Jan. 8 (UPI) -- Hundreds of people turned out Monday to honor Brendan T. Byrne -- a World War II veteran and former New Jersey prosecutor, judge and governor.
Byrne, who held the state's highest office from 1974 to 1982, died Thursday of a lung infection at the age of 93. Survived by his wife Ruthi Byrne and seven children, he is perhaps best known for bringing casino gambling to New Jersey, paving the way for Atlantic City to become a gaming capital on the East Coast.
His memorial service at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., included remembrances by his son Tom Byrne; Cardinal Joseph Tobin, the archbishop of Newark; Gov. Chris Christie; former Gov. Tom Kean; and Virginia Littell, one-time leader of the New Jersey Republican State Committee.
Former Govs. Jim McGreevey, Jon Corzine and Richard Cody, as well as Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, also were on hand to watch an Air Force Honor Guard ceremonially fold a flag on stage and present it to Ruthi Byrne. The Paper Mill Broadway Show Choir also sang "Amazing Grace," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and the Princeton University fight song "Old Nassau," and a New Jersey State Trooper performed "Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder" on the bagpipes.
Tom Byrne thanked well-wishers for their outpouring of support, singling out McGreevey for the "companionship and comfort that he gave my dad, just in his last couple of days."
"A long time ago, I asked my father what kind of service he would want and, of course, he said, 'Surprise me,' but he did make it clear that he did not want a long program and that he gets bored easily and so forth," Tom Byrne related as the crowd laughed. "I think he sort of appreciates the humor and we want to try to make today as much of a celebration of his life and share the happy memories."
"I suppose you could say Gov. Byrne was a character," Tobin said. "He crafted his own style that defies duplication. He charmed with a magnificent mind and a keen sense of humor. He knew the definition of 'blarney,' the ability to tell someone to go to there in such a way they will enjoy the trip. Disarming and self-deprecating, New Jersey loved him -- most of the time. ... New Jersey loved him for his authenticity and for his honesty. Far more than just a character, Brendan Byrne was a man anchored and infallible by extraordinary character. A character defined by selflessness, service, loyalty and courage."
"His life was one of extraordinary joy. Yes, there were problems and challenges and difficulties that all of us have in our lives -- both in our personal lives and our political lives. But, with Gov. Byrne, there was always a sense of great joy," Christie said. "As a predecessor, he was extraordinarily gracious and generous. If Brendan Byrne had a criticism -- which at times he did -- it was always done privately."
Christie went on to say Byrne would contact him directly and the suggestions he offered were always thoughtful and genuine.
"And they were always appreciated," Christie said. "His compliments far outweighed his critiques, but, regardless of what he was saying, I always knew that it came from the heart."
The governor -- who leaves office this month after two terms -- said he saw Byrne a few weeks ago at his Christmas party and the older man told him: "I'll be at the State of the State. Be good. Be good. It's your last one. Be good."
"And I said, 'I'll do my best.' And he grabbed my arm and he pulled me close to him so he could whisper and he whispered in my ear: 'You've already done your best. You did it right, kid.' That's Brendan Byrne and that generosity of spirit is what I will miss the most," Christie said. "For me and for [my wife] Mary Pat, there will be a void in our lives, not being able to sit with him again and laugh. His life was a great joy. A great joy not only to his family, but to everyone who had the privilege of spending some time with him."