Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Chad Remembers Ray Blanco

On a Friday night a little over a week ago, Ray Blanco called me around 9 p.m. to talk about the previous few days.

I had put in my last day at the Courier News a few weeks earlier, after three years as the reporter assigned to cover Plainfield and two other neighboring towns, but Ray wasn’t about to let me go so easily.

It seemed he rarely let anyone go so easily.

We were in the habit of talking informally, off the record, once a week or so, which hadn’t changed after I’d left the newspaper. We talked constantly about meeting for dinner or a drink, but our schedules interfered and we never got the chance.

As City Council president, Ray was brutally honest about himself and others, sarcastic, witty, charming and insightful. Somehow, he could be mocking without being mean-spirited. And he was possessed of what might be described today as an almost anachronistic sense of devotion to his role as an elected official.

That night, we talked about my new job and his high-profile work as director of public affairs for UPN 9 and Fox 5 in New York. We talked about the latest little storm he’d created while presiding over a City Council meeting a few days ago.

It had been the typical disagreement about procedure, and – as was common for him after political flaps like this one – he privately worried that he’d given offense or burned bridges with his tough talk. As many people know, he could be blustery and dramatic when confronted with a situation he found exasperating, but most often that was because he knew he had right on his
side, as was the case this time.

As we spoke, he also told me he’d just been persuaded to accept the Democratic nomination to run for Union County freeholder next year. Reluctantly.

He felt another Plainfield councilman, his good friend Rayland Van Blake, had earned the chance to run instead. Given the county’s voting calculus (heavily Democratic), the nomination is more or less a de facto anointment to higher office, but even with the odds on his side he was hesitant. Ray was politically ambitious – anyone who knew him knew that, or suspected it – but his aspirations were, as far as I could tell, subordinate to his sense of honor in every case.

Ray wanted higher office, but he didn’t want to sacrifice himself to get it. And besides, he had his sights set above freeholder. (But no, he didn’t want the state Assembly seat held by Jerry Green.)

We spoke for a while that night, as my girlfriend rolled her eyes in smiling disbelief that I would waste more than an hour late on a Friday night talking to a former source. But it wasn’t a former source. It was Ray. He was a friend.

That was the last time I talked to him. He died one week later of a heart attack at the age of 50.

As human beings, we collectively tend toward hyperbole when speaking of the dead. It’s a tendency that is ungenuine and rarely serves the memory of those who are gone as much as it does our own sense of loss. I think Ray would have agreed with me about that. He didn’t seem the type of person to go in for a lot of “Alas, poor Yorick!” hand-wringing.

But Ray was the kind of person you could say those exaggerated things about and mean most of them. He was an unbelievably busy guy who packed every minute with work and community service.

He was an unabashed name-dropper with a childlike delight for it. He was a fierce advocate for those he felt needed protection. He loved Plainfield. Damn, did he love Plainfield. He was constantly shooting barbs at the Courier News and Star-Ledger, demanding they give the city better coverage. He felt residents deserved that much.

His love of life was enormous, and he seemed to squeeze laughter from every moment. His standard greeting to me was an impish, drawn out, “Y’know ...” as he wagged a finger in my direction.

His death came as a shock because he was so full of life and energy. All of us who have known him are poorer individually for having lost him, as is the entire city of Plainfield.

--Chad Weihrauch

NOTE: The Plaintalker is pleased to offer Chad this opportunity to publish his unique reflections about Ray and Plainfield.


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