WEST WINDSOR, N.J.—Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes, former New Jersey Governor Brendan T. Byrne, current and former County officials, members of the Mercer County Park Commission, and family and friends of former State Senator Richard J. Coffee gathered yesterday for a special ceremony at Mercer County Park to re-name the park his honor.
Rain forced the ceremony indoors to the Mercer County Tennis Center, where Coffee received a rousing standing ovation and was presented an original painting done by local artist Lewis Russomano. In his acceptance, Coffee declared his continued enthusiasm for Mercer County Park. “I came through the park several times over the past few weeks, and I am impressed by what I see,” Coffee said, adding that he hopes Mercer County will continue to increase the park’s amenities. Also instrumental in the development of Mercer County Community College, adjacent to the park, Coffee said he hopes it will someday become a four-year university. “I am so very happy to be here, and so honored,” Coffee told the audience.
Special guest Byrne, a longtime friend of Coffee and Governor during Coffee’s time in the Senate, yesterday quipped that his friend, an avid golfer, would have rather had the ceremony at one of the county’s golf courses. Byrne recalled the many hours he spent at the park with his children, and now grandchildren, who participated in the sports of rowing, tennis and baseball.
Coffee, 84, of Lawrence, is considered the driving force behind the county park system. County Executive Hughes said Coffee should have been honored long ago.
“Many of us take this beautiful park for granted,” Hughes said. “Mercer County Park as we know it today, this brand new Tennis Center, and all of the rest of the park amenities in this County that we’ve grown to know and love would not have been possible without Dick Coffee. No one, it seemed, could envision a future of widespread suburban sprawl. But Dick knew Mercer County needed a park system to accommodate the recreational needs of its growing population. Today is long overdue, and I’m extremely pleased that we’ve been able to make this possible.”
Early on in his career as a public servant, Coffee recognized a glaring lack of recreational facilities in Mercer and began gathering support for the creation of a comprehensive park system. Beginning in 1955, Dick Coffee fought for the establishment of the County Park System. In 1964, after nearly a decade of advocating for the need for a park system, Coffee succeeded in helping to establish the Mercer County Park Commission. This crucial step, thanks to Coffee’s efforts, was the catalyst for the establishment of parks, lakes, golf courses, and other recreational areas in Mercer County.
Through Coffee’s vision and foresight, the Park Commission purchased and developed thousands of acres of land. Facilities seemed to flourish from there: the County soon opened four golf courses, a six-court public indoor tennis center and outdoor tennis center, an ice skating rink, ski area, marina, arboretum, living history farm, and numerous picnic areas and athletic fields were constructed.
Since their inception, these facilities have gained a reputation around the state of New Jersey and beyond as a premier setting for active and passive recreation, Hughes said. These facilities have been host to Olympic trials, collegiate contests, State Interscholastic Tournaments, amateur, semi-pro and professional team sports. Three large lakes were built in the parks with the largest being Lake Mercer in Mercer County Park which covers 150 acres.
As Director of the Board of Chosen Freeholders in Mercer County, he pressed for the creation of the Mercer County Community College, the County Vocational-Technical School System, the Mercer County Improvement Authority, and the County Park Commission and in the development of Mercer County Airport. Former Governor Dick Hughes always described Dick Coffee as “our great builder”.
Current Park Commission President Drew Worek told Coffee that it was his honor to continue to carry out Coffee’s mission of a creating the park system possible, and was proud to be part of the Commission’s legacy.
Also in attendance were Coffee’s five children, seven grandchildren, longtime friends including three from his elementary school, and current and past elected officials including Freeholders Pat Colavita, Anthony Carabelli, Dan Benson, John Cimino, Keith Hamilton and Ann Cannon, Sen. Shirley Turner, Sen. Bill Baroni, West Windsor Mayor Shing Fu-Hseuh and Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo.
Coffee spent his entire career in public service to Mercer County and the State of New Jersey. In 1957, he was elected for the first time as Mayor of Lawrence, and later served as a Mercer County freeholder for 12 years. Coffee then represented Mercer County in the New Jersey State Legislature, where he spent four years as a member of the Joint Appropriations Committee and as the Assistant Minority Leader of the Senate. He then served 17 years as Executive Director of the General Assembly Democratic Office.