December 20, 2000
I didn't know John Bukowski well, though news of his death last night touched me in an odd way, as if I had held my breath- waiting for the moment to happen.
For a short time, he was still municipal judge in Bloomfield when I first arrived at the newspaper there. His replacement on the bench took on the stuff of legend.
Then Mayor James Norton declined to reappoint the mayor, even though Norton and Bukowski were old bar room friends.
Politics turned nasty as Norton fed me dirty tales about his old drinking buddy.
An insurance dealer, Norton was privy to information about his old drinking buddy few others would have, such as the time Bukowski -- while judge -- hit a woman's car, then bribed her not to tell anyone.
Norton allegedly had a letter in file from the woman testifying to the details.
Norton and Bukowski fought over a Norton follower, a construction code official named Arthur Sholty, who had grown bitter about Bukowski's leniency on the bench. As fast as Sholty issued summonses for violations, Bukowski dismissed them. In a shouting match that resulted finally, Sholty accused Bukowski of incompetence, Bukowski charged Sholty with contempt of court. The judge would not drop the charges until Sholty agreed to retire from his town job, an agreement that left Sholty bitter and Norton vengeful, and when Bukowski's reappointment came up, Norton named someone else as municipal judge.
Norton called Bukowski incompetent, pointing to state reports that showed the court in chaos. But everyone knew the real reason, even as Norton denied it.
In retrospective, this was a vast political mistake, since Bukowski challenged Norton for the Republican nod in June, and won the party's nomination for mayor.
I remember meeting Bukowski face to face for first time in early October, 1998, when I interviewed him for a pre-election profile. He insisted on meeting me in a bar at the center of town, and seemed a little put off by me when I ordered soda instead of a drink.
He looked much the way people described him, slightly over weight, with the jowls of a heavy drinker, and seated beside him as he put away drink after drink, I could not imagine him ever being a judge.
Bukowski talked to me the way he might a buddy, telling me about his past and his plans for the future. He said his family had moved to Bloomfield area in 1937. His father, a chief metallurgist, had come to the area a few years before the rest of the family, staying in Hotel Douglas in Newark.
"My father used to go to the lack station on Broad Street," Bukowski said, "and watched the people on the bus and where they were going. The nicest, best dressed and most polite went to Bloomfield. That is how we got here and I like to think that story is still true today, sixty something years later."
Bukowski said he attended St. Valentine's Parochial school, Seton Hall Prep, Seton Hall University and Seton Hall Law School, after which he served as Bloomfield's first municipal prosecutor, then later as assistant township attorney, township attorney and eventually municipal judge.
I left the newspaper just before he was elected mayor, although the report of his victory reached me in Hudson County where I had taken up duties as a reporter again. From time to time, I heard about his mistakes, how he had picked up as mayor where he had left off as judge, someone less than competent. I also heard about him growing ill, and how he was seen less and less in public. So when Don Kelly called to tell me about the death, I was not surprised, just saddened, as if a valuable, unwritten part of a story had ended before I could write it down.