His life was an American success story—the type often portrayed in movies and one particularly representative of New Jersey and its people.
When Sen. Frank Lautenberg died on June 3, he left a legacy of achievement in business and government. He also left behind an inspiring story. This is not a partisan political tale; it is simply a reflection on a lifetime of accomplishment.
The New York Times report on Sen. Lautenberg’s death serves as a refresher on his achievements in government. Let me review a few of them:
In 1984, within two years of his election, he was the prime mover behind a federal law that enforced a nationwide drinking age. According to the New York Times article, the statute has saved 25,000 lives—young lives. A uniform nationwide drinking age of 21 had been a goal of the New Jersey School Boards Association. In our small state, weekend trips to Staten Island, Rockland County and Manhattan, places with a lower drinking age, were a dangerous and sometimes deadly ritual for too many high school students.
He sponsored the Asbestos School Hazard Abatement law, which has helped to ensure a higher standard of environmental health in our schools.
Senator Lautenberg was also a leader in supporting legislation to ban smoking in all federal buildings. NJSBA had successfully advocated a similar ban in public school buildings in the late 1980s.
Throughout his term in office, NJSBA had a consistent dialogue with Senator Lautenberg and his staff concerning federal education policy. While he made his major imprint in the areas of public health, transportation and security, the quality of education was critical to him. As a beneficiary and, later, a promoter of educational opportunity for U.S. military veterans, Senator Lautenberg demonstrated an understanding of the importance of quality education for all Americans.
It was in his roots. He was the son of immigrants, brought up in Paterson and surrounding towns. After several failed attempts at starting small businesses, his father worked in the city’s silk mills. One day, according to an article in the Star-Ledger, his father brought him to an abandoned mill, urged him never to work in such an environment, and told him to get an education instead.
That he did. After graduating from Nutley High School, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps at the age of 18, serving in World War II. After the war, he attended Columbia University, thanks to the G.I. Bill of Rights, and graduated in 1949. Three years later, he joined a fledgling payroll firm, started by two friends. When he retired from Automatic Data Processing as its chief executive officer in 1982, it was one of the largest computer service companies in the world.
In 1998, Tom Brokaw, the NBC news anchor, presented America with a gift—his book, The Greatest Generation. In it, he chronicled the stories of the men and women who rose from the Great Depression, worked and fought for America’s victory in the Second World War, and then built one of the strongest economic engines the world has ever known. In the process, Brokaw rescued the legacy of this generation from the inaccurate image of Archie Bunker to a well-deserved one—that of a generation “true to their values of personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith.”
Senator Lautenberg was part of that “greatest generation.” Before he died last week, he was the last World War II veteran serving in the U.S. Senate.
For subsequent generations, the Greatest Generation’s “personal responsibility, duty, honor and faith” set a high benchmark. For New Jersey’s next U.S. Senator, regardless of political party, Senator Frank Lautenberg’s dedication and service should set no less of a standard.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected].