“I’ve always been lucky to enjoy good health,” former Mayor Paul Amico said in 2013 when he celebrated his 100th birthday. But he was also born with a lot of good luck and political savvy that allowed his to oversee the biggest transformations in Secaucus’s history during his nearly 30 years as mayor.
Amico passed away at 103 years old last week.
Mayor Amico, from 1963 until his political retirement in 1990, Amico became the face and voice of Secaucus for generation. He was credited for helping the town make the transition from pig farms and slaughter houses to a shopping and hotel mecca for northern New Jersey.
“He led a wonderful life,” said Mayor Michael Gonnelli. “He was mayor of this town for 30 years. I don’t think anybody will ever fill his shoes; he was an awesome mayor.”
Amico came to Secaucus in 1919 at the age of 6. His parents had moved out of Little Italy in New York City, seeking elbow room. His father worked on the New York railroad. At 13, Amico started to work for Marra Drug Store (which still exists) behind the counter.
“He was a gentleman.[It] was an honor to know him. He put the word ‘Secaucus’ in his heart, and his heart was Secaucus,” Gonnelli said. “He grew up here; he had a business here, he became the mayor here. He was awesome; he did everything by the book. Every person that had a problem, they reached out, he answered. He was what I try to model myself after, quite frankly. He showed me the ropes.”
Although Amico didn’t finish school, he soon graduated to his own business–a diner on Route 3, which he said taught him the organizing skills he later used as mayor. In a small eatery the only way to make money is through volume. He built the counters so that he and his workers could provide quick, efficient service.
Providing service became one of the chief motivations for him over his 28-year mayoral career. To seek better services, he transformed the town from a world of backwater pig farms and trash deposits to one of the most successful business communities in the state.
Back from war
His initial attraction to politics did not come from a vision for the future, but from genuine anger at the way things were done. Returning from the Army after World War II, Amico found things he detested about local government. The politicians seemed to treat the townspeople with contempt. While he didn’t run for office until the 1950s, he watched and learned, and then organized a personal political machine capable of beating the politicians at their own game.
Before he was elected mayor in 1963, Amico had set goals of improving the school system, providing kids with recreation, and expanding municipal services to the town. He wanted to attract development that would employ people and create a tax base to pay for improvements.
“I wanted to create an atmosphere in which developers would feel comfortable investing in Secaucus,” Amico said, during one interview with The Secaucus Reporter.
Hudson County had a negative reputation back then, before it became a popular destination for people looking to work in New York.
“My goals were not to have the biggest police force or the best schools or the best streets,” Amico said. “But to have all of them at a high level of quality. It’s like being dressed up. You don’t want the best tie or shirt or suit, but you want to have everything you need to look good.”
Over his career, Amico replaced the grammar schools, built a high school, expanded sewage treatment, and provided one of the highest levels of services in the county to Secaucus residents. He saw the lack of these things as limiting the ability of the town to grow.
“He was very proud of the fact that he won 14 elections in a row.” – Dan Amico, nephew
Development, Amico believed, was a necessary evil that allowed the town to give the residents a better way of life. The more industry that came into town, the more services the town could provide. He compared it to a family trying to send its kids to college.
Gonnelli said that because of inclement weather on Thursday, the town is waiting to figure out how to honor Amico.
“There’s a little bit of a snowstorm today, so we’re going to meet [Friday] to see what we’re going to do, but we’ll be doing something” he said.
Dan Amico of Secaucus, the late mayor’s nephew, said last week, “He was the biggest promoter of the town. Everywhere he went, he talked up the town; he loved the town and the people. He spent his entire adult life thinking about the town and the people in it, and trying to make it better. He lived and breathed Secaucus.”
He added, “He was very proud of the fact that he won 14 elections in a row. He did something that was unprecedented in Hudson County history and will probably never be done again.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.