Eulogy for The Hon. Jack Drakeford

By Steve Rothman
August 9, 2012
The Community Baptist Church of Englewood, New Jersey

Thank you, Rev. Taylor.

To Virginia, Gina, all the members of the Drakeford Family, to all of Jack’s dear friends.

To all of the distinguished clergy here today, present and past elected officials, especially all the Mayors, Council people and Englewood City workers who had the privilege of knowing and working with Jack Drakeford, to everyone here from Englewood (blood relation or not) who are part of the Englewood family, ladies and gentlemen.

Good morning.

First, let me thank Gina for inviting me to speak this morning. She said that she wanted me to make the longest speech today………Well, I told her that wouldn’t be a problem………….. I wanted very much to share a bit of Jack’s history and a sense of this giant of a man, this Founding Father of modern Englewood.

I met Jack in 1977, 35 years ago. I was just 25 years old. I had just graduated from law school and was living in a garden apartment on East Palisade Avenue. I was practicing law in Jersey City, but was already helping out in Englewood political campaigns, District 37 legislative races, and the Bergen County Democratic campaigns. That’s where I met Mr. Drakeford. We had a mutual friend and mentor in common: Richard Sheffield.

Dick had known Jack since he arrived here in Englewood from Newark. Jack, as you may know, was born and raised here in Englewood.

Some of you may know about Jack’s childhood better than I, but from what I do know, Jack grew up in one of the poorer sections of Englewood. While Englewood was always a place where people got along, Jack grew up here when there was still segregation and racial discrimination. He recognized and associated himself with good people from all over Englewood, and on both sides of the political aisle, but he never forgot those early years.

In my opinion, it was Jack’s childhood that shaped his goals, his work and his destiny. It was Jack’s childhood in Englewood that made him want to CORRECT what was wrong in with his community and to create the kind of Englewood he always dreamed of, for everyone. He spent his entire life, and all his exceptional intellectual and political gifts fixing Englewood, fighting injustice, fighting intolerance and trying to make sure that no child—no adult—suffered unfair treatment or was looked down upon.

As a 25-year-old kid just out of law school, I didn’t know any of these things about Jack Drakeford.  He was just this very large, serious and intimidating political figure. But while that image may have remained for others, I was soon blessed to get to know him as first, the young man that his best friend Sheffield called his son, as Jack’s student, then his colleague in Englewood’s government then his colleague, and then like Jack’s younger brother and friend.

It started with Pop, (Dick Sheffield), who had this idea that I should be the Mayor of Englewood. It truly was his idea. I remember when he asked me, in 1977, if I would like to be Mayor of Englewood someday. And so, when Sandy Greenberg decided not to seek a third term, Sheff, Jack, the Marsans, the Aronsons, the Decks, Bakers, Bob Halsch, Adele La Tourette, Byron Baer, Rich Abrahamsen and a bunch of others, went forth to help me become the Democratic nominee for Mayor of the City of Englewood.  By that time, I was 29 years old.

Jack was the sitting Englewood City Clerk, having already been an Englewood Firefighter, Englewood City Councilman, Council President, and Chief Labor Negotiator. Our mentor, Richard Sheffield was, well, Sheffield—-a life-force, a political genius, labor organizer, street fighter and legend (for a lot of reasons) …

It was in those graduate political seminars–also known as 3 hour “coffees” or “diner trips” that Jack and Sheff put together the plan for me to be elected. And we won.

About a year or so after I was sworn in as Mayor, a bunch of people, including myself, persuaded the existing, holdover City Manager, that it was time for him to move on—-you see, Englewood was not improving. Englewood was still suffering from the highest crime rate and highest tax rate of any town in Bergen County. All the supermarkets had left our city, and no developer would set foot in Englewood—despite the development boom going on in just about every other town in Bergen County.

I had known —(for some time) —– that Jack would be absolutely the right person to help us restore Englewood and achieve its success as one safe, fiscally healthy well-functioning and a united community. He knew everyone and everyone knew him! He knew where all the bodies were buried. He knew the skeleton’s in everyone’s closets.  And he was someone no one would dare try to intimidate.

