New Jersey Hall of Fame goes deeper than celebrity | Di Ionno (

May 17, 2015

By Mark Di Ionno  

Col. (Ret.) John Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient from Far Hills, applauds some of future soldiers that were sworn into the U.S. Army at the base of the Statue of Liberty in 2010. Jacobs is one of the important New Jersey Hall of Fame candidates who fall outside the realm of sports and entertainment.

Derek Jeter was the New York Yankees captain who carried his team to five World Series championships.

Col. Jack Jacobs carried 14 wounded soldiers to safety under heavy enemy fire during a Vietnam firefight and received the Congressional Medal of Honor.

John Stewart is a celebrity political satirist watched by millions.

John Stewart Rock was a forceful abolitionist, forgotten by history.

Joe Pesci plays crazy wise guys.

Dyson Freeman is a really smart guy, and a pioneer of advanced theories of physics.

All six are on this year’s New Jersey Hall of Fame ballot.

Guess who the biggest vote-getters are going to be?

“The celebrities always get the most votes,” said Don Jay Smith, who helped create the organization and was its first executive director.

“That’s understandable. They’re the household names,” he said. “But it was always our intention to educate the public – especially young people – about the other people from this great state who played important roles in our society. That’s why we created the different categories.”

The first class in 2008 was not only filled with household names, but those we know by only one name. Bruce and Frank. Yogi and Vince. Edison and Einstein.

Since then, the popular voting has always skewed a little toward to pop culture and sports, but categories such as “Enterprise” and “Public Service” keep the playing field level.

So for every Michael Douglas, there’s a John Dorrance, the Campbell’s chemist/executive who invented condensed soup.

For every James Gandolfini, there’s a Peter McGuire, a 19th century labor leader.

Joe Piscopo was part of the class of 2014, along with Thomas Paine, Gov. Thomas Kean and philanthropist Ray Chambers.

“One guy (Paine) wrote the words that fueled the American Revolution, another guy (Chambers) is trying to cure worldwide malaria, and I wrote the line ‘What Exit?’ ” Piscopo said last week. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’

“But seriously, Ray Chambers and Gov. Kean were mentors of mine. Ray got me involved in helping kids and Gov. Kean enlightened me to the idea of public service.”

George White, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association and a Hall of Fame commissioner, talked about the process used to find “balances” among the inductees. The public voting is going on now at and ends June 7. Hopefully people voting for the Jeters, will take time to learn about those such as Jack Jacobs.

“Once the public voting ends, the (16) commissioners meet,” White said. “The top vote-getters in every category get in, and then we have discussions about who else we should include.

“We try to find a good balance on a lot of different fronts,” White said. “The celebrities draw the public interest, but we want people to know about others who have contributed in other meaningful ways. Then we look for balances between, say, men and women, and those who are dead and alive. We want good North and South Jersey representation.”

The commissioners themselves reflect that balance. The chairman is former Giants’ Super Bowl center Bart Oates; the vice chair is Gail Gordon, a politically active attorney.

Former Yankee pitcher Al Leiter sits alongside Marie Blistan, a special education teacher and vice-president of the NJEA. It goes on like that; there are TV executives, an accountant, journalists and a Rutgers-Camden law professor.

Smith talked about the 2011 class, which was heavily tilted toward sports stars and entertainment celebrities. Tony Bennett and Queen Latifah. Joe Theismann and Franco Harris. John Travolta and Bruce Willis. Martha Stewart.

“That was the year we made sure John Basilone got in,” Smith said. “The commissioners put him in.”

Basilone, like Jacobs, was a Medal of Honor recipient for his heroism at Guadalcanal and was killed at Iwo Jima.

Smith said it was Oates’ idea to expand the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame into the current format.

“Bart was the one who pushed this,” Smith said. “He wanted to see it broadened to include people who tell the overall greatness of the state. And from there we developed the educational curriculum that is still being used in classrooms to teach our kids about our history, to develop pride in the state.”

Oates said he thought a sports-only hall was “too limited.”

“I thought it was sending the wrong message in that it overemphasized sports,” said Oates, who played on three winning Super Bowl teams, two with the Giants and one with the 49ers. “I wanted to send the message that the measure of success is an infinitely broader spectrum than sports.”

That message, Oates said, was aimed at kids.

“We wanted them to see great, tangible accomplishment from people like them, from their towns, and give them the idea that there are a lot of people of exceptional character who are ‘Super Bowl MVPs’ in their chosen fields.”

Mark Di Ionno may be reached at Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.