TOMS RIVER – If you had asked Thomas Kelaher about his success, he would have told you that he got where he was because he was surrounded by good people. If you ask those who knew him, they would tell you that he was being modest, and that they were glad to be around him.
Kelaher passed away at 88, leaving behind a legacy of community service.
He served as mayor from 2008 to 2020, but his career spanned law enforcement, military, journalism and more.
Kelaher had a lot of pictures in his office of himself with various political figures, like Dick Cheney. There was one portrait that watched him from the wall, that of Louis Wilson. He was his Marine battalion commander. President Ford made him commandant of entire Marine Corps. Kelaher wrote a letter to the president complimenting him on his choice. He got a letter back from the White House and the Secretary of the Navy. Two months later, the portrait came.
“He was an inspiration,” Kelaher had told the Toms River Times during an interview at the end of his term.
He recalled the early days of law enforcement in Toms River, when there were six officers. There were call stations on certain street corners. If you needed police, you picked up one of those phones. There were brawls around the base after pay day, and soldiers were spending their money in the bars. The town grew and eventually, Kelaher would be the Ocean County Prosecutor before becoming mayor.
A close friend of his, Joseph Buckalew, couldn’t say enough good things about him. His kindness, understanding, intelligence and character stood out. Buckalew had been the chairman of the Ocean County GOP for 20 years.
In addition to all his roles in the community, Kelaher was a devoted family man.
Buckalew recalled that on social occasions he always had his wife Carol with him, who he loved dearly.
“He was just an outstanding individual. A first class guy and a good friend. He was not the least bit taken with himself,” Buckalew said. “He’s going to be sorely missed.”
While Kelaher attributed his success as mayor to having good employees, Buckalew said he was being modest. Kelaher was someone who took responsibilities seriously and was always up to the task.
“There are so many people in our lives, but only some really stand out. Tom stood out for me,” he said.
Apparently, he stood out for many others as well. Condolences poured in from all over.
“Toms River has lost a pillar of our community with the passing of Mayor Thomas Kelaher,” current Mayor Maurice Hill said, noting that flags at municipal buildings would be flown at half staff in his honor. A car parade was held outside town hall in remembrance.
“He has left a lasting legacy for our community and his family. On behalf of all the residents of Toms River we extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the Kelaher family,” he said.
“He was an iconic leader,” he said. “He guided us through Hurricane Sandy and the rebuilding.”
Hill talked about how he met his wife while stationed at Lakehurst. She was a Toms River resident.
“Anyone who knew Tom knew he was very outgoing, gregarious. He had a tremendous sense of humor and he always had a plethora of funny stories and anecdotes,” he said.
“He left a lasting legacy for his family and his community. He truly lived a wonderful life of service all of us should strive for,” he said.
Councilwoman Maria Maruca called him a gentleman who was larger than life. She compared him to Santa Claus: “He always had a twinkle in his eye, a little smirk, and always spreading good cheer.”
Whether it was Little League, senior center events, or some other community appearance, he was always in the zone. “He was Mr. Toms River.
“He never had a bad word to say about anyone,” she said. “He always had a joke.”
He had a place in his heart for the Field of Dreams, which will be a park for special needs people in town. That group is taking donations in his honor at tomsriverfieldofdreams.com/.
Council President Kevin Geoghegan said he was a paramedic when he first met Kelaher. He was later a police officer when Kelaher was the prosecutor.
“He was a stand-up guy who will be sorely missed,” he said.
Councilman Matthew Lotano told a story about how he ran into Kelaher a few times in one day while running errands with his five-year-old daughter. At one point, the mayor said “Little girl, are you following me around?”
“He made her feel so important and so special,” he said.
“He was a good man. He always had a great story to tell. He was a funny guy, with a great sense of humor and he will be greatly missed,” Councilman Daniel Rodrick said.
Councilwoman Laurie Huryk recalled how friendly he was when she first joined the council.
“He was the first person to really greet me. He practically ran across the room to come shake my hand and welcome me onto the council before I was even sworn in,” she said.
Councilman Terrence Turnbach had first met him when he was a young attorney and Kelaher was the prosecutor. He recalled his calm demeanor and lack of ego.
“He was the perfect boss. He gave encouragement and room to grow,” he said. From one Irishman to another, he was the “salt of the Earth.”
Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy used to be Toms River’s chief of police. He chuckled as he recalled some of Kelaher’s stories. Kelaher had been part of the Shore Patrol back in the day, and would tell stories about that.
Kelaher’s niche was being with the public. Whether it was opening a business or a similar ceremony, he was there with a smile.
“He was always concerned with the town and its people,” he said.
Current Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer said he has long admired the man. He went to school with his son, Michael, and has fond memories of him as a great father and family man.