In my mind, he was a combination of Lyndon Baines Johnson (the Legislative Master of the U.S. Senate), Michael Clarke Duncan, Mr. T and, in his own charming way, just like Sidney Poitier——Just a Little Bit Bigger and with a slightly different look!

And, I guess, most of all, we shared a vision for Englewood.

Jack and I were idealists and committed to Social Justice. But we were practical men.

Jack and I shared a vision for Englewood. We both knew that there were a lot of tough changes that needed to be made to Englewood’s way of doing business and governing. But it was Jack’s shoulders, that were the ones we were all to stand upon, as he held us all up, while we all fought to make those changes.

What motivated Jack?

Jack HATED waste. He hated stupidity. He hated smart people with good intentions, who always had the wrong answer. He hated low expectations. And he hated the fact that Englewood had been held back so many years by all those things. And, Jack was ready to play a bigger part in changing Englewood, this time: from a more powerful spot: Englewood City Manager.

So I recommended to the City Council that they hire Jack as the new City Manager. And thanks to the courage of Carol Feinstein, Eddie Hadden and others, Jack became Englewood’s City Manager: the first African American City Manager in Englewood’s history, and in the history of the State of New Jersey.

Well Jack’s ascension to power was not welcomed by everyone in Englewood.

In fact, as soon as he got appointed, he, myself and the Council were sued in Federal Court to overturn his appointment as “too political.” You see some Englewood people thought that a person like Jack Drakeford could never be chosen as City Manager–especially after they had CHANGED the City Charter to a City Manager form of government in 1980, with a Ward system of Council representation and selection…….But the federal judge knew the law, and he threw the case out.

It was Jack Drakeford, Bob Benecke, Don Rowan, Bill Rupp, myself and the Council, the Englewood City Workers and others,  who set about to modernize Englewood: department by department, including police, fire, building, dpw, you name it. We auctioned off 8 vacant publicly owned buildings, renovated the schools, got the public-private Fred Fish/Nathan Shmalo ShopRite approved for West Palisade Avenue, got a hotel built on the old garbage dump, got residential development for the golf course, and gave permits and oversaw the construction for at least 18 new, low rise office buildings. We redid the town master plan 3 times.  We did all of this in 6 years! At the end of it, we no longer had the highest crime rate in Bergen County, nor the highest tax rate. We’d gone from one of the worst bond ratings to the best in Bergen County, and we left Englewood with a 4 million surplus. I retired to my law practice after those 2 terms and Jack, and my successor Mayors and Council members continued Englewood’s progress.

But none, and I mean none, of this progress would have been possible without Jack Drakeford: who he was, who he knew, what he knew, his political and intellectual skills, his intuitive knowledge of people and politics. As a matter of history though, at that time, virtually ALL of Jack’s work was done behind the scenes. At his insistence!

You know a few years ago, when Jack was being honored by a major charitable organization and I had just flown in from Washington to say a few words about him, I let slip—in a moment of impolitic candor—-that the one rule Jack tried to teach me above all others, was “Do what you have to do to get the job done, lawfully of course, but LEAVE NO FINGERPRINTS!!!”  He said that your enemies will assume you had a hand in it, but they won’t have the proof. And that’ll make it harder for them to undo the changes you’ve secured, and they’ll have a tougher time making a case against you–that might threaten your political viability and thus weaken your ability to accomplish further changes.

Later in his life—when I had already gone to Congress—Jack let his lion’s roar be heard. And let his strength be seen in public. But that came a bit later in his life.

Two more stories about Jack.

After my second term as Mayor, I was pretty burned out: having been a full time Mayor and a full time lawyer at the same time.  And so I retired from government for a while. Then, after I had gotten elected the Surrogate Court Judge for Bergen County and was in the middle of my 5 year term, Bob Torricelli, who was then the Congressman for our District, called to tell me he was running for the U.S. Senate. Bill Bradley was retiring. Bob said that I should run to take his seat representing the 9th Congressional District, which, of course, has always included Englewood. And here’s where the essence of Jack Drakeford came forth:

As we did all the time, ever since I had met them in 1977, whenever any one of us had a problem, or we just wanted to get together, Jack, Sheff and I would get meet for a meal or a 3 hour cup of coffee.

