‘It Happened Here: New Jersey’ Highlights State History

By Susan Wallner
State of the Arts

Willie Geist is the narrator for a new series now airing on NJTV. There’s no set time, because each episode is only 90 seconds long and they air between programs. In just a minute and a half, viewers are introduced to key highlights of the state’s history. It Happened Here: New Jersey is part of NJ350, the year-long 350th anniversary celebration. New episodes will appear on NJTV and online throughout 2014, showcasing the people, places and events that make New Jersey what it is.

Willie Geist

Narrator Geist is a fan of history, and of New Jersey. He grew up in Ridgewood, where he was captain of the high school football team. One of the latest additions to his “books to read” list, which he keeps on his smartphone, is Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. Not surprising. In addition to being the co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and the 9 a.m. hour of NBC’s Today Show, Geist is a writer. Look for his new book about growing up in New Jersey, co-written with his dad, television journalist Bill Geist, later this year.

Tourism is the third biggest industry in New Jersey, and certainly everyone has seen ads for the Jersey Shore. But history draws tourists as well, and how better to grab their attention than with a big birthday: 350 years since the state’s founding as a colony. Sara Cureton, director of the New Jersey Historical Commission, says that “a major goal for the anniversary is to raise awareness of the rich history of New Jersey, and move everyone’s perception of the state beyond superficial jokes about the Turnpike.”

Innovation, diversity and liberty are the official themes for NJ350 and for It Happened Here: New Jersey. There will be stories about the telegraph, the light bulb, the transistor, the drive-in movie and even the blueberry. There will be a story about immigration: New Jersey’s population is the most diverse in the nation. And, says Cureton, “New Jersey’s pivotal role in the Revolution is not always fully understood, making the theme of liberty an important addition to the anniversary celebration.” The last episode in the series, set to air in December, will feature Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton.


Alice Paul, the women’s rights activist from Moorestown, is featured in the premiere episode of It Happened Here: New Jersey.

The first stories are airing on NJTV now — the Paterson Silk Strike of 1913, the Birth of the Film Industry in Fort Lee and a profile of suffragist Alice Paul. Paul, a Quaker from South Jersey, was a key leader in the fight to pass the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. In a recent blog posting for NJ350, historian Mary Walton writes movingly about the tremendous inspiration she has drawn from Paul’s life-long dedication to the cause of equal rights for women. “I wondered,” writes Walton, “would I have joined those pickets, and suffered all the consequences? I wanted to think so. Today I am sure of this much: If I have to crawl to the polls, I will never fail to vote.” Viewers can find out more about any of the stories on It Happened Here: New Jersey by visiting

Soon to come are stories about the first baseball and football games (played in Hoboken and New Brunswick), the Hindenburg (it crashed in Lakehurst), and the 1936 State House Occupation (protesters camped out and played cards). Early history is the focus in stories about Lincoln’s visit to Trenton, the founding of New Jersey, and colonial glassmakers in South Jersey. Cureton considers the video series an important legacy initiative for the 350th celebration, especially for classroom use. She notes that the stories are “tied to the Common Core Standards and can be used in classrooms long after 2014 is over.”

To find out more about New Jersey’s 350th celebration, visit It Happened Here: New Jersey is a production of Kean University, with support from the New Jersey Historical Commission and the Fred J. Brotherton Charitable Foundation.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, airing on NJTV Sundays at 8 p.m. and Thursdays at 11:30 p.m. She is also one of the producers of It Happened Here: New Jersey.