Stephen N. Adubato Sr. was an iconic Newark and New Jersey political power broker who created the North Ward Center, a non-profit community service organization during the turbulent 60's in the state's largest city. "Big Steve" also built the Robert Treat Academy Charter School.
Tributes from politicans, community leaders, school officials and residents have been pouring in since Steve Adubato, Sr. passed away last Friday at the age of 87.
Public Television personality, WBGO host and former State Assemblyman Steve Adubato, Jr. joined News Director Doug Doyle for an emotional journey into the life of his complicated but loved father.
"My dad was very transactional. He was a deal maker and everything was about a deal. Everything was about how do you get the grant money to build the Robert Treat Academy or expand the program at The North Ward Center, and so he would use politics and political influence and power for the large part to make things happen for other people, particularly in the North Ward of Newark. So that was his mindset like what's the deal?"
Steve, Jr. recalled a recent lunch where his dad, who had struggled with cognitive issues for about 10 years, passed his a note that read "Why?" The second note said "mean to you", a reference to the times "Big Steve" didn't connect with his only son. Steve says his dad wanted to know why anyone wanted to help him if he could do something for he or she in return.
"It said a lot about him and I was sad for him. But man, he was a hell of a deal maker, but there was no deal to make. He just needed help and he couldn't give anyone anything other than being with him. He didn't get it. Sounds crazy I know."
Steve stressed how much his father loved the kids in the North Ward and the Robert Treat Academy Charter School.
"He would walk in and they would yell 'Big Steve'. He was physical with the kids. He would hug them and he would shake hands with them. But the reality is he was never affectionate with my sisters or I. When things went wrong for us he was like 'listen, I'm not interested in your bellyaching or crying I remember losing my election for student government president in college by five votes. I called him from the bar at the school. At the time you could drink at 18. I was at Montclair State, I lost the election and I said dad I lost and I was crying and he said 'It's a stupid election in the first place.' He goes stop crying and come back here we have work to do. But with the kids he had love and affection, caring and compassion and my sisters and I would say 'What about us?' He was like look these kids need more than you do. He really felt for those kids."
Steve Adubato Sr., life-long Democrat, surprised many analysts when he supported Kenneth Gibson in 1970, who became Newark's first Black mayor instead of backing Mayor Hugh Addonizio.
"It was very dangerous, it was risky, it was courageous. We lived in a very Italian-American (neighborhood). Lot of racism in our community and my father stood up and did that against the incumbent mayor at the time who was a Democrat. Hugh Addonizio was on federal trial for 60-plus counts of corruption with his relationship with organizated crime. My father was like we are not supporting him, we're supporting Ken Gibson because he belived Gibson was a better person and would also understand the work my father was doing. My father would find a way, whether it was in a Newark election, to do what he thought was right."
Steve Jr. says his dad was the same way when working with former Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
"He didn't see party when it came to what he thought was most important to the people he was serving. He was the ultimate practical politician."
Steve said former Governor Christie contacted him right away when he heard about what had happened last week.
"Beyond all the politics and the things they did together, it was personal. My father couldn't do anything for Chris Christie couldn't do anything for him but they liked each other and respected each other. They were actually friends on some weird level."
Showing his emotional side, Steve Jr. says his dad was "bold" and "courageous".
Adubato says his mom Fran and his father, a Barringer High School graduate, have always loved living in Newark.
"He didn't know how to live anywhere else. He was not someone who could have done well in the suburbs of New Jersey or anywhere. He thrived in a place like Newark."
Fran Adubato plans on staying in Newark.
Does Steve Jr. have a special momento of his father that will he keep close?
"I have a favorite picture of my father and I. It was my last game as a senior. I played football at Essex Catholic High School back in the day at what is now known as School Stadium, it was at City Stadium on Bloomfield Avenue. I remember the last game as a senior. My dad used to come to the games. First, he was angry that I wasn't playing more and he would ask me what's a matter with me, 'What are you doing on the bench?' And then he would argue with the coach, none of which was helpful because he would never hold back. I wore #81. I had the blue #81. He had the white #81, the home and away jerseys. And you ran out on the field on the last day when you were a senior. There's a picture of my dad running out. He never played high school ball. He was too small, but he always imagined himself as being an athlete. Running out on the field with him on Father-Son day, some of guys I went to school with didn't have dads so they were there with their moms and I remember that."
You can see the video version of this interview on the WBGO 88.3 FM Facebook Page.