After 30-year run, Knapp retires from service to East Newark

In the world of Hudson County government, there are certain names synonymous with various municipalities. There’s Frank E. Rodgers and Harrison. Frank Hague and Jersey City. Nicholas Sacco and North Bergen.

And whilst he’s not an elected official the way the aforementioned are or were, there’s also Robert Knapp and East Newark — a man who’s served the tiny Hudson borough since early on in 1991. And now, Knapp, 74, has decided to call it a career in East Newark, having retired from his last position here as treasurer of school monies. He also bid adieu as East Newark’s clerk, registrar of vital statistics and welfare coordinator one year ago following the election of Mayor Dina Grilo.

Knapp was appointed to all of the positions he served by the borough’s mayor who served before Grilo, Joseph Smith, and who lost his seat following a 2019 primary election.

Knapp will continue to serve in his role as Hudson County’s director of Welfare, or as it is now known, Human Services. It was that role in Hudson County that prompted Smith to hire Knapp in the first place 30 years ago.

Knapp recalls Smith had spoken with one of his mayoral predecessors, Wilbert Hotaling (the borough’s 12th mayor who served in the ‘60s), who encouraged him to bring Knapp on board, part time, to serve the less fortunate residents of East Newark — those who were in need of governmental assistance, whether it was for food insecurity or various other social services.

For Knapp, who grew up and who still lives in the Greenville section of Jersey City, one of the toughest, more underserved neighborhoods in the state’s second-largest municipality, it all began when he was younger, as his middle-class, working family was struck by a developing tragedy.

“I grew up in an apartment house off Jackson Avenue (now the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) and we were the superintendents of the building.” Knapp recalls. “It was my mom, dad, my brother and my sister.”

And even though there was a break on the rent on Stegman Street because the family served as the building’s supers, one month, the family was unable to pay the portion of the rent they still had to contribute.

“Mom was terminal and a woman came by and said, ‘Here is the money for your rent.’ I never forgot that,” Knapp says. “From that day on, I always said if I am ever in the position to help others, that’s what I am going to do. And while I was never really in the position to do that personally, I have been able to do it in the work that I do. That’s all I ever wanted to do — help people.”

And help people he did, tens of thousands over the years — so much so a friend once dubbed him a “priest,” because of his selfless service, his uncanny ability to be a Man For Others. One might have even thought Knapp was Jesuit, though he never was. He does, nonetheless, serve his Catholic parish in Middletown as a lector and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. (He spends most weekends in Middletown, Monmouth County, with his daughter and grandchildren.)

“Whether it’s in East Newark or elsewhere, I see so many single parents who live on meager salaries and it’s so sad,” Knapp says of his social-services work. “This is what it’s all about — helping the people who most need it. It’s very gratifying.”

Knapp, in his 53rd year working in Hudson County (he started in 1968), served despite a similarly meager salary of his own in East Newark — salaries here were all combined for positions he held and he certainly didn’t become rich. He studied for two years and then took and passed the state’s Registered Municipal Clerk’s test, offered by the NJ Department of Community Affairs. He went on to serve as borough clerk  from 2003 to 2020.

He also took over as the registrar of the East Newark Bureau of Vital Statistics a year or so later, another position he handled through 2020. And lastly, the one from which he recently retired, he was the treasurer of school monies.

While he’ll miss West Hudson and East Newark, he’ll continue his work in the county.

“My daughter, who lives in Middletown, says maybe it’s time, but I am 74 and I am not ready yet,” Knapp says. “I truly love what I do.”

And though East Newark won’t be a stop on his travels anymore, there’s no doubt his impact will continue to be felt on the .1 square-mile borough for generations to come.

 

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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.