newark where he attended Hawkins St. Elementary School and East Side High School. He got a B.A. in social studies/ history from Montclair State, an M.A. in guidance from Jersey City State College and an M.A. in administration from William Paterson College.
In 1966, Fife moved to Harrison and got a teaching job the following year as a fill-in social studies teacher and, eventually, working a half-day in that slot and the balance of the day as an aquatics instructor at the high school pool.
Fife recalled that the current Council President Michael Dolaghan – the maintenance director for the Harrison Board of Education – “was in my first home room when I was teaching history.”
In 1982, he became Harrison High principal and continued in that job until his retirement 11 years later.
In Newark, the Fife family joined the old Presbyterian Church in Newark and Fife eventually saw service as a deacon, elder, clerk of the session and board of trustees. He continues to worship there.
For relaxation, Fife said he and his wife enjoy visiting their summer house in Point Pleasant Beach at the Jersey Shore.