I remember asking them to meet me. I needed their advice: Should I run for Congress? Well Sheff (Pop truly thought of me as his son) said: Why give up your County job, you are in the middle of a 5 year term, stay there for a few more terms and then retire? You’ll have a nice pension. And you won’t have to run for office every 2 years. And you won’t have to commute to Washington.

Well, when Sheff got through, Jack spoke. (And this was the essence of Jack). He said to me and Sheff: “Steve has the chance to affect not just the people of Englewood and Bergen County, but all of America and the World. He HAS to do it. He has to run. There are a lot of people who need help in this country and a lot of people who are standing in the way. Steve has to do this!”

I think Jack was really describing his own motivations and his own feelings about the “Moral Imperative” he felt for himself:  Never to have another child suffer in poverty, feel the torment of racism, the soft bigotry of low expectations, the denial of equal opportunity or simple fairness.

That was Jack.  A powerful HUMANIST. A powerful advocate for human beings of all kinds. 

A person who demanded the highest in, what the Founders called “Civic Virtue,” for himself, and for everyone else.

That towering, heroic figure was Jack Drakeford: The Father of Modern Englewood, a Giant, and a Political Hero to so many of us.

As you know, Jack went on to run for and win election to the Englewood School Board and to become its President. And then he ran again for the City Council, was selected as its President again, and became the first person to serve on that body over three different decades (the ’70s, the ’90s and in the 2000’s).  Why did he continue?

From 1959 when he came in as an Englewood firefighter until last week as a City Councilman—53 years of nearly continuous service to Englewood.

Because he felt that as long as he was the only one seeing what needed to be done, and because he realized the standing he had achieved in the community after so many years of courageous and outstanding service that he could face down anyone standing in the way of “progress” as he saw it, he had to continue. And that’s what he did. Up until the day of his death.

Finally, over the last 16 years, whether in family events here in New Jersey, private meals just the two of us, here or in Washington, we had great, memorable and deeply connected times.  Whenever I I brought Jack to Washington: to the State of the Union Address, to Pres Obama’s Swearing In, to have lunch with me in the very fancy Members Dining Room in the Capitol (where I’d go with dignitaries 2-3 times a year at most), and to my office in The Rayburn Building.  We’d sit and talk for hours.  Talk about what was going on in Englewood, Congress, America, the world.  We’d talk about the enemies of justice and good public policy.  And then we’d retell our war stories and laugh and laugh and laugh.

I remember his pride in me when I went against the entire New Jersey Democratic establishment (and the Clintons:) by endorsing Barack Obama for President. I told him it was because I really thought Barack was the best person for the job; that it would help the world see America differently, and help Americans see one another differently. He was pleased.

Just so you know: Most of my memories of Jack, over all these 35 years, were not only of those things we were able to accomplish, but of our laughing together: Like co-conspirators who had succeeded in outsmarting the system time and time again, and, perhaps, made conditions better, for a lot of people.


For decades, we two macho men had been telling each other we loved each other. And that’s the way it was, when I saw him last, just a few weeks ago. Lying in bed in the hospital, weak from a very tough series of medical issues and a long and complicated surgery, with tubes all over him and inside him….As we looked at each other from across the bed, we made sure to tell each other, again and again, “I love you”.

And now my hero and my friend is gone.

And I pray that Jack Drakeford now resides with God in Heaven, enjoying the comforts and blessings of God’s love, and that Jack knows that God and many here on earth understand that Jack Drakeford lead a great life: as a great man, as a great American, a great human being—-a son of Englewood, and yet, perhaps more than anyone in the last 100 years, the Father of the Modern Englewood.

I love you Jack. Thank you for your love and guidance all these years.

I owe you so much…….So many others do too.

I hope to see you again my dear friend