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Tribute: Al Koeppe, Business Legend, Exemplary Citizen, Newark Believer

Remembering a giant of New Jersey business and a great civic leader

Al Koeppe
Al Koeppe, a leader in business and civic engagement, died on December 6 at age 70.

Al Koeppe, a giant in New Jersey business as president of PSE&G and NJ Bell and ceaseless civic leader and cheerleader for Newark, died on December 6 at age 70. His funeral on Saturday at Manasquan’s Church of St. Denis drew a gathering of business, civic and political leaders. The following are excerpts from eulogies delivered at the service by two close friends.

The Rev. M. William Howard Jr., former pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark:

Beloved, we are here this morning because our friend Al has summoned us. Not one of us has come out of convention; we have come with urgency because of what this man and his family means to us. Many of us are still numbed by the news. There will be no more cups of coffee over which to share his wisdom and his passion for whatever he undertook. No more frustrated chuckles about complicated, serious things we couldn't control, while delighting in the blessing of being alive and in the mix with a role to play.

My, what a citizen! What heightened awareness he had about the importance of digging in, sometimes in the most unlikely of places, for the pure joy of making a difference where it mattered, and of forming new friendships and learning new things —whether in the effort to return Newark schools to local control; the effort to establish a Community Foundation; to give the mayor tools to fight violent crime. The list goes on and on, you could always expect in excess of 100 percent.

This was the Al that we knew best in Newark, a city that he loved beyond description. He loved the nitty-gritty of Newark; he knew the rich and dynamic culture and heritage of Newark, of yesterday and today. And he embraced it all. He was intolerant of the awful myths and negative rumors about New Jersey’s largest city. And his pragmatic approach to things led him to roll up his sleeves at every chance, to join a team, any team that was ready to light a candle instead of cursing whatever darkness there was, real or imagined …

Of course, we know he was a businessman and a lawyer. And he could easily show you that side of himself when it mattered. But one way you could tell you were being brought closer was when you heard about his sweetheart, Annie; then about Adam and Allison, and the grands! He smiled easily, as you know, but never more broadly and with such unrestrained pride as when he talked about those grands!

So to the family, there are a lot of folk here today whom you may not know, but we all feel as if we know you! Nothing was remotely as important to Al as his family. He was most joyful and most purposeful when thinking about and talking about his family. His presence, his spirit, his love will always be yours.

And to his friends and colleagues, the price for knowing him is that we must now be the trustees/custodians/stewards of his legacy in this state and elsewhere. We are called to bear witness to how our strength as a society is not despite our coming from so many different backgrounds and places; but it is because we are capable of seeing the elephant from different angles that we can be clear-eyed, bold and unafraid to take risks — daring to believe we can build together something that is bright and hopeful in places that appear desolate at first glance.

We can be management, while always caring deeply about the life of the worker. We can have faith but not wear faith on our sleeves; rather, like Al, wear it on our feet and on our hands and in our hearts. We can work hard outside the home, without ever leaving for our precious families the time that our professional life hasn't already claimed. He knew how vital families are to us, how they love us —warts and all …

We can say, and we feel, Newark won’t be quite the same without this giant of a man, but it won’t be because we haven’t had a heck of a role model by which we can measure our next steps. Sometimes the only white in the room, Al had only one face to show us and always seemed to intimidate those in the room who had at least two. We liked that he spoke with the same voice and with the same integrity, no matter where he was and with whom he was. He knew what he knew and never cheated us by not sharing. He was, at the same time, vulnerable and eager to receive. Somehow he knew that real relationships grow not from the appearance of power and perfection, but from the evidence of solidarity.

More than one or two people have asked, where do we go from here? With those pending projects, those bold ideas about things that were urgent to address. Al always appeared to rope us into to stuff very shortly after we decided we needed to cut back on things?

Well, I say we try now to pull ourselves together and get back to work — be it in Newark, Trenton or Asbury Park. If you love Al, your options are few.

Roger Bodman, political strategist and lobbyist, and former state commissioner under Gov. Thomas Kean:

In many respects, Al Koeppe was “A Man for All Seasons”…. an honorable leader, an inspiration, a man of impeccable character, a man of courage, an artist, a compassionate human being, and — most of all — a wonderful, loving husband, father, and grandfather.

All of you here know of his many accomplishments, his distinguished business career at Bell, PSE&G, and the Newark Alliance, as a director on the boards of Horizon and NJ Resources; the long list of civic, volunteer and philanthropic work: twice the chairman of the NJ Economic Development Authority, appointed by Democratic and Republican governors alike, chair of the Wilentz Supreme Court Commission, the Schools Construction Corporation, the Higher Education Commission, the NJ Chamber, a trustee at St Benedict’s school, and the list goes on and on.

And the many awards and accolades, so richly deserved: the Steven A. Diner Ethical Leadership Award, the Ryan Award for Commitment to NJPAC, the NJ Utilities Association Distinguished Service Award, the NJ Future, Cary Edwards Leadership Award, to name just a few. If I listed them all, we would be here all day.

And why do you know this? Because most of you were in the trenches with him, working with him during his distinguished business career, serving with him on many of the boards, commissions and authorities I just mentioned. Or many of you were organizing, or attending many of the awards dinners and ceremonies which honored him; only a fraction of which were spoken of. You knew first hand of Al’s deep commitment to everything he was involved with.

Why was Al so motivated to give so much to so many? I think Caren Franzini, former CEO of the NJEDA put it best when she described Al “as a unique leader, shaped by his humble beginnings.” Al himself said, “I see life through the lens that I grew up in, I’m a Jersey City kid, I married a Jersey City gal. We worked hard together.” NJBIZ, on one of the many occasions when Al was listed on their “Power 100” list, described him “as the gray-haired eminence, who everyone respects and everyone comes together for.”

Al never lost sight of his roots. In an interview, which some of you may have seen on NJ.com earlier this week, he put it this way: “If I looked at the two companies I had an opportunity to work with, NJ Bell and Public Service, the majority of the employees in both those companies are blue collar employees. One thing is for sure, when working with men and women who are in the trades and in the crafts, those people have a sense of interdependency, but also a sense of community

“As a colleague of them, when I was not an executive, I felt that strongly. They give back to their community individually. When I became an executive of both those companies, I not only had that culture in me. But also, I felt a heavy obligation to those men and women, that, as their leader, as an executive, I needed to personify and live the values that the company held most dear.”

And he went on to say, “So it was very easy for me to invest what time I had outside the work environment, in community activities.”

We have all heard the stories of how he would stop at the garages, before the men and women would get in their trucks and leave on their daily runs and have coffee, and to simply ask how they were doing. Al always knew the name of the janitor, the women operating the elevator, the kid in the mailroom. He always asked about their family and loved ones. He never lost sight of the people.

Al believed in giving everyone a chance, particularly women and minorities, and he did so at every opportunity

Al believed in the Athenian Oath, which many of you will recall says in part: “We will never bring disgrace on this, our City, by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City, both alone and with many. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful, than it was transmitted to us.”

This Al Koeppe deeply believed, and his life’s work is proof of it.

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