Memories of Bernard Berry, the 33rd mayor of Jersey City, may have dimmed a bit, even for old-timers, but they’re being revived thanks to the efforts of the Jersey City Museum of History and Jersey City Public Library.
This week, the museum and library launched the city’s first oral history project designed to capture narratives of Jersey City’s evolution through the years by those who helped shape those changes or who were key witnesses to the process. Berry became one of the project’s first subjects.
During his tenure, Berry figured in several headline-grabbing exploits including preventing a performance by the rock band Bill Haley & the Comets at Roosevelt Stadium, blocking local theaters from showing an Otto Preminger film The Moon is Blue and banning local sales of the novel (later a film) From Here to Eternity.
Nancy Berry Boyne, one of the former mayor’s four daughters who now makes her home in Easton, Pa. with her husband Dennis Boyne, shared her impressions this week. Her impromptu remarks were recorded in the the library’s New Jersey Room.
It was purely by chance that the interview came about. Berry Boyne had read a Facebook post on the Jersey City website that the museum was hosting performances of “Horseshoe Empire,” a play about former Mayor Frank Hague. She and her husband attended. They met Martin Pierce, president of the museum board of directors. That led to the couple’s return trip to her native city.
Berry-Boyne reminisced about her dad and what it was like growing up as young girl and teen in Jersey City during the 1950s and 1960s, providing some insights related to some of the exploits associated with the former one-term mayor, who served in that office from 1953 to 1957 and died prematurely at age 57.
Mayor Berry took over for John V. Kenny who had resigned due to ill health. JVK, as Kenny was known to contemporaries, was successfully prosecuted by the feds on corruption charges in 1971 and although Berry’s elevation to mayor was backed by Kenny, Berry maintained a clean record.
Criticism of her dad for trying to set a moral tone “irks me,” his daughter said. “He was a man of integrity. He was very focused on family and (fostering) a supportive environment … He’d say, ‘Nancy, always be yourself.’ I never saw him as dogmatic.”
As a teen, she was “a Pat Boone fan.”
Still, reflecting the mores of those years, she recalled that her mother, Cecilia Mulvoy Berry, served on the local League of Decency. “We had to report things the League found offensive,” she said.
Her father was a dedicated Catholic practitioner and a member of several Catholic societies including the Knights of Columbus and was a frequent speaker at Communion breakfasts in Hudson County, as reported in a local obituary.
Berry-Boyne’s grandfather, a Dubliner by birth who joined the wave of immigrants seeking new opportunities in America in the early 1900s, landed in Jersey City where, like many of his peers, he embarked on a career as a city police officer.
However, according to his granddaughter, after he refused to make a “contribution” to the mayor’s political fund, Frank “I Am The Boss” Hague blocked his city pension. He died not long after of an injury sustained on the job, leaving his young family strapped for cash.
“That necessitated my father (then a teen) going to work – that was how it was in those days,” she said. During the day, she said, her dad got a job with the-then Lehigh Valley Railroad but at night, pursued his education, managing to earn his GED and, later, a college degree at Pace University in New York.
It was a commitment he was to later pass on to his children – three daughters and a son. “Dad wanted us all to go to college,” Berry-Boyne said.
Somewhere along the way, Bernard Berry “moved on with an interest in politics,” his daughter said, and although “he was defeated in his first try for (elective) office,” he pressed on, ultimately being appointed to the Board of Education and chosen as its president, apparently with JVK’s blessing.
In those days, for Jersey City residents, politics wasn’t a dry civics lesson: it was a living, breathing world of its own, embracing even the very young. Berry’s daughter remembered how, as a second-grader at St. Aedan’s School, just a few blocks from her Highland Avenue home, “everybody had campaign buttons.”
During his mayoral tenure, Berry pushed, with mixed success, for causes that he felt would lift Jersey City’s image and the well-being of residents by pressing for an ethnic museum and park at neighboring Ellis Island as a tribute to the immigrants who passed through to life in their new country and by trying to lure the New York Stock Exchange and the then-Brooklyn Dodgers – all ending in failure, although Ellis Island is now a national park and Berry’s vision of converting a decaying waterfront into a financial center has blossomed.
Berry, with backing from Msgr. John McNulty, is credited with establishing the Seton Hall Medical/Dental School at the Jersey City Medical Center campus. It operated at that site from 1956 to 1965.
One oddity from his mayoral tenure stands out in his daughter’s mind. “Dad went to an international conference of mayors in Italy and he sailed to Europe on the (luxury liner) Andrea Doria before it sank (in 1956),” she said. “The mayors had an audience with the pope.”
Back home in Jersey City, day-to-day life for the Berrys was fairly serene, she said. “We went to Ilvento’s Restaurant (on West Side Avenue) for family dinners or we’d go to Bruno’s (on Summit Avenue) on special occasions,” she said. Often, as teens, they’d take rides on the Staten Island Ferry. Summers were spent at the Jersey Shore, usually in Bradley Beach or Avon.
After graduating from the former Notre Dame College in Staten Island, Berry-Boyne taught a few years in a Jersey City Heights elementary school before taking maternity leave at age 23. Later, she headed up early intervention programs in New Providence and Morris Plains before switching careers into telecommunications from which she is now retired.
Her brother, Bernard Jr., is now a retired lawyer who lives in Avon. He has six children and 18 grandchildren. Her youngest sister, Kathy, is a CPA who lives on Whidbey Island off Washington State and her husband is a retired naval commander. Another sister, Marie, is a public health nurse and psychotherapist who lives in Maryland and one of her sons runs Catholic Charities in Baltimore. Another sister, Eileen, now passed on, was a nurse at Christ Hospital, Jersey City, and Grace New Haven, Conn.
Aided by a $24,500 N.J. Historical Commission grant, the museum/library partnership contracted with TheirStory, a remote interviewing platform for technical support in recording, preserving and sharing with communities the stories of its members.
In future months, said John Beekman, city librarian in charge of the JCPL’s New Jersey Room, the museum will be “reaching out to people from different neighborhoods” to share “how they understand their place in history” within the context of the city’s evolution.
As a first step, Beekman said, “we’ll be working with community partners,” such as John Johnson, a New Jersey City University professor of history; William Westerman, a sociology professor at New Jersey City University; and Jerome Choice, president of Friends of Berry Lane Park, to develop a list of interview subjects.
Beekman credited Melissa Ziobro, professor of public history at Monmouth University and a pioneer of oral history projects in New Jersey, for her guidance in helping set up the program in Jersey City.
Once interviews are transcribed, edited and placed on an internet platform, people can “listen in” by visiting the museum website, according to Pierce.
And, Beekman added, each digital file will be preserved so that those interviews will be accessible on multiple internet settings.
To help sustain the program, the museum figures to undertake a series of fundraising efforts to supplement what Beekman described as “seed money” already provided by the city administration.