BY KATHY CHANG
EDISON — Thomas “Doc” Paterniti, who is regarded as a legend in Middlesex County politics, served as a mentor for many.
“I would not be as successful as I am if it wasn’t for Tom Paterniti,” said Peter Barnes III, who is currently a Middlesex County Superior Court judge and previously served in the New Jersey General Assembly, as a New Jersey State Senator and an Edison Township Councilman.
“He was my mentor and I went to him all the time,” Barnes said adding that he has known Paterniti for more than 50 years and that he was his dentist since his boyhood days.
Barnes said Paterniti was a great role model and influenced so many.
“He taught us the importance of working hard, understanding local issues and not to get bogged down on what is happening on the national level,” Barnes said.
As a local politician, Barnes said his mentor instilled the importance to learn the history and geography of the town.
“He would say it’s important to go visit where the people live and work whether it be to their houses, the places they worship or to the library where they study,” he said.
On May 13, Paterniti, 88, died at JFK Medical Center’s Haven Hospice Care Center in Edison.
The long-time politician and dentist served twice as mayor of Edison and 12 years in the New Jersey Legislature, representing the 18th district as a state Senator and Assemblyman.
He was also Middlesex County’s longest-serving Democratic Municipal Chairman, a post he held in Edison for a total of 31 years until 2015.
Paterniti was known as the “Dean of Middlesex County Democrats” for his long public service career, his legislative accomplishments, his political strategies and for mentoring many successful local, county and statewide candidates.
“Dr. Thomas “Doc” Paterniti was a legend in Middlesex County politics,” Middlesex County Democrats Chairman Kevin McCabe said. “In all of [his public service] roles, his dedication and integrity were unparalleled. He built a remarkable record of public service to Edison, and to the State of New Jersey.”
McCabe said he and a whole generation of public servants learned from Paterniti’s example.
Born in 1929, he was the oldest child of the late Thomas J. and Theresa (Quintiliani) Paterniti’s three children.
After graduating from Mount Holy Rosary School, Perth Amboy, in 1946, Paterniti enlisted, at age 17, in the United States Army serving two years with the 7th Division, 31st Light Infantry, including a 14-month tour of duty in Korea.
After his 1948 honorable discharge as an Army Corporal, Paterniti worked in the building trades. He remained active in the carpenter’s union for 68 years.
Paterniti went to college on the G.I. Bill, graduating from Seton Hall University with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and earning a Doctorate of Dental Surgery (DDS) in 1956 at the University of Maryland.
In 1957, Paterniti opened his dental practice on Grove Avenue in Metuchen, where he treated patients for nearly 60 years until his 2016 retirement. For 45 years, Paterniti also served on the dental staff at JFK Medical Center in Edison.
Throughout his adult life, Paterniti was active in state, county and local politics. He served as chairman of the Edison Democratic Party from 1970-78 and as mayor of Edison from 1974-78.
He won an 18th District Assembly seat in the November 1979 election, serving four terms before being elected to the State Senate, where he continued serving 18th District communities from 1988-91.
After the death of long-time Edison Mayor Anthony M. Yelencsics in 1989, Paterniti was again elected mayor of Edison, taking office in January 1990. Facing a tough Senate re-election campaign in 1991, he stepped down as mayor after 12 months.
In 1992, the Edison Democratic Organization selected Paterniti as party chairman once again. He retired from the post in 2015.
As a state lawmaker, Paterniti was author and primary sponsor of many measures to protect public safety and implement tougher criminal penalties; to increase residential construction standards and safeguards tenant rights. A fiscal conservative, Paterniti consistently fought to minimize the state’s tax burden on property owners.
In Trenton, Paterniti championed laws to improve the quality-of-life for working-class and lower-income families, for senior citizens, veterans and people with disabilities.
Barnes said when he entered the legislature, Paterniti invited him to his office and gave him his stack of bills that he had worked on. Barnes said he transformed some of Paterniti’s ideas into bills of his own.
As mayor in the 1970s, Paterniti led a successful fight to close Edison’s Kin Buc Landfill; he extended the municipal sewer system into North Edison, developed six new township parks, and established public library branches in North Edison and the Clara Barton section of town.
Paterniti was proud that, as mayor, he built the Woodbridge Avenue Senior Citizen Center and secured enough federal funding to build the Edison Municipal Complex.
Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholder Charles Tomaro said his father-in-law was a very dedicated family man and politician.
“He spent his life giving back to the community mentoring former politicians as well as current politicians,” he said.
Edison Mayor Thomas Lankey said Paterniti was a larger-than-life presence in Edison, throughout Middlesex County and on the statewide stage.
“As a state lawmaker and Edison’s mayor, Doc worked tirelessly to improve the quality of people’s lives, showing special concern for working-class families, for veterans and senior citizens, and for people with disabilities.”
Former Edison Mayor Jun Choi, who served the township from 2006-2010, said all of Edison should thank and honor Paterniti for his dedication to public service in the community and the state.
Paterniti served for 26 years as chairman of the Middlesex County March of Dimes Campaign and for many years on the Central New Jersey March of Dimes’ board of directors.
He was a founding member and trustee of the Edison Sheltered Workshop for people with developmental disabilities and he served on the board of directors for the Central Jersey Association for Exceptional Children.
Paterniti was past-president of the Edison Library Board of Trustees, the Metuchen Chamber of Commerce and the Metuchen Rotary Club.
He is predeceased by his parents and his sister, the late Andrea Paterniti Moss.
Paterniti is survived by his wife of 59 years, Helen “Pix” (Soltesz) Paterniti; a son, Thomas H. Paterniti of Pittsburgh, Pa.; three daughters, Maria Tomaro and her husband Charles of Edison, Sarah Mandel and her husband Dr. Marc Mandel of Westfield, and Lisa Paterniti of Edison.
He is also survived by six grandchildren: Amanda Troiano and her husband Christopher, Justin Tomaro, Thomas and Tara Paterniti, and Brian and Joseph Mandel, and by a great granddaughter, Scarlett Troiano. He is also survived by his brother, Carmen S. Paterniti and his wife Nan of Califon; his brother-in-law John Soltesz and his wife Dawn of Edison and his sister-in-law Brenda (Soltesz) Rinaldi and her husband Robert Rinaldi of Edison.
Funeral services for Paterniti were held on May 18 at Good Shepherd Parish of Holy Rosary Church in Hopelawn.
In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Auxiliary of JFK Medical Center Reflections Program, 65 James St., Edison 08820.