Catherine Florio Pipas recalled Monday that one of the key lessons she learned from her father, former New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio, is to build character to be tough in the face of challenges and reframe challenges as opportunities.
Growing up in Camden, she remembered, the kids in the family were given a choice before driving to the local swim club on weekends: travel with their mother in an air-conditioned station wagon or with dad in his Oldsmobile, with AC off and windows up, in order to build character.
Character in this case was being built by physically sweating, mentally overcoming the desire for comfort that might weaken you, and spiritually appreciating the cool pool more than you would have ever done otherwise, said Florio Pipas, now a professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth University. Making tough choices and self-sacrifice were cornerstone to his beliefs.
Similar tales of Jim Florios character and courage were at the forefront as more than 200 current and former state officials, colleagues, family members, and friends gathered for a public memorial service for the former congressman and governor, who died Sept. 25 at age 85.
Sitting in the crowd was a rare contingent: Gov. Phil Murphy and all seven former New Jersey governors Chris Christie, Jon Corzine, Richard Codey, Jim McGreevey, Donald DiFrancesco, Christie Whitman, and Tom Kean.
I dont believe this group has ever been together, Murphy told the audience at a theater on the Blackwood campus of Camden County College. Thats a statement to Jim Florio.
Murphy said with Florios death, New Jersey has lost a mentor, a leader, and a dear friend to many, as well as a man of principle who proved in both politics and life that we can disagree passionately on issues while remaining true friends with those with whom we disagree.
MORE: Jim Florio, feisty former N.J. governor, congressman, dies at 85
Weve lost an exemplary public servant, he said of Florio, who was governor from 1990-94. We have lost a statesman. But we have in no way lost Jims spirit.
Some remarked how Florios story was a remarkable one. Born in Brooklyn, he dropped out of high school, joined the Navy, fought as an amateur boxer, and got his high-school equivalency before working as a janitor to put himself through law school at Rutgers University in Camden.
Gov. Jim Florio's daughter, Dr. Catherine Florio Pipas, holds a pair of boxing gloves, remembers her father's boxing days, in Blackwood on Monday.Dave Hernandez | For NJ Advance
Later, Florio was elected to the New Jersey Assembly and then to represent parts of South Jersey for 15 years in Congress, where he spearheaded the landmark federal Superfund law to clean up contaminated sites across the U.S.
U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-1st Dist., who now occupies the seat Florio once held in the House of Representatives, called him an environmentalist before anyone ever spoke of it.
After two failed gubernatorial bids, Florio was elected New Jerseys 49th governor in 1989. His tenure was tumultuous but consequential.
He signed the nations first statewide ban on assault weapons, fighting off fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association. He also enacted laws to overhaul auto insurance and school funding.
Most famously, he installed a $2.8 billion tax increase in response to a fiscal crisis in the state a hike he backed in part to help ensure school funding to poorer districts in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision requiring equal education aid. The move sparked backlash across the Garden State and led to Republicans taking over the state Legislature for a decade. Florio himself ultimately served only one term as governor, losing his re-election bid to Whitman in 1993. Get politics news like this right to your inbox with the N.J. Politics newsletter. Add your email below and hit “subscribe”
Michael Perrucci, Florios law partner and longtime friend, remembered begging the then-governor not to raise taxes. Florio brushed him off, warning that not doing so could lead to schools closing and telling him that I was elected to do the right thing.
I always thought he wasnt the greatest politician. He was the greatest statesman, Perrucci said. He wasnt nave about politics, but I think he always did what was right.
Murphy, a fellow Democrat, quoted Florios fourth and final State of the State address, which he delivered shortly before leaving office, saying we will all move closer to the world we want for our children if we rise above the politics of the moment.
These are the words which remind us of how we all should endeavor to govern, the current governor said.
Norcross described Florio as a fighter, a doer, a true public servant.
He was feisty but principled, determined to improve the lives of those whom he represented, the congressman said. He left behind a legacy that acts as a roadmap for followers to follow.
Gov. Jim Florio's son, Chris Florio, gives a musical tribute in Blackwood on Monday. Dave Hernandez | For NJ Advance
Chris Florio, the late governors son, said he remembers his father every time he walks past the Charles River, a former Superfund site, in Boston, the city he has lived in for years.
It was toxic when I moved to Boston to go to college, and now they hold swimming races in it, Chris Florio said. Thats because of my father.
Like his sister, he also recalled a story about his dads Oldsmobile how it included an 8-track player that helped them bond. In his honor, Chris Florio, a classical music composer, picked up a guitar and performed one of his fathers favorite songs: Neil Diamonds Sweet Caroline.
Im playing this because every time this song came on, he would turn the volume up a little too loud and sing along a little too loud, Chris Florio recalled. Thats my father.
Catherine Florio Pipas mentioned another lesson she learned from her dad: to be prepared and ready but not looking to fight.
This skill was core to Dads arsenal of success, she said. It consisted of being on time, doing his homework, and knowing his opposition.
Dad is now relying upon all of us to save the planet, all of us to ensure justice, all of us to improve the health care system, enhance education, and protect people, Florio Pipas added. He believed in the next generation. He believed in each of us.
From left to right: Former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, Jon Corzine, and Chris Christie, and Congressman Donald Norcross and Gov. Phil Murphy attended a memorial for former Gov. Jim Florio in Blackwood on Monday.Dave Hernandez | For NJ Advance
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Brent Johnson may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him at @johnsb01.