Until a couple weeks ago, the Town of Kearny could only say it’s had one general call the town of 9.3 square miles home — and nearly everyone knows that was Gen. Philip Kearny, the man for whom the town is named. That all changed in June when Thomas Feltey was sworn-in as a brigadier general of the United States Army in a low-key ceremony in Virginia.
So now, the town may boast of being the hometown of two Army generals.
Feltey, who is a 1985 graduate of the former St. Stephen’s Grammar School and a 1989 alum of Kearny High School, was on leave last week — vacation in civilian terms — and he was in the area to attend a friend’s wedding. As luck would have it, Feltey’s dad, also Thomas Feltey, but not Sr. since they have different middle names, knew this and coordinated with Fourth Ward Councilman Gerald “Jerry” Ficeto, his neighbor on Chestnut Street, to have the general make a short, unannounced visit to the Kearny Museum at the Kearny Public Library on Thursday afternoon, July 8.
The visit was “stealth” if you’ll allow us to use another military term, because Feltey simply wanted to spend time with his dad and get to the wedding. He knew if a throng of friends and acquaintances knew he was coming in for a brief period that it would be next to impossible to visit with all who wanted to see him.
So you’ll forgive him from the get-go.
Nonetheless, Ficeto got permission to allow The Observer access to Feltey’s visit to the museum, where he donated decades worth of uniforms he’s worn throughout his military career. Some items, he wore whilst in Iraq. Others, Afghanistan. And also, parts of Europe. The articles will eventually be put on display at the museum on mannequins, much like other military uniforms are on display there from many other wars and conflicts.
We were also able to sit down with Feltey after he handed over his uniforms — and to say it was fascinating would be an understatement of epic proportions. Feltey was as down to earth as one could have ever imagined — and he’s clearly never forgotten his Kearny roots.
But first, Feltey explained what his new roles are with the Army.
“First, I am the comandante of the Armor School,” he says of the military installation in Fort Benning, Georgia. “My job is to oversee all of the training of all of our armored soldiers, whether they’re new privates or lieutenants, sergeants — I’m ultimately responsible for that training. With that, the other role I have is chief of armor and that means I am responsible for all armored forces in the U.S. military, where we tell people what they need to do to be successful.”
After he explained all the things he did and the plethora of places he was stationed in the world — he’s traveled the world and the seven seas — he took time to reflect on the Kearny influences that have followed his ascent to one of the highest-ranking officers in the Army.
“I made the decision I wanted to be in the military when I was a freshman in high school,” Feltey says of his first year at Kearny HS, circa 1985-86. “Back then, my dad was in the National Guard, and so I thought, ‘Let me try the national guard and see how much I like it.’ So I did basic training between my junior and senior years in high school (aged 17) and went to other training right after I finished high school. Literally, I graduated high school and I was back off for military training five days later.
“So I did know (he wanted to be a career military man) and that was my plan.”
The next four years, from the fall of 1989 to spring of 1993, Feltey headed to New Brunswick to study the administration of justice. He obtained his ADJ bachelor’s degree there and was part of the ROTC program, or Reserve Officers Training Corps.
At that point, “You don’t know how far you’re going to go, but I knew I wanted to be a platoon leader, I wanted to be a troop commander and after that, I just wanted to continue to go.”
That’s still a lot of lofty goals — all of which he achieved — for someone just 21.
But brigadier general?
“I say I’m in the seventh bonus round now. I wanted to be a battalion commander. I got to command a battalion and seven bonuses later, here I am now as a comandante at the Armor School,” he says.
When we reminded him he was the first from Kearny since Gen. Kearny, his humbleness was evident.
“To me, I’m just Tom Feltey, a kid from Kearny who grew up on Chestnut Street. I know there have been a lot of folks who have served from here. But I know I had a lot of the right opportunities here and the right mentors to teach me and help me.”
His love for Kearny was clear at the top of his installation speech last month when he recalled and made it clear that back in town, his buddies, Michael Andrade and John Koutsouris, owner of the Greek’s, had gathered round a table at the Elm Street restaurant to watch the live stream of the ceremony. There he was, on top of the world and near the apex of the Army command, and he was recalling his dear friends back home.
Speaking of which, he also took time to remember some of the influences on his life from the homestead.
“It was my coaches,” he says of his days as a rower at Kearny High and Rutgers. “I rowed for four years at Rutgers, but prior to that, it was Al Somma (former coach and later KHS principal). He would mold you and shape you to do things. Andy Salisbury was another coach who did amazing things, Tom Haberthur.
“Skip Zimmerman was also one of my coaches. He coached me when I played football in fourth-grade. It was all a great experience that molded me into who I am today. …Sports had a huge impact on my life, especially early on, and then in the first 10 to 15 years of my time in the Army.”
A BEAMING DAD
The elder Feltey continues to glow over his son’s ascension to near the top of the Army’s chain of command. He still lives on Chestnut Street, still visits the Greek’s a few times each month for lunch and loves when his son comes back to visit, much like he did last week.
“He’s fulfilled his dreams and the whole family is very, very proud of him,” dad, who himself dedicated 22 years of his own life to the New Jersey National Guard, says of son. “His sister is especially proud, his nieces, are very proud of him. I’m over the moon and still have to pinch myself. I think, ‘He’s a general! He’s a general!’ He made general in the United States Army!”
He also recalled a story that we think may have contributed to just how humble the two Felteys are.
It was in the early 70s, and Jersey had experienced a bad hurricane. The people of Plainfield were hit particularly badly, and the Guard was sent there to assist with the rescue operation. When they arrived, it was like nothing he’d ever seen. Still, one of the men under his command (he was a platoon sergeant at the time) told a story.
“He says, sarge, the people said if you need the bathroom or something to eat, just come on in,” he says. “The people were so grateful we were there. They were very appreciative.”
As we were wrapping things up, we asked dad if he ever envisioned his son where he is now. And while his confidence and faith of son is unwavering, brigadier general never crossed his mind — at least at first.
“It’s hard to become a brigadier general,” he says. “I never knew they thought so highly of him, his abilities. He had to be approved by the U.S. Senate Arms Committee and then President (Joseph R. Biden Jr.) and the Secretary of the Army.” His nomination also crossed the desk of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And despite being on all kinds of meds, when son was to be sworn in, dad says, “By hook or by crook, I’m going.” And go he did, to Virginia, to watch it all, then to come back to Kearny with memories that will last eternally.
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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.