Marra pharmacy turns 80 Remembering way back when
by Al Sullivan Reporter senior staff writer
Oct 10, 2003 | 2057 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For many old-timers in Secaucus, Marra Drug is straight out of the movie "Our Town" or "It's a Wonderful Life," a historic facet of what small-town life used to be like across America.

In celebrating the store's 80th anniversary on Oct. 4, members of the Marra family along with patrons of the store gathered to wish the third generation of Marras luck.

Mayor Dennis Elwell, former Mayor Paul Amico, and other officials congregated on the sidewalk among the hoopla and balloons to celebrate and remember.

Elwell issued a mayoral proclamation honoring one of the oldest and most respected institutions in town.

For members of the Marra family, this was an opportunity to remember the man who brought Marra Drug to Secaucus 80 years ago.

The store's founder, Gerard A. Marra Sr., came to America as an infant. Born in 1896, he grew up in the "Horseshoe" section of Jersey City. At 11 years old, he began to work in a pharmacy. By 16, he was already assisting in filling prescriptions.

The young Marra sold newspapers in old Pennsylvania Station to help pay his way through Rutgers College of Pharmacy in Newark. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Army's Medical Corps during World War I.

In 1923, at the suggestion of his friend Albert Buchmuller - for whom Buchmuller Park was later named - Marra moved to Secaucus and started what was then called "Peerless Drug Store."

Secaucus was a farming community then and had a population of about 4,000 people.

He was not the only pharmacist in town or even the biggest, said his son Gerard, but the elder Marra was a hard worker.

Was up the block

Marra's first pharmacy was located slightly up the block from the current location at Humboldt Street and Paterson Plank Road. (At the time, Hugerich Tavern and Hotel occupied the current location.)

Four years later, Marra moved his business to its current location and set up on the ground floor while his family lived upstairs.

When Marra Drug first opened, Town Hall usually had only the town clerk working and most of the town including the Police Department closed down by 8 p.m. - except for Marra, which became the center of the community. This was an old-fashioned pharmacy, where Marra compounded his own medicines and the soda fountain served as one of the social centers of town.

Although Marra's children Michael III, Josephine, Gerard and Angelo worked in the store, and Michael and Gerard later went to school to become pharmacists as well, many of the people who later became important figures in town government also worked at Marra, including former Police Chief Nicholas Zaccario, former Public Defender Frank Jones, former Board of Health President William Lillis, former School Board Secretary Ronald Temple, former Board of Education President Eleanor Reinl, Frank MacCormack, and, of course, former Mayor Paul Amico.

Amico, according to Gerard Marra, learned his food skills behind the soda counter at Marra Drug, and later went on to open a restaurant of his own out on Route 3.

Amico said he started when he was 13 and stayed until he was 17. He called it "a learning experience" that taught him a lot about customer service. He used to work behind the sofa fountain and run errands.

The soda fountain was straight out of Norman Rockwell painting, and from reports of people who tasted the sodas, they were something special, too.

"We made our own syrups," said his son, Gerard.

Service to the community

In October 1929, the Stock Market collapsed. As with everywhere else, the Great Depression put many people out of work. The elder Marra kept the store open during the years that followed from 9 a.m. to midnight seven days a week. He had a buzzer near the door so that in case of an emergency someone could ring for help.

Michael Marra, Gerard's oldest son, remembered his father being available 24 hours a day.

"There was a night bell so people could wake him from sleep in the upstairs apartment," he said. "Our service was so well known that in the days before Meadowlands Hospital, Police Departments from other towns would send people to the store during emergencies"

Deputy Mayor John Reilly, who was born and spent his younger days in Union City, remembered being ill and his father calling the Union City Police to get him medical attention.

"They told my father to go to Marra's, and he did," Reilly recalled.

Those were different times. The nearest hospital was Christ Hospital in Jersey City and doctors were rare in this part of the county.

Mary Capital, a resident of town for most of her life, recalled how often she came to Marra for medicine and advice.

"This is where we came when we had a problem," she said.

Like in many small towns around America, Marra became the health center for local residents from the 1920s to the 1950s. Patients came to the pharmacy first with problems and depended on the elder Marra to decide what treatment was necessary. Burns, cuts, eye injuries, dental problems as well as first aid for factory and farm mishaps were given at Marra.

The elder Marra was often called "Doc Marra," and the drug store became the emergency room for people as far away as Union City. Marra even supplied medications for local farm animals.

Reporters from the Hudson Observer came to Marra to pick up information for their newspaper.

The elder Marra later became known as "Mr. Secaucus."

He is the subject of a plaque posted near Town Hall, for his deep involvement in the community. He served for 40 years as a member of the Secaucus Board of Education - and 10 of those years as board president. He was the founding member of nearly every civic organization in Secaucus including UNICO, the Elks and Moose clubs, Kiwanis, and Knights of Columbus. He served as the first chairman of the Secaucus chapter of the American Cancer Society as well as the American Legion.

Marra also served on the Selective Service Draft Board starting in World War II until his death in 1967 and received commendations from presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy.

Marra Drug was also had a Western Union counter. During World War II, when telegrams arrived saying that one of Secaucus's boys had been wounded or killed, the elder Marra took the telegram to the family himself. "He couldn't send anyone," said Gerard. "He had to do it."

It was via telegram that the elder Marra found out about his own son, Michael, being wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.

The elder Marra also campaigned with Henry Karjewski, the Secaucus resident who ran for president.

"Henry and my father were friends, and he called on my father when he ran for president," Gerard recalled.

Later generations took over

Due to diabetes, the elder Marra lost both of his legs, yet over the last decade of his life he continued to get around the community via wheelchair.

"He needed a wheelchair to get around, but he still managed to get to civic club meetings," said Gerard Marra. Gerard said that his father had great foresight and predicted the growth of Secaucus out of the swamps, trash dumps and farms into the prosperous business and residential community it is today.

"He knew people would be building here and that this would become a very special place," Gerard said.

His duties passed on to the next generation of Marras, under the management of Michael, Gerard and Angelo. They expanded the store and added a gift and greeting card department.

Over the last decade, the store has passed onto the third generation of Marras. They include Joseph and Joann Marra, who graduated from St. John's pharmacy program; Darin Marra, a graduate of Northeaster College of Pharmacy; Linda Marra, the one-time manager of the card and gift department, and Michelle Tognella (Marra), a pharmacy technician. As in the past, their children also work at the store from time to time.
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