On Jan. 4, 2017, former New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne ’49 at his home in Livingston, N.J. Nicknamed the “The Man the Mob Couldn’t Buy,” Byrne served two terms as New Jersey’s chief executive from 1974 to 1982. Byrne was 93 when he passed from a lung infection.
Born on April 1, 1924, Byrne grew up in West Orange, N.J. In 1943, Byrne enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as a pilot for two years during World War II. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals, achieving the rank of lieutenant.
Following the war, Byrne attended the University for two years through the G.I. Bill. He majored in Public and International Affairs and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1951.
After working as a private attorney, Byrne entered public service. Governor Robert Meyner appointed him as the Essex County Prosecutor in 1959. He later acted as the president of the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners and as a state judge on the New Jersey Superior Court.
In the 1973 gubernatorial campaign, Byrne ran against Republican state representative Charles W. Sandman, Jr. An FBI surveillance tape surfaced during the campaign which showed mobsters discussing how Byrne was too ethical to be bought. The tape was regarded as an important boost to his campaign, allowing him to best Sandman by more than 700,000 votes.
During his first term as governor, Byrne enacted policies leading to the legalization of casino gambling in Atlantic City, the establishment of New Jersey’s Department of the Public Advocate and Department of Energy, and the public financing of gubernatorial elections.
Despite campaign promises, Byrne also created New Jersey’s first state income tax. Almost immediately, Byrne’s popularity plunged dramatically, and his opponents labeled him with the nickname “One-Term Byrne.”
Due to a wide field of candidates, however, Byrne successfully obtained the Democratic nomination for governor and won by nearly 300,000 votes against Republican state senator Raymond Bateman in 1977.
Following his re-election, Byrne advocated for the construction of the Meadowlands Sports Complex, which would house the New Jersey Nets basketball team and the New Jersey Devils hockey team. In addition, with the passage of the Pinelands Protection Act of 1979, Byrne managed to preserve 1.1 million acres of forests, streams, and rivers in southern New Jersey.
After leaving office in 1982, Byrne became a senior partner at a Roseland law firm and co-wrote a weekly column in The Star-Ledger with his successor as governor, Thomas Kean. He also taught courses at the University and at Rutgers.
“My life is richer for having known him as I am sure are the lives of every person who had the privilege to meet him,” said Gov. Chris Christie in a statement.
Christie is an ex officio trustee of the University, as is tradition for every sitting New Jersey governor.