Published in the Courier News, Saturday, April 7, 2007
'His heart was with Plainfield'
Renal cancer claims former mayor Albert T. McWilliams
By CHAD HEMENWAY
PLAINFIELD -- Albert T. McWilliams, a former two-term mayor of the Queen City whose personality inspired others to help revitalize the city, died early Friday morning. He was 53.
"I remember a soft-spoken man who had the ability to influence and get people to rally around his cause," said Freeholder Adrian Mapp, a former city councilman.
McWilliams died at St. Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick after a brief battle with renal cancer, his friends and family said. McWilliams, a corporate lawyer for Engelhard, now BASF, in the Iselin section of Woodbridge, is survived by his wife of 25 years, Darlene, and five children.
"His heart was with Plainfield," said Councilman Rashid Burney. "He got the city back up and running."
Dan Damon, the city's public information officer during McWilliams' tenure, said his old boss was diagnosed with cancer several months ago. Damon said McWilliams wanted to keep news of his illness among close friends and family.
Former campaign chairwoman Rebecca Williams described McWilliams as a family man who was "funny, intense and charismatic."
Many officials contacted Friday did not know McWilliams was sick. The Rev. Rick Taylor, who was Plainfield's mayor from 1984-89, called the Courier News newsroom to confirm McWilliams' death and offer his condolences. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who defeated McWilliams in November 2005, said she was "shocked and surprised" at the news.
"My sympathy goes out to his family," Robinson-Briggs said. "The city will do whatever we need to do to honor him."
Even Assemblyman Jerry Green, D-Plainfield, once an ally of McWilliams who turned his support to Robinson-Briggs in her contest with McWilliams, said McWilliams "was a champion in moving the city ahead." Green said he now supports many of McWilliams' initiatives as well as councilpeople whom McWilliams played a large role in getting elected -- those of the "New Democrats."
"I'd like him to know that what he did for the city was appreciated, because it was," Green said. "Plainfield is better because of him."
McWilliams, first elected mayor in 1997, was described as a man who "believed in the human spirit" -- a "people's person" much less concerned with taking part in politics than his commitment to the people of Plainfield.
Supporters of McWilliams credit him for ridding the city of political bickering, restoring the Queen City's infrastructure and laying foundations for redevelopment while involving the community in the planning process.
"For 25 years this place was stagnant. The 80s and early 90s passed the city by," Damon said. "Plainfield was a totally underdeveloped town. People came and went and broke their vows of getting things started. Nobody could get it done, but he (McWilliams) found a way."
Many agreed McWilliams' legacy will be the Park-Madison complex on West Front Street that used to house Tepper's department store. McWilliams also had roads resurfaced and began a streetscape project. Others credited the former mayor with ridding the city of trash and crime.
"He turned around a city that was in a downward spiral and those who now serve after him have a foundation to build upon," said Mapp, who served as president of the McWilliams' New Democrats -- a group which includes current councilpeople Rayland Van Blake, Cory Storch, Linda Carter and Don Davis.
"He started my political career," Storch said. "I ran for office because he inspired me to get involved. Instead of focusing on politics, he focused on his vision for a better city."
That vision would apparently keep McWilliams up late at night, said Burney.
"He was a tireless worker," Burney said. "I'd get e-mails from him. I'd look and they'd be from 2 or 3 a.m. He's say, 'I just had to get those ideas down.' That was just Al."
After losing his re-election bid in the June 2005 primary to Robinson-Briggs, McWilliams switched his political affiliation to become a Republican, but wasn't allowed on the ticket. He later ran as a write-in and was defeated.
Storch said McWilliams was "more than a little disappointed" at losing, but "backed off gracefully."
McWilliams "fought the good fight in the face of the entrenched machine," said Williams. Just a week ago, she and McWilliams looked back at his time as mayor.
"I think he was proud of what he set in motion," Williams said. "When we were campaigning, we knew the odds but he was always upbeat in spite of them. Even when we lost, he said, 'It's not over. We'll continue to fight for this city.'"
Chad Hemenway can be reached at (908) 707-3148 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.