A life’s work: bidding the mayor farewell

Most of us will be sent off from our careers for which we spend so much of our lives’ energy with a shabby little get together in the cafeteria. Perhaps there will be cake. Maybe they’ll present some sort of commemorative clock.

And that’s ok. It’s life. But for a handful of us, including outgoing Mayor Thomas Vahalla, the end of our careers will bring something special.

Vahalla was sent off into retirement at the borough council meeting Monday in the way only a unique, tight-knit community like Metuchen can do it. The borough’s various leaders – the chiefs of the police and fire departments, the high school principal, the head of the parking authority, a former borough council president — each got time to thank Vahalla for the impact he had on the community over a 22 year career in public office.

Council itself bid him farewell with a resolution honoring his service, including the past eight years leading Metuchen as mayor. State and county officials showed up to say goodbye.

Even a contingent of former borough council members, well into their Golden Years, came early and stayed late to see the burly, bearded mayor off.

“You have a great legacy and that legacy is going to be your downtown and what’s going on in Metuchen,” said Middlesex County Freeholder Charles Tomaro. Acknowledging the political will it took to make downtown redevelopment a reality, Tomaro said not everyone agreed with the downtown vision.


Thomas Vahalla speaks at the Eastern Region Communication and Technology conference in 2009

“In the future it’s really going to be one heck of a downtown and you should be very proud,” Tomaro said.

Vahalla served as mayor since 2007, presiding over an era of big changes in the borough. He served on borough council starting in 1993, including five years as Borough Council president. He also worked as a teacher at Metuchen High School for 41 years, where he also coached girls’ softball and golf.

His accomplishments as a political leader in Metuchen included helping push through the rezoning of the Pearl Street lot and completing the first phase of the Whole Foods development. He was instrumental in the redevelopment of Charles Field, said Councilwoman Dorothy Rasmussen, who read a council resolution honoring the mayor.

Under his leadership, the zoning code and the trash pick-up cycle were simplified. Two bridges were replaced and one was resurfaced and the morale of the police department was improved, she said.

“You have enriched us greatly,” the borough’s resolution read.

One speaker on Monday, Fire Chief Robert Donnan, recalled his experience with Vahalla while a student at the high school. Donnan presented Vahalla with a white “chief’s” helmet.

“Tom cared,” said Metuchen High School Principal Bruce Peragallo, evoking Vahalla’s time as an educator. “He cared about students in his class, whether they were his better students or whether they were students that were struggling.

“He also cared about his athletes, that skilled athlete that had potential to be all-state or all-county … and he cared about that last kid sitting on the bench,” he said.

Vahalla did not run for re-election this year. He’ll be replaced by Democrat Pete Cammarano.

Meanwhile, Vahalla, who teared up during the meeting, was fairly mellow at its conclusion, greeting residents, some of whom were strangers. He said he’s not sure yet what he will do with his free time but could stay in politics in some way. His most immediate job was to head to the Pennsylvania mountains and close up his cabin for the winter.

During the meeting he read a quote he has tried to live by: “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, as long as ever you can.”

Photo courtesy of the Eastern Region Communication and Technology Conference.


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