After a private visitation hour, attended by Gov. Phil Murphy, Garden State residents on Thursday had the opportunity to pay homage to New Jersey’s first Black lieutenant governor, Sheila Oliver.
Mourners remembered Oliver as a trailblazer who advocated for the voiceless and worked to get things done.
“She was a very fair person,” said Loretta Gilmore. “That speaks volumes to anyone, especially those that are involved with the game of politics.”
Gilmore met Oliver when the two worked with Newark’s at-risk children and remembered Oliver’s passion for the cause. Oliver, as acting governor, signed a bill in 2021 piloting a new reentry program for juvenile offenders.
“Our children who are at risk in our urban districts today really require the direction and guidance of people like Sheila and myself who work very hard with our disturbed youth,” Gilmore added.
Darryl Jeffries, president of the Oranges and Maplewood Branch of the NAACP, said he was thinking of Oliver’s achievements as he was traveling down to the State House.
“She represented that capacity to achieve your dream,” he said. “She’s done just that and a lot more.”
Oliver passed away Aug.1 at age 71 after being hospitalized the day before. She is also the first Black woman to serve as assembly speaker from 2010 to 2014 and the second Black woman in the country to lead a state legislative chamber.
Throughout the day, a steady stream of mourners visited Oliver’s casket. They represented folks from every aspect of her life, including community leaders, coworkers, and residents who were inspired by her. They remembered her as a “passionate” and “genuine” leader, who cared.
Bill Caruso, executive director of the Assembly Majority Office during Oliver’s tenure as speaker, said she assumed the role without an agenda.
“A lot of leaders come with an agenda that they want to accomplish,” he said. “She took everybody else’s agenda and made it better.”
Oliver was also a “fantastic supporter of staff,” Caruso said, adding that he learned from her patience and her attentive, deliberative focus on policy. He said Oliver was not interested in taking the spotlight, no matter how hard he and her press secretary Tom Hester tried.
“She always would pat us on the head and send us away and say, ‘I just want to get good things done. I don’t need to take the credit,’” Caruso said.
Valerie Barnes, who was Oliver’s secretary at the Department of Community Affairs, the agency the lieutenant governor oversaw, said working with Oliver was “wonderful.”
“She was the most beautiful, genuine woman that you want to know,” Barnes said. “She was good to the top [and] to the person taking the garbage.”
Barnes recalled the height of the pandemic when she and Oliver were among three people reporting to the office everyday,
“I would go get us oxtails because she absolutely loved oxtails,” she said. “She’s just so real and so natural.”
Bob Gordon, a former state senator who recently left the Board of Public Utilities, remembered how OIiver would get emotional when she spoke about issues she cared about.
“I remember she would often be delivering a speech and almost get tearful,” he said. “After a while, I realized that what this reflected was her commitment to the issues and the fact that she was always speaking from the heart.”
Gordon and Oliver were both elected to the Assembly in 2003, but their decades-long friendship began when they were part of Leadership New Jersey. He said she was committed to improving the lives of New Jerseyans.
“She was a child of Newark and lived in East Orange and was in regular contact with people who were at the bottom of the ladder trying to climb,” he said. “She felt it was her life’s mission to try to make their lives better.”
On Friday, Oliver will be escorted to the Essex County Historic Courthouse in Newark, where she will lie in state from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Her funeral service will take place Saturday, ending a three-day celebration of life.
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