TOMS RIVER – Toms River has lost a treasure trove of institutional knowledge with the passing of former Mayor Thomas Kelaher. He was 88.
Toms River Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Paul Daley told Jersey Shore Online “Tom Kelaher was a great human being. Very supportive and was just a genuinely nice man. As Mayor we worked Superstorm Sandy together and he was there seven days a week. He will certainly be missed and we all send our thoughts and prayers to his family.”
Daley had also posted a Rest in Peace message on his personal Facebook. Several posts from his friends followed including Jane Kunka of Suez Water who said “How very sad. Mayor Kelaher such a beautiful man. My thoughts and prayers for his family.”
Lacey Township Committeeman Mark Dykoff said Kelaher was “definitely one of the good guys.”
He became Toms River’s second directly-elected mayor on January 1, 2008. He served until 2019, when he chose not to run for re-election. 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, 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. Idle 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 about his pending retirement. “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.”
With his charismatic, approachable personality, he was always willing to tell a story and share his wealth of experience. It will be hard to replace him.
The cause of death has not been released. The Toms River Times will have more in our upcoming print edition.