They’re entertainers, athletes, entrepreneurs and philanthropists—or some combination of all four. They’ve shattered records, fed the hungry, helped cure the sick and performed vital works of national service.
But for all the diversity of their backgrounds and achievements, they all share a common tie: a close association with the Garden State.
The Newark Museum on Tuesday hosted a star-studded gala to induct the Class of 2013 into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, created eight years ago to honor high-achieving natives or longtime residents of the state.
Much Jersey ‘tude and wit was on display during the event, where inductees of earlier classes introduced each new Hall of Famer or made remarks on behalf of new inductees who have died.
Gov. Brendan Byrne introduced his friend and fellow former Gov. Tom Kean, who earned the sobriquet “the education governor” and who later was co-chairman of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.
Joking about being mistaken for Kean, and about the governor’s frequently mispronounced surname, Byrne also praised the Republican’s knack for reaching out to Byrne and his fellow Democrats.
“We have an attitude. We’re resilient,” said Joetta Clark Diggs, an East Orange native and Olympic track athlete who was ranked among the top-10 sprinters in the world through much of the 1990s. During her speech, Diggs, daughter of famed Paterson educator Joe Clark, likened brash Jerseyans to salt-and-pepper shakers: “You have to shake things up to get results,” she said.
In a self-deprecating turn, inductee Joe Piscopo, the comedian who rose to fame during what many consider a golden era for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” joked about no longer “being on the A-list …. I’m not on any list.”
But the funnyman who was once one half of a potent comedy duo with Eddie Murphy also spoke movingly about his Italian immigrant family’s Newark roots, and his father’s journey from blue-collar street kid to lawyer who never forgot where he came from.
Others also emphasized the importance of humility and service during their speeches.
The late boxer Jersey Joe Walcott, whose record as the oldest fighter ever to win a heavyweight title stood for more than 40 years, was introduced by fellow pugilist Jerry Cooney. Accepting the award for Walcott—who later in life became Camden County Sheriff and then chairman of the state athletic commission—was his grandson, who said Walcott “taught us to be humble. But tonight we’re proud.”
Receiving a special “unsung hero” award was Kathleen DiChiara, who founded the Community FoodBank of New Jersey in 1975 from the back of her station wagon and has managed the charity as it grew to feed more than 1 million New Jerseyans annually.
“I’m not special. I just care a lot,” DiChiara said Tuesday night.
DiChiara was not alone among her fellow inductees in her concern for others. The actress Leslie Uggams, in introducing her longtime friend Dionne Warwick, talked about the “Walk on By” singer’s charitable efforts on behalf of those suffering from sickle-cell anemia. Eventually, Warwick expanded her attention to AIDS, helping perform the hit '80s single “That’s What Friends Are For,” the proceeds from which were donated to medical research.
Also speaking about the importance of giving back was Ray Chambers, the Newark native who went on to become chairman of a successful private equity firm. Chambers, who has funded the college educations of hundreds of Newark students, raised billions for charity, and, as a special United Nations envoy, helped combat malaria in the developing world, recalled how the “people of New Jersey” paid for his college education at Rutgers-Newark with a $400 state scholarship.
“To give back gives greater happiness than anything else we can do with our lives,” Chambers said.