Rutgers library archive debuts the life and times of Frank Lautenberg
Yesterday, Alexander Library launched an exhibit that honored the life and work of late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a renowned public advocate, environmentalist, World War II veteran and New Jersey’s longest-serving senator.
The exhibit includes life-long memorabilia from baby pictures to letters sent by presidents thanking him for his service.
Lautenberg’s story started in Paterson, New Jersey. He devoted his life to serving his community, said Kristen Michaels, a former staffer of the senator. In fact, she said his work saved lives, affected the entire nation and is still relevant in today’s society.
He became the president and CEO of Automatic Data Processing, Inc. (ADP) in 1975. Three years later, he became the executive commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He then ran for the Senate to bring his passion and ideas to life. Lautenberg won a seat on the Senate floor in 1982 and went on to serve for five terms.
Throughout his years, he fought for a sanctuary and presumptive refugee status for Jewish people coming from the former Soviet Union, said Sheridan Sayles, archivist for the Frank Lautenberg papers. Lautenberg lobbied to prevent domestic violence convicts from owning guns, which is still relevant today in the light of national shootings.
His major legislative achievements include writing the bills that prohibited smoking on airplanes and raising the national drinking age to 21.
Sayles said that in the 80s, when the drinking age in New York was lower than New Jersey’s, many young individuals would drive to the city, become intoxicated and then drive back home drunk — resulting in several fatalities. His bill greatly reduced the number of drunk drivers.
“He literally saved lives,” Sayles said.
Ian Grubman, a fellow staffer of Lautenberg's, said that as many Rutgers students are probably aware, transportation to New York from New Jersey can be unpredictable, time consuming and hectic.
Grubman said Lautenberg strove to improve the lives of Garden State residents by planning the creation of the Gateway Tunnel, a project that was never approved by former Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), but was set to be an expansion of the Northeast Corridor rail line and would expedite travels into the city.
“He always recognized the importance of Rutgers to the state. Rutgers was lucky to have such a fighter in the Senate,” Grubman said.
Despite recognition from former presidents like Bill Clinton, George Bush, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, Lautenberg was anything but ostentatious, said Jennifer Sneed, a fellow staffer of his.
“No matter how successful he got, he always remembered where he came from, his roots, how hard it is to struggle,” Sneed said.
According to Michaels, Lautenberg’s family was far from well-off so he worked hard for everything he attained. After graduating from Nutley High School, he served overseas in World War II from 1942 to 1946. He even went to college at Columbia University on the G.I. bill, because of his family’s financial circumstances.
“He’d take out the garbage, he’d take the dishes at the table, nothing was too much for him, he wasn’t a prima donna,” said Bonnie Lautenberg, his wife.
Grubman said he was popular with both parties, which paved his dynamic success with bipartisan bills in multiple areas of Senate discussion.
Because of Lautenberg's dedication and inspiration, his work is still being continued by his colleagues and family.
Bonnie Lautenberg and Ellen Lautenberg, his oldest daughter, both carry on some of his legislative efforts, even after his death.
“So much of his legacy still lives on,” Ellen Lautenberg said.
The Alexander Library will display the exhibit until August.
Bonnie Lautenberg said that her husband specifically arranged for Rutgers to be the site that would hold his archives after he passed. He wanted it to be Rutgers over Princeton because Rutgers truly serves the students of New Jersey — the state he was so passionate about.
Grubman said he is content that Lautenberg’s history will be preserved so well at the University's archives.
“It’s critical that all of these artifacts, his letters, his papers stay in New Jersey, and I think it’s a treasure for the state ... Senator Lautenberg was New Jersey,” he said.