February 9, 2017, marked the end of an era in Secaucus when Paul Amico died at age 103. Voters returned Amico fourteen times to lead the town as its mayor (terms of office were then for only two years). He was first elected on November 5, 1963 and remained Secaucus mayor until his last day in office on December 31, 1991 at age 78. (He chose to retire to spend more time with his family. Anthony Just succeeded him as mayor.) Mayor Amico guided the town from its days as a small, quaint farming community into an industrial giant with outlets, warehouses, corporate headquarters, and hotels. At one time Secaucus was known as the “Outlet Capital of the World.”
Amico was a successful businessman who had to leave school at age 14 to help support his family during the Depression. One of six children of Italian immigrants, Paul and his family moved to Secaucus from New York City’s Little Italy when he was six years old (he was born on April 23, 1913). Only one Amico sibling survives him, Angie Fell. (Siblings Sally, Joe, Mae, and Charlie predeceased him.) Paul got his first taste of work doing odd jobs at Marra’s Drug Store and he and members of the Marra family remained lifelong friends. Reliable and hard-working, Amico, at age 17, took a job at a local diner, where he found his niche. He gradually went from diner employee to diner owner, and he and his first wife, Catherine (nee Lehfeld) opened Paul’s Diner in 1939. A stint in the U.S. Army from 1944-1946 meant the diner had to be shut down, but when he was discharged, he reopened the diner that he eventually relocated to the Route 3 East Service Road in 1950 where he built a modern structure. Always on the lookout for opportunity and with an eye to the future, the keen future mayor purchased several plots of land all over town. His real estate and business enterprises proved so successful that he was able to retire at the young age of 43, and that’s when he began his life in politics.
Paul Amico was one of the politicians who began to make a crack in the iron-fisted rule of Mayor John J. Kane, Secaucus mayor from 1928 through 1957. First, Jimmy Moore successfully infiltrated the Kane administration when he was elected councilman in 1955. Amico and Herman Pope made further inroads in bringing down the longtime mayor when they were elected to the council in 1956. Kane chose not to seek re-election to another term in 1957, and Moore bested Republican Frank MacCormack for mayor in that election. Paul Amico, now passionate about his political career and eager to continue in his life of public service, challenged Mayor Moore in the 1959 election, but was unsuccessful in his bid to unseat him. Amico waited four more years until 1963, and was then triumphant in his bid to oust Moore. Mayor Amico remained at the helm for another twenty-eight years when (in 1991) he chose not to seek another term.
In addition to ushering industry into the town, Amico was mayor when the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission (then the NJMC, now the NJSEA) took control of eighty-eight percent of zoning decisions in Secaucus, and he saw corporate giant Hartz Mountain Industries transform the sleepy suburban community into a haven for shopping malls and new townhouse (i.e., Harmon Cove and Harmon Cove Towers) development. The town’s first high school was built on Mayor Amico’s watch and three housing complexes for senior citizens were built. Other new projects that evolved during his administration included the nutrition program for senior citizens, and centers for the town’s elderly and recreation centers for its youth. These are but a few of the many accomplishments Amico carried out during his tenure as mayor.
Mayor Mike Gonnelli called Amico his “mentor.” “I wouldn’t be here without him, in this career.” Current Second Ward Councilman James Clancy was also a councilman during Amico’s administration (Clancy took a hiatus from politics and returned to the council several years ago). He recalled Amico’s dedication to the town and its residents. “He felt responsible for each and every person, and he treated everyone fairly. His word was his bond.” Former Councilman Richard Steffens, who also served a brief stint as mayor (he filled the unexpired term of Mayor Elwell), served under Amico. “Three words that I would use to describe Paul Amico are visionary, pragmatist, and natural-born leader,” Steffens said. “During his early years as Mayor, changes in state laws eliminated the farming industry and Secaucus was forced to move in a new direction. Paul understood this change to be necessary, and through his vision and pragmatism, was able to successfully lead our community into one of clean industry while at the same time maintaining and protecting our small hometown flavor. Secaucus became known for its strong industrial tax base and vibrant residential neighborhoods, along with an excellent school system and town services second to none. He certainly left his legacy.” Rich’s wife Kathy Steffens, retired director of the Secaucus Public Library, added her comments about Mayor Amico. “It is with a very saddened heart that I remember Paul Amico as the Mayor who was ex-officio of the Library Board at the time I was hired back in 1984. Throughout the years we developed a mutual friendship based on admiration and respect. One of the latest treasures he shared with me was the personal reflections of his early years as Mayor, filmed in 2015 for the Library’s 80th Anniversary Digital History. Paul Amico was a true statesman who will surely be missed.”
Louise Rittberg, who covered meetings and reported on the town in this newspaper for many years, said, “Mayor Paul Amico was the most organized individual I ever met and he exemplified that organization through his persona, his early business career and even beyond his political career. For him, there was a place for everything and everything in its place. He consistently stressed healthy eating habits that included small portions and, while he was very accessible to this reporter, he would not take a phone call between noon and 1 pm, which was when he ate lunch. He said it interfered with his digestion. I was in his presence many times when a resident would approach him either with a problem or for a favor. He would take this most intricately folded piece of paper from his suit jacket pocket and write down the person’s name, phone number and problem. I never heard him make a promise to fix something, but instead, he would say, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ Somehow he refolded that scrap of paper and it was ready for the next person who approached him. And he always followed up.”
Secaucus Home News editor Gretchen Henkel, whose father, the late Robert Henkel, was a contemporary of Amico’s and who ran the Secaucus Home News from 1948 to 1992, remembered the late mayor as a gentleman and indefatigable champion of Secaucus. “Although my father was an early supporter of Amico’s, the two didn’t always agree on town issues over the years,” Gretchen commented. “My father would write an unfavorable article or editorial about an Amico policy, and the next week, Mayor Amico would respond with a letter to the editor, and that was it — no hard feelings, no lawsuits. They would both get on with what they did best: governing the town, and reporting on the town.” Over the years, Henkel said, Mayor Amico was frequent visitor to the Home News’ office. “We got along very well; it was always a pleasure when Paul walked through my office door.”
Catherine Amico, Paul’s first wife, died in 1973. They married in 1941, and had no children (Mrs. Amico was in frail health for most of her life). In 1974, Paul married Regina (Jeanie) Casazza, who was the widow of Albert Casazza, a former superintendent of schools in town. Amico, who had many nieces and nephews, added to his family with the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Jeanie. His beloved second wife died in 2004 at age 86. Paul’s dedicated and ever-vigilant nephew, Dan Amico, served as his caretaker, friend, and companion for many years.
A gala one-hundredth birthday party was tendered Mayor Amico by his family and the town in April 2013. Hundreds of family members, town, county, and state officials, and residents celebrated the special occasion with him. The Home News ran a special edition celebrating the life of Mayor Amico on April 18, 2013.
In addition to his nephew Dan, son of Kay Amico and the late Charlie Amico, and his sister Angie, Mayor Amico’s survivors include stepsons Robert and Dr. Albert Casazza, seven other nieces and nephews, ten grandchildren, fifteen great-grandchildren, and “all the residents of Secaucus.” Visitation was at Mack Memorial Home on Sunday and Monday with a funeral mass on Tuesday at Immaculate Conception Church.
Mayor Paul Amico, son and scion of Secaucus, has left the town in the good hands of his protégé, Mike Gonnelli. May Paul rest in peace, following a job well done.