Gov. Jon Corzine presents the folded flag from the casket of former Daniel J. O’Hern to O’Hern’s widow, Barbara, as family and friends look on outside St. James Church on Saturday. (Click photos to enlarge)
Red Bank bid farewell to one of its most accomplished sons Saturday, when Gov. Jon Corzine and luminaries from the state’s legal system gathered for the funeral of former borough mayor and New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Daniel J. O’Hern.
O’Hern died of brain cancer on Wednesday at age 78 at his home in Little Silver though reading those those words would likely have sent him around the bend, his son, John suggested.
“A few years ago, he grudgingly moved [from Caro Court, in Red Bank] less than a
mile away to Little Silver,” John O’Hern told a packed house at at St. James Church, where his father was a lifelong communicant. “The move about
He said his father made his mother promise at the time that his obituary would
still read, “Daniel O’Hern, of Red Bank, New Jersey.”
O’Hern was remembered as a preternaturally goodhearted man, one who led the town of his birth as mayor for a decade and spent nearly two more decades on the New Jersey Supreme Court.
But the service was also a humor-filled window into a life filled with passions, quirks and an unbreakable sense of connection to the town of his birth.
Delivering one of two eulogies, John O’Hern said his father spoke often of his early years as a “Huck Finn” boyhood, spent at 60 Locust Avenue,
where he learned to keep river rats away from a chicken coop with a .22 rifle.
Later, as an attorney in town, he would sometimes accept payment from cash-strapped clients in fresh strawberries, potatoes or, in one case, lobsters “which may
or may not have been undersized,” his son recalled. They were boiled and consumed posthaste, he said.
His father, John O’Hern said, was always misplacing his eyeglasses, or piecing together court opinions from notes he’d scribbled on whatever was at hand a scrap of paper, a piece of cardboard and stapled them together, with arrows drawn to show where text should go.
Among O’Hern’s varied favorite activities were playing tennis at the
Sea Bright Lawn Tennis & Cricket Club, which he often likened to
heaven; watching ‘Seinfeld;’ and exercising his visceral contempt for
the New York Yankees.
He would carry his wife’s purse for her whenever they went walking downtown. He drove old junkers, and once forgot to protect the family’s luggage, which he had strapped to the roof of his car in a sandbox, from rain.
In Trenton as a member of the liberal Wilentz court, he looked to home as a touchstone. “He would often say, ‘If a legal opinion can’t be understood by the
folks at Sal’s Tavern, it needs to be rewritten,” said John. Sal’s, now gone, was a fixture on Shrewsbury Avenue.
Former Justice Gary Stein highlighted his former colleague’s “warmth, graciousness and pragmatism,” and cited legal opinions that demonstrated his concern for the rights of the homeless and the comatose.
In conference with other justices, “he had a rare capacity to help us all find common ground,” Stein said.
Stein said O’Hern had written a book, “What Makes a Court Supreme?,” which he said will be published in chapters by the New Jersey Law Journal. The New Jersey Commission on Professionalism in the Law annually gives out a Daniel J. O’Hern Award.
After O’Hern’s diagnosis of brain cancer in early January, his son John sought to repeatedly tell his father what a great man he was. Eventually, said John, his father grew exasperated.
“He said, ‘I am not a great man. I am just an ordinary man.'”
After the service, a block of Broad Street was briefly closed as O’Hern’s casket was transported by hearse beneath a “crossing of the ladders” honor offered by the Red Bank Volunteer Fire Department.