During the Keegan Landfill ordeal in 2019, there were certain givens when the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority had its monthly meetings in Lyndhurst — many Kearny residents attended, the crowd was vocal and one voice always stood out above just about every other.
Perhaps it was because it was quite loud.
Perhaps it was because he would often speak out of turn when he got frustrated by answers he was hearing from the commissioners.
Perhaps it was exacerbated by his cough, brought on by the COPD from which he suffered.
But John Downey’s voice was instrumental — perhaps even pivotal — in the town’s successful run to get the dangerous landfill closed just a few days before Christmas three years ago. The commissioners couldn’t forget him. Those who attended the meetings couldn’t forget him. And now we write this tribute to Mr. Downey so that we might all remember him.
He died Sunday, Nov. 6, at Clara Maass Medical Center in Belleville.
Downey was just 63.
Downey was born in County Cork, Ireland, but after his family immigrated to Kearny in his first year on this planet, he left the town only for short spurts. He moved a lot, in fact. But it turns out Downey is one of those rare people whom no one ever has or had a bad word to say of him.
News of his untimely death struck deeply for many people in the community who knew and loved him.
In addition to being involved with the Keegan fight, he was also an annual volunteer at Project Graduation, despite never having children of his own.
“He would do anything asked of him,” Melanie Ryan said. “Anything. He was always there.”
He was also a major contributor — cook, especially — to the 15-W Picnic, annually thrown at the Doyle Pavilion on Passaic Avenue. One of Downey’s comrades with the picnic is Kearny’s Denise Pavolic, who remembered her friend the day after he died.
“What I can say? As long as I’ve known him for many, many years, he loved to cook and said he’d be invited to my functions and always wanted to make the food like a catering business,” Pavolic said. “He always made smile saying this and I would say, ‘no, John you have off, just come and party.’
“I even offered transportation for him when he lived in Belleville, but he always found a way to get there. The past two years living on Forest Street, he would come by on his scooter and make a U-turn to talk with me and we would talk for about an hour all the time. He loved soda more than water — it was like a treat to him.
“I can say John was one of a kind and would help anyone and always made me laugh. He is missed by me because just three days ago, I said to myself, ‘where the heck has he been?’ And then I had seen he passed. I am heartbroken.”
PJ Keim often DJ’d the picnic and recalled his friend.
“He loved his Kearny High roots and Kearny,” Keim said. He also was the first to step up to help organize the Kearny picnic and other get-togethers. He was very proud of his service in the US Navy. He never missed a reunion and tried to get to as many KHS sporting events that he could.”
Manny Ventoso Jr. also had a special love for Downey.
“Rest In Peace John, you were one of the good guys,” he said. “I’ll miss seeing you every day at the building. We love you and Kearny will miss you tremendously John. The Dolphins won for you today, buddy.”
The aforementioned Dolphins are the NFL ones from Miami, not the kind found in the sea, who beat the Chicago Bears, 35-32, the day he died. Downey was a rabid fan for the franchise and rarely missed a game. He also rooted for the New York Mets and was disappointed the way the 2022 season ended with a three-game series loss to the San Diego Padres. Despite all that, he always remained positive.
“They had a great season,” Downey said to me of Mets in early October, when I was dejected. “We have to be grateful for the games they won, all of them. And they won 100+. Remember the good times, not the bad times.”
And that’s what Downey was always about. No matter how rough things got, no matter how bad his health might have been, no matter how life treated him, he always remained positive through it all.
Downey’s funeral was private. He leaves behind one sister, Maureen Hickey and her husband, Robert Bourg. He was the uncle of Jennifer Barrientos, Kelly-Anne Millner, Robert Hickey and Mark Hickey. He was the cousin of MaryEllen Downey. Downey also leaves behind several great-nieces and great-nephews.
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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.