TOMS RIVER – Thomas Kelaher doesn’t stay still for long.
When sitting in his office, he doesn’t rest. He is in constant motion, full of energy, and a repository of local knowledge and stories. Some of the most entertaining stories are not fit for print.
Even though his tenure as mayor has come to an end, there’s no chance he’ll spend his retirement with his feet up.
“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 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.
Kelaher 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.
From 1988 to 1998, the mayor 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.
Prosecutors are appointed by the governor for a five-year term. He was the head of Ocean County law enforcement for a term ending in June of 2007. After that, he spent some time at home. That didn’t last long. He needed to be involved. He ran for office and became Toms River’s second directly-elected mayor January 1, 2008. He was reelected and sworn in for a second term on January 3, 2012.
Toms River, formerly Dover Township, had a change in government that allowed for a directly elected mayor.
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.”
Although the township, and some of the residents, are still impacted by Sandy, he said he feels like he’s satisfied with where the town is. “It’s a good time to hand it off,” he said, remembering a bit of a golden era for the town that was relatively scandal-free.
“If I had any measure of success, it’s because I surround myself with good people and let them do their job,” he said.
There’s a department head meeting twice a month, and he looks around at a group of talented, knowledgeable, hard-working people and thinks “Boy, I am really blessed.”
“Our police department is one of the best in the state. We have clean (financial) audits without any suggestions. The senior center and recreation department have programs all year long. In Public Works, we get compliments on snowplowing.”
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.’
Still, there were things he regrets that he couldn’t do as mayor.
“One of my biggest frustrations was that there were issues under the jurisdiction of the state and yet they impact on our residents and their way of life,” he said. Whether there was a Republican or Democrat administration in Trenton, no one was interested in helping alleviate traffic on Route 9, for instance. Some of the development issues are tied to state law that requires towns to set aside affordable housing units.
He and his wife, Carol, are the parents of four children and eight grandchildren. In addition to family obligations, he said he will continue to practice law with his firm Kelaher, Garvey, Ballou, Van Dyke and Rogalski.
And as for Toms River, he hopes that people will say of him “He left it better than he found it.”