New Jersey Hall of Fame Inducts New Class

By Briana Vannozzi

There’s no shortage of Jersey talent. The Garden State’s own Tommy James, American pop-rock musician, had the crowd at Asbury Park’s paramount theater singing along to some of his famous hits.

James was one of 15 new inductees for the New Jersey Hall of Fame Class of 2016.

“I’m the most creative when I’m home in Jersey,” he said.

The inductees span all walks of life. This year included the “Bayonne Brawler” — heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and was the inspiration for the movie “Rocky.” And at 78 years young, he could still take anyone in the crowd.

“I’ve been so fortunate. It’s like a dream,” Wepner said.

Renowned journalist and anchor Connie Chung accepted her award from TV host husband Maury Povich.

“I think news is so different now from the time I was in television news because, I mean, it’s all digital. It is completely a different ball game,” she said.

Keeping it in the family, former Hall of Fame inductee and mystery author Mary Higgins Clark welcomed her daughter, Carol Higgins Clark, to the club.

The Bergen County native’s popular Regan Reilly series is based in New Jersey.

“There’s so many characters in New Jersey. Of course it’s a great source of material and everybody from New Jersey seems to have spunk, no matter what,” Carol Higgins Clark said.

South Jersey girl Kelly Ripa of “Live! With Kelly and Ryan” joined the class, along with basketball hall of famer and Montclair State alum Carol Blazejowski. Ninety-two-year-old Arthur Imperatore, founder of the New York Waterway ferry service, kept it light, thanking the Hall of Fame for keeping his honor out of the posthumous section.

“I talk to God every once in a while, I tell him, listen God, I know you might have your eye on me, however I still have a lot of work to do here, just bear that in mind,” he said.

Singer Connie Francis and soccer star Carli Lloyd were supposed to be inducted tonight but couldn’t come. The head of New Jersey’s Hall of Fame says they pare the list down from hundreds of possible inductees.

“And every year we cull that list down the top 100, the public gets involved. We then cull it down to the top 50 and then the board decides from there. And every year it’s not hard to come up with 15 people,” said New Jersey Hall of Fame Foundation President Steven Edwards.

Long time civic leader Al Koeppe, who died last year, was on the list. Along with Civil War Gen. Philip Kearny and activist Peace Pilgrim. She walked across the U.S. eight times promoting peace.

Musician and former Fugees member Wyclef Jean talked about growing up in Newark.

“I went to Vailsburg High School in Newark and what changed my life was a music teacher by the name of Valerie Price, I don’t know if she’s here. But I just want everyone who’s listening to understand the power of music and sports in the schools is very important,” he said.

But it was Newark native and “Goodfellas” star Ray Liotta who summed up best what it means to be from Jersey.

“I mean, I’m still best friends with the guys that I grew up with to this day, so it’s really nice coming back and we used to come here all the time, to Asbury Park,” he said.

Because Jersey roots run deep.