PoliticsNJ is reporting that former Senator Byron M. Baer passed away this morning at the age of 77.
Senator Baer was every bit the model legislator – brilliant, deliberative and focused on doing what was just. I only got to know him briefly and in the twilight of his career, but just from that short amount of time, I could tell that Byron Baer was the type of
public servant person that we should all strive to be.
There probably never has been, and probably never will be, an individual in the NJ State Legislature more committed to civil rights than Byron Baer. The man was a Freedom Ride – the man knew and advised Dr. Martin Luther King. He helped organize the march from Selma to Montgomery and was imprisoned for 45 days in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for being a Freedom Rider. He wore his status as an ex-convict as a badge of honor and he might be the only man to serve in the Legislature who was more qualified because he had spent time in jail.
Senator Baer’s legislative accomplishments were too numerous to list here, but I would expect that we have all benefited from his most notable piece of legislation – the Open Public Meetings Act, better known as the “Sunshine Law” and renamed last year to be the Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act. If you’ve gone to a town council meeting to ask a question or to a school board meeting call a corrupt board member to task (yeah, I’ve done that a couple of times), then it’s Byron Baer you should be thanking and that public official is probably cursing.
Senator Baer is also the only legislator that I know of to have a page at imdb.com. Before he became involved in public service, he was a special effects wizard. Even after he retired from show business, he kept a passion for technology and the movies, which was always evident in his legislative carrier as he imagined new ways to use the latest technologies to keep us safe.
It’s a bit quick to have any public statements come out about the loss of this great man, so I’ll conclude by including what Senator Bernie Kenny said about the Senator Baer upon his resignation:
Every so often in life, we get to know a most unusual type of man, one who stands out from the rest of us because he actually lives by his ideals, because he actually stands for a set of principles which actually guide his actions in life.
Such a rare man is Byron Baer. We salute him today for a life of public leadership and legislative accomplishment.
And we thank him for his many contributions to the public good.
Those who know about his life, realize Byron Baer is a true hero of his generation, a foot soldier for change, a tireless warrior for the oppressed.
When I first met Byron Baer, we were both in the Assembly. It was 1988 and I had just gotten there. Byron had been there since 1972 and his reputation had been well established.
He may be small of stature, but there has always been a fire in his belly for whatever cause he fought for.
Byron has always been a man of action.
So it’s no surprise that he didn’t just sit around in the 1960s talking about civil rights. He went to Alabama and Mississippi and marched along side those who were risking their lives and losing their lives for the cause of freedom.
And when he got started in public life in Bergen County, it was in Englewood where he was instrumental in breaking up the de facto segregation in the public schools there.
Byron just didn’t think it was right that all the wealthy white kids from ?the hill’ went to school together and all the poor black kids went to school together down in Englewood’s fourth ward. When Byron got done, the white kids and the black kids of Englewood were going to school together and enriching each others’ lives with cultural and ethnic diversity in what became a national model.
And it’s really not surprising that when Byron Baer heard about the injustices being inflicted on migrant farm workers in South Jersey – where some farm bosses thought slavery was still ok – that he went down to those farms himself to see how he could shake things up a little.
And the farm bosses must have been scratching their heads in wonder when Byron showed up to demand better living conditions for the farm workers. They must’ve wondered just who this little guy thought he was – marching on to private farm property and asking all kinds of questions about the living conditions of the farm workers.
One of the bosses probably thought he could scare Byron off by threatening him with violence. When Byron didn’t flinch, the farm boss roughed him up and even broke his arm – but the guy obviouisly didn’t know who he was dealing with – because you might be able to rough him up, you might be able to break his arms, but nobody is ever going to break Byron’s spirit.
And to the surprise of no one who knew Byron, things got better for the migrant farm workers. And after a while, with a showman’s flare, Byron even took his arm out of its sling.
I’ve always appreciated Byron’s sense of flare. When he was pushing for open government, he sponsored what the bill writers called “The Open Public Meetings Act.” But that name was a little dry for Byron, a little too starchy. So Byron gave it another name. He called it “The Sunshine Law.” Soon, everybody called it The Sunshine Law.
We salute Byron today for a lifetime of involvement in events which shaped our lives for the better. The record of his life reflects the call to get involved made by President John F. Kennedy when he said, ask not what your country can do for you – ask, what you can do for your country.
For everything Byron has done in his life, our country, our State, our communities – all of of us – are better off.
Thank you, Byron.
So today, I offer my condolences to his wife, Linda, and the rest of his family and salute this “legislative giant” and hope that New Jersey will see his likes again.