This article originally appeared in The Star-Ledger Sept. 18, 2009.
NEWARK -- While politicians tend to flock to any public event involving kids and education, those gathered under a tent in Branch Brook Park this morning had a double motivation.
Hundreds of kids from pre-school to eighth grade had been invited to help commemorate the naming of the Stephen Adubato Sr. Sports Complex, and members of New Jersey's ruling class -- from Essex County freeholders to Gov. Jon Corzine -- seemed eager to join the party.
"This is the work of a lifetime, it is a statement of character, it is a statement of purpose and it is a statement of passion," Corzine said. "I truly admire what you have done, what your team has done and what your family has done."
Nearly 40 years ago, as Newark was losing much of its middle class, Stephen Adubato Sr. quit his job as a school teacher and set about building the North Ward Educational and Cultural Center -- a resource for kids, parents and seniors left with diminishing resources in the wake of the mass exodus.
Along the way, Adubato amassed significant political power that he used to advance the goals of the center. Now, the center serves residents from infancy to old age and is the nexus of a major educational complex including five pre-schools, an award-winning charter school, five baseball fields, and a newly installed football field.
Those fields were named today for Adubato -- who is cheered in the schools he has built, and feared in some political circles he has traveled.
"I am not a nice person," Adubato said in his remarks today. "I wish I was."
Still, the North Ward Center has served an average of 2,500 kids a year in the four decades since its inception, and those on hand today had nothing but praise for "Big Steve," as he is known throughout the schools he has founded.
"He's really inspirational," said Edwin Ramos, 13, who recently began the eighth grade at Robert Treat Academy -- a blue-ribbon school founded by Adubato in 1997. "A lot of the kids get really excited," Ramos said of Adubato's routine visits.
Today's ceremony was emceed by State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29th Dist.) who kept a tight watch over speakers' time limits, many of whom served potshots at Adubato.
"Though I like to tease him -- it's my way of getting back at him for 25 years of therapy -- he's my hero, there's no other way to say it," said Stephen Adubato Jr. before introducing his father.
Adubato Sr. deflected attention from himself and credited Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. with much of the praise for building the complex.
"This park is named for Steve Adubato, and I'm very proud," Adubato said. "But this is Joe D's park."
Adubato went on to explain that DiVincenzo came to the North Ward Center as a volunteer after ending his football career. Through his own labor, he and other volunteers cleared out the swampland that dominated the park's middle division, and as a freeholder and now county executive, DiVincenzo has funneled millions into rebuilding Branch Brook Park with the help of Corzine and other state leaders.
After the event, Adubato said politics is a means to provide a quality education and upbringing for Newark's youth.
"If you're not connected with children then you are not connected with the future," he said, adding that good education is the antidote to crime, drug addiction and disease. By providing pre-school programs, charter schools, and after school programs, Adubato said he hopes to redirect the lives of many Newark kids out of prisons and into prosperity.
"In the classroom we nourish the mind," Adubato said. "But guess what? This is a place where we nourish the body, and I guess you would have to say the soul."
The complex features five newly renovated baseball diamonds named for baseball legend Roberto Clemente, Yankee catcher and Newark native Rick Cerone, Former freeholder president Jerry Greco, Luis Lopez -- founder of the Roberto Clemente Little League -- and Negro league All-Star, Ray Dandridge. The complex also recently opened a football/soccer field named for NFL Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, who, like Adubato, attended Barringer High School.