They were all there — Jon Corzine, Chris Christie, Governor-elect Phil Murphy — to honor the 45th governor, Brendan Byrne.
“He was a mentor and a friend for many years, even when he didn’t need to be. He was a giant as a leader in the state right up to the final gun. I always enjoyed being with him, including visiting him the over the past couple of years and he’ll be missed. He set an example that we should all be humbled and wise to follow,” said Murphy.
Tom Byrne, Byrne’s oldest child and a former state Democratic chairman, greeted the well-wishers and presided over a secular service.
“A long time ago I asked my father what kind of service he would want, and of course he said, ‘surprise me,'” he recounted.
There were two themes to the speeches and reminiscences. One was Byrne’s legendary sense of humor.
“I mentioned to his son Tom that after I left the bench, I was on a program with Gov. Byrne and my first thought was, ‘Oh please, let me go first. He’s so funny. I’ll be so dull after Gov. Byrne speaks,” said former NJ Chief Justice Virginia Poritz.
The other theme was what a skilled politician Byrne was.
“People use to underestimate his political instincts, and I often said that. Sometimes his humor created the impression that he didn’t have the strength and political instincts, but he had great political instincts,” said Bob Mulcahy, Byrne’s former chief of staff.
Gov. Christie described a recent visit with Byrne.
“He grabbed me and he said, ‘I’ll be at the State of the State, be good. It’s your last one, be good.’ And I said, ‘I’ll do my best’ and he grabbed my arm and pulled me close to him so he could whisper and he whispered in my ear, ‘You’ve already done your best. You did it right, kid,'” said Christie.
Former Gov. James Florio was there. And former Govs. Jim McGreevey and Richard Codey saw Byrne last week.
“He was clearly declining. He had to stay for short term in a nursing home. He did well though, he had his faculties and he was still pumping out jokes. That’s the most important thing,” said Codey.
“I think he was at peace. He had lived a long, good life. He had given so much to the state. He loved Ruthie and his children. It was a good death. It was a great life,” said McGreevey.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, delivered remarks.
“He charmed with a magnificent mind and a keen sense of humor. He knew the definition of blarney, the ability to tell someone to go to there in such a way they’ll enjoy the trip,” said Tobin.
So did Tom Byrne’s Republican counterpart in the 90s, former state GOP Chair Ginny Littell.
“No re-telling of any joke ever got old because he always delivered them with a twinkle in his eye,” said Littell.
“Brendan Byrne was a complex man. Smart, governed above the political fray but knew politics. And because he was a reformer, and because of his integrity and because he changed the world don’t mistake that that he was not a political animal,” said former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli.
“He was a go-to guy from the start of mine in politics. Always admired him, and he had a great, great life. Nobody could have had more fun than Brendan did,” said Corzine.
“We argued a lot but always with civility because I not only respected him, I liked him. I liked him very much,” said Gov. Tom Kean.
In the end, it was Cardinal Tobin, who’s only been in the state for about a year, who probably said it best when he said New Jersey loved Brendan Byrne for his authenticity and honesty.