North Bergen Commissioner Theresa Ferraro was honored as one of 19 “Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment” at Hudson County’s Women’s History Month awards ceremony last month.
It was only the most recent in a long line of honors and distinctions held by Ms. Ferraro.
“Commissioner Ferraro has been a hugely influential and groundbreaking leader in North Bergen during her career in public service,” said Mayor Nicholas Sacco. “She is our first female member of the Board of Commissioners in addition to being a successful business owner and a tireless advocate for senior citizen programs and benefits.”
“North Bergen was good to me and I try my best to be good to all the people in North Bergen.” –Theresa Ferraro
“I’ve been on the Housing Authority about 42, 43 years,” said Ferraro. “I’ve been chairman for the board for at least 31. I remember when I first got the position I said to my mother, ‘I don’t know what this is all about.’ She says to me, ‘Always remember, treat those people as you would treat me. Do all you can to help them.’ And that’s what I did.”
“I was born on what’s now 43rd Street,” said Ferraro. “At that time, Main Street was the name of it, 707 Main. And then my father built the house at 726 Main Street. I was five years old.”
Describing herself as “a solid North Bergen person,” she grew up in town and settled here when she got married.
When her husband lost his job, she decided it was up to her to make ends meet. Approaching a woman she knew at a local business, she asked about a job.
“Her husband was Jimmy Nolan who was also the former head of the police department in North Bergen,” said Ferraro.
The woman hired Ferraro part time. “And before you knew it, part time became full time,” she said. The time was the early 1960s. And when her employer died, Ferraro bought the agency, becoming a rare female business owner in 1965.
She still runs the James Nolan Insurance Agency with her son Anthony as co-owner.
Being a successful business owner wasn’t enough to keep her busy, though, so Ferraro began serving on the Housing Authority of North Bergen. That was where she met Nicholas Sacco. “He was on the Housing Authority at one time,” she said. “He was very good. The day I met him we shook hands, and from that day forward I was very loyal to the man. We have a very good understanding.”
Nonetheless, she was surprised when Sacco asked her if she would like to run for the Board of Commissioners.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Really?’ ”
Then she agreed, but with a difference. “He said, ‘I guess you’d like the Department of
Finance.’ I said no, if you want me I want the Police Department. To me that’s a challenge.”
Thus in 1999 she became not only the first female elected commissioner in North Bergen, but the first woman to head the Police Department.
“I’ve been with three police chiefs,” she said. “Chief [Angelo] Busacco, Chief [William] Galvin, and now Chief [Robert] Dowd. Chief Busacco took me under his wing. He taught me everything. I can’t thank him enough.”
How it works
In North Bergen, the town is run by five elected commissioners, one of whom is chosen among the five to be mayor. All of the jobs are salaried and are considered part-time, and each commissioner helps oversee a department.
“I have known Theresa for many years and it is an honor to serve with her on the Board of Commissioners, where she has worked hand in hand with me to move North Bergen forward,” said Sacco. “She has been particularly instrumental in making sure that our North Bergen Police Department has sufficient resources to keep us all safe, including adequate manpower and innovative new equipment like our closed circuit camera system.”
Not surprisingly, Ferraro is very aware of gender issues. “I’m very happy; I’ve got about 13 women on the police force,” she said.
“People don’t realize what a police department is all about,” she said. “They don’t realize those men and women put their lives on the line every time they go out. My officers are very professional.”
“They know I mean business,” said the tough-minded widow about those serving in the department. “I stand behind them though.”
Ferraro also continues to serve as chairperson of the Housing Authority Board of Trustees. “I enjoy working with the senior citizens and the low income and helping anyone who needs help,” she said.
In return, one of the senior housing units on Meadowview Avenue was named in her honor: the Theresa Ferraro Senior Building.
“They did that; I said ‘What are you people, nuts here?’” she laughed.
According to Ferraro, Mayor Sacco refers to her as “the stubborn one” on the board. “I’m very outspoken. I never lie,” she says.
Regarding her future plans, Ferraro said, “I feel as long as the good Lord gives me the strength and my marbles in my head, I want to continue. I have no reason to retire. I’m very devoted to North Bergen. North Bergen was good to me and I try my best to be good to all the people in North Bergen.”
“What’s important to me is to keep up the good work that all my men and women do,” she said. “I never worry about tomorrow, I worry about today.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.