Defender of the Heights: Jersey City Mourns Passing of Ward D Councilman Michael C. Yun


His smile lit up the room like the colorful bowties he wore to work every day. Ward D Councilman Michael C. Yun served on the Jersey City Municipal Council since 2013, where his curious mind and laser-beam attention to detail were as sharp as the crease in his pin-striped pants.

This past weekend, Yun, 65, lost his battle with Covid-19, testing positive for the virus on March 29 and passing away on April 6. His Jersey City constituents and City Hall colleagues were shocked and saddened by the news, remembering him as affable, compassionate and a staunch advocate for Jersey City.

Photo courtesy City of Jersey City

“We are beyond saddened by the passing of Councilman Michael Yun,” Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop said. “He was a family man, a great businessman, and a tireless advocate for Jersey City throughout his nearly three decades of public service. More than that though, he was a great husband, father and grandfather as he never missed a chance to share how proud he was of his family. This is devastating for all of us here, as Michael was part of our Jersey City family. We will miss him, and we will continue to aggressively fight against this pandemic, now in his honor.”

In 2017, right after Yun was re-elected to the city council, he hired Vernon C. Richardson as his chief of staff and council aide. Richardson says although he’s worked for several politicians including Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, it was Councilman Yun who led by example with his tireless work ethic and compassion for the people of Jersey City.

“It’s why I went to work for him,” Richardson says. “He was the most honorable man, but more important, the most honorable politician that ever entered my life. There was not a time I did not work less than 55 hours a week, and it was an honor to be out there with him, attending every event with him.”

When Richardson was having a hard time keeping up with the councilman, he says Yun told him to try harder. Richardson says: “He didn’t say it in a mean or uncaring way. He would say, ‘We just have to work harder.’ That was the challenge that I took to work every day. Every time I think of his memory, it’s the most pleasant thing I have now. It’s not pain I feel. I loved my city, and I loved that man.”

In the Heights

Korean-born, Yun came to the U.S and settled in Manhattan before moving to Jersey City with his wife Jennifer in 1981. They planted roots in the Heights and opened Garden State News on Central Avenue where the couple sold papers and sundries. In the years that followed, Yun ventured into community activism as co-founder of Jersey City’s first Special Improvement District, and for more than 20 years he served as president and chairman of the board of trustees for Central Avenue SID. During that time, Yun helped establish Jersey City as an Urban Enterprise Zone and founded the Everything Jersey City Festival.

Councilman Yun, Maryanne Kelleher, and Councilman Boggiano, courtesy Maryanne Kelleher’s Facebook page

During that time, Richard Boggiano worked as a Jersey City Police Officer and lived in the Heights. He visited Yun’s store regularly to pick up The Jersey Journal, and the two would talk and became friends, Boggiano says. Years later, working alongside Yun as Ward C councilman, Boggiano recalls Yun’s razor-sharp attention to detail, poring over resolutions and ordinances that appeared on the council’s agenda and questioning their potential impact on the people of Jersey City.

“He did thorough research,” Boggiano says. “Michael was really good. He was diligent, had everything marked, underlined and prepped.”

Yun supported Boggiano when Boggiano tried to stop the city from removing the Katyn Memorial from outside the Exchange Place PATH station. The statue, by the sculptor Andrzej Pitynski, of a blindfolded soldier stabbed in the back with a bayonet was a tribute to the 1940 massacre of an estimated 22,000 Polish people, and it became the sensitive subject in a highly publicized tug-of-war when Mayor Fulop proposed moving it to a different location.

“We won the battle,” Boggiano recalls. “We had people come in from Poland to fight that. It was amazing. It meant a lot to everybody. I got Michael involved. He stood right by me.”

Yun was a good listener, Boggiano says, especially when it came to quality-of-life issues affecting the elderly.

“He was good to seniors,” Boggiano says.

Boggiano refers to a 2019 city ordinance Yun sponsored requiring residential buildings that house senior citizens to provide security guards around the clock.  The city council approved the ordinance.

“We must make sure that today’s seniors are protected tomorrow,” Yun told nj.com at the time. “Our seniors and the disabled amongst us are our most vulnerable. We owe them as much.”

He made a lot of changes to the Heights, Boggiano says, because he deeply cared about his community.

“Michael really cared about people,” Boggiano says. “He was dedicated. He helped seniors. He helped everybody. It’s such a loss for Jersey City.”

Paying It Forward

Yun served as president of the Jersey City Merchant’s Council that represented more than 3,000 small-business owners. He volunteered his time overseeing community projects like the preservation of Reservoir #3 in the Heights and the Korean War Veteran’s Memorial in Paulus Hook. In 2013, when Council at Large Rolando R. Lavarro, Jr., asked Yun to help him raise money for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan, which claimed over 6,300 lives in the Philippines, Yun not only said yes but rallied support from outside Jersey City as well.

“He asked me to meet him at a Korean radio station in New York City,” Lavarro remembers. “We went into a recording room with whom, I assumed, was a popular Korean radio personality. The entire program was in Korean. I didn’t understand one word. Councilman Yun and the host exchanged friendly banter, and Councilman Yun then asked me to explain what had happened in the Philippines. They translated what I said, and they must have added other words appealing for donations.”

When they left the recording room, Lavarro says Yun turned to him and said, “Okay. We’re done. Now we wait and find out.”

“I shrugged my shoulders not knowing what would happen,” Lavarro continued. “We left the radio station, and he treated me to some great Korean food”.

Weeks later, Yun reached out to Lavarro to tell him they had raised some money and requested a meeting with the Philippine Consulate to present the check. When the two councilmen arrived, the presidents of Korea Radio Broadcasting NY and the Korea Daily were presenting two checks for $100,900 and $24,431, respectively, to Philippine Consul General Mario de Leon.

“I was flabbergasted,” Lavarro says. “I recall asking Michael if he’d like me to issue a press release, publicize his work and the generous donations. Instead, he was humble about it and talked about how grateful Koreans are to the Philippines. While Councilman Yun didn’t say it, he told and taught me that he was paying it forward for his ancestors. As I reflect on that memory, I think that is how he lived his life, how he approached public service. I think everyone whose life he touched will attest to that.

 

Header:  Michael C. Yun getting sworn in as Jersey City Councilman as his wife Jennifer, and their grandson, look on, photo courtesy the City of Jersey City

 

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Sally Deering

About Sally Deering

Born and raised in Jersey City, Sally Deering spent 13 years as a features writer and columnist for The Jersey Journal. Syndicated by the Newhouse News Service, Sally’s weekly column ran in papers throughout the U.S. and earned awards from the New Jersey Press Association, and Society for Professional Journalists. Sally has written two books, The Apple That Fell from the Orange Tree, and Thesbian, available on Kindle. A new filmmaker, Sally has written and directed several video shorts that can be seen on her YouTube channel. In 2019, her video Impasse won Best Screenplay Comedy at the NYC Downtown Short Film Festival. Sally holds a B.A. in Media Arts from New Jersey City University, and her new video, Aunt Sadie Loved a Lady is now in post-production.