Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes with me should know that one of the titles that I like to show off is that I am proud native of the Garden State, New Jersey. So it was with great sadness earlier this week that I learned about the passing of one of New Jersey’s greatest political icons, Senator Frank Lautenberg.
Senator Lautenberg, who was called “FRL” with reverence by staff, was THE giant in New Jersey politics for my entire life, and his life story reads like a living history of the 20th century in the United States.
FRL is the embodiment of the Greatest Generation. He was born to humble beginnings in Paterson, New Jersey in 1924, and lost his father when he only 19. After high school, he went right into the U.S. Army Signal Corps, where he served for 4 years helping to win World War II. Supported by the GI Bill, he came home from the war and graduated from Columbia University and Columbia Business School in 1949. As he told the story on a number of occasions, the man who handed him his degree from Columbia was war hero and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower.
With his business degree in hand, he joined with a few friends to start Automated Data Processing (ADP), which grew to become one of the largest and most successful payroll-management companies in the world. After almost 25 years of stewardship of that company, he decided to turn his attention to public service. Lautenberg won his first term in the U.S. Senate in 1982.
FRL, the last surviving Veteran of World War II serving in the Senate, went on to serve almost 5 full Senate terms from New Jersey, becoming nationally recognized for leading the charge to ban smoking on airplanes, set the national drinking age to 21, toughen drunk driving laws and increase investments in transportation.
Beyond the impressive resume I just laid out, he was also the man who brought me to Washington, D.C. after I finished college in 2005 and gave me my start in this town – for which I am eternally grateful. I worked in his office as a staff assistant and press assistant for more than a year directly out of college, and to this day as a Senior Director here at Qorvis, I lean on so much that I learned from him.
FRL was also the person who had the foresight to pull this young staffer aside one afternoon in 2006 and introduce me to a man who he foreshadowed “would do some big things in this world.”
One afternoon as I walked back to the office from lunch, FRL saw me, greeted me near the Hart Senate building basement elevators and walked me over to introduce me to the then-junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.
This week, I have thought a lot about that moment where he facilitated a brief conversation with me and the future President of the United States. It was a small gesture in his otherwise grand, extraordinary life, but I think it provided great insight into the mind of a legendary public servant, who had an intuitive perspective on history and the significance of that meeting in my life.
While it’s always difficult to lose anyone who you admire and have great affection for, one thing that gave me great solace this week was the warm sendoff that my former boss got and the long-deserved love and respect that he received from all corners. It’s the perfect swan song to a life well lived.
Best wishes to the Senator’s family on their loss, and I thank him for how he changed my life and the lives of so many others.
By Joel Payne