“As a former Ocean County Prosecutor, Tom Kelaher left an indelible legacy at this office,” Billhimer said. “There are countless men and women, assistant prosecutors and detectives alike, who started their careers here in the office because Tom Kelaher believed in them and their abilities. He could walk through the office and say hello to everyone by name, no small feat in an office of 180 people. As a Prosecutor, Mr. Kelaher was innovative and effective, both in his ability to lead the office and to inspire those who served under him. Ocean County is a better and safer place because of Tom Kelaher.
“When I was appointed Prosecutor, then-Toms River Mayor Kelaher was among the first to call me to offer his advice and support. He was kind and indulgent with his time and wisdom – a true gentleman. Tom Kelaher leaves behind a legacy that is unparalleled in our community: a tireless, selfless man who dedicated his life to his family and public service – a balancing act that is not easily accomplished. We are all better off because of Tom Kelaher’s presence in our community,” he said.
Stacy Proebstle, who worked for eight years as the former mayor’s Public Information Officer, said how he truly loved helping the residents.
“Whether it was a question about extra trash collection, the process to raise your home following Superstorm Sandy, fixing a broken streetlight, or giving tours to Boy Scouts, he was always there. That was one of his favorite things to do every morning in the office. We would sit down and go through phone calls, emails and letters and answer them one by one,” she said.
“He understood the importance of compromise and honest debate. He guided our community with a strong and steady, yet gentle hand with empathy and compassion,” she said. “His knowledge of this town was immeasurable and I could always count on him for a story and a few good laughs when we drove around town to various functions.”
“Mayor Kelaher was more than a boss to me, he was a mentor and a second grandfather and even attended my wedding to recite a reading,” she said.
“The Ocean County GOP family sends its sincerest condolences to the Kelaher family upon the passing of Mayor Tom Kelaher,” County Chairman Frank Holman said. He was “a great American. He dedicated his life to country, as a marine, as a prosecutor and as Republican Mayor of Toms River. Mayor, Rest In Peace!”
“The NJGOP is absolutely devastated by the loss of our Republican State Committee Member, friend and mentor, Tom Kelaher. His record of service is exceptional,” said NJGOP Chairman Michael Lavery. “We are mourning his loss, and are keeping his family in our thoughts and prayers.”
He continued to be the State Committeman for Ocean County and had just won the endorsement of the local GOP for that position.
During his tenure as mayor, he saw Shakespeare in the Park, statues and memorials, progress on the Field of Dreams, a new animal shelter, quality of life enforcement that would shut down drug hotels, open space preservation, Huddy Park revitalized, Ortley rebuilding, Code Blue overnight homeless shelters, and having Toms River voted one of the 10 best towns in New Jersey.
He had still been involved in his legal practice. He had been appointed as Ocean County Prosecutor for five years, his term ending in 2007.
From 1988 to 1998, Kelaher also served as Chairman of the Board for Clara Mass Medical Center, member of the Board of Trustees of Kimball Medical Center and St. Barnabas Behavior Health Center.
He was a volunteer member of the Community Medical Center Board of Trustees for 25 years, 15 of which as chairman. While serving as chair, Kelaher helped oversee the consolidation of Community Medical Center and Paul Kimball Medical Center and then with the St. Barnabas Health Care System, which consisted of ten hospitals, nearly 4,000 beds and a complex array of programs and services.
He had been a newspaper photographer, started a law practice, and was appointed a deputy Attorney General of New Jersey by Governor Richard J. Hughes. Idol hands are the devil’s workshop, as his elementary school nuns used to say.
He enlisted in the Marines in 1951, reaching ranks such as commanding officer of the Anti-Tank Company of the 5th Marine Regiment and executive officer of the Marine Barracks at Lakehurst Naval Air Station. He retired after 28 years of active and reserve duty as a lieutenant colonel.
During an interview with the Toms River Times in 2019, he said that it had always been ingrained in him to stay busy. That’s why he was involved in so many things.
“I’m too active. I’d go crazy,” he said. “I have no hobbies. When I fish, the only things I hook are my fingers. When I was leaving the prosecutor’s office, I made a timeline. I worked since I was in 6th grade delivering papers.”
He was thinking of ending after two, four-year terms as mayor. However, Superstorm Sandy was during his second term and there were still people out of their homes. “My Marine Corps mentality said you can’t leave in the middle of a battle.”
Former Brick Councilman Michael Thulen said “We owe a debt of gratitude for Mayor Kelaher’s dedication for the many years he served his constituents. Mayor Kelaher always put the people first. In order to preserve the legacy of Mayor Kelaher we ask you as residents to find ways to give back to Ocean County.”