EDISON — Peter J. Barnes Jr., who passed away one day shy of his 90th birthday last week, led an exemplary life of public service.
Barnes, of Edison, died on Sept. 11.
He wore many hats — he served in the U.S. Army Military Police, he was a former FBI agent, he was a member of the state Assembly, he was chairman of the state Parole Board, he served as director of public safety for Edison and East Brunswick, and he served as chairman of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said in a statement with the passing of Barnes, the state has lost “one of the most honorable and accomplished public servants in our lifetime.” He said Barnes, who had a soft-spoken demeanor, would never boast about himself.
“From serving his country in the armed services to a distinguished career as an FBI agent investigating bank robberies, white-collar crime and national security, to representing his home community in the legislature, to directing the work of the Parole Board and overseeing the public safety operations in both Edison and East Brunswick, he set an example of selfless leadership that will be part of his legacy,” he said.
Sweeney said Barnes embodied the best qualities of a law enforcement officer and supervisor, as an elected official, and as a husband, father, grandfather and friend.
“He was a man of decency and integrity who treated everyone with equal measures of respect and who, in turn, earned the respect and the admiration of everyone who knew him,” he said.
Barnes was born Sept. 12, 1928, in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the sixth of seven children born to Charlotte (née Walsh) and Peter J. Barnes, Sr.
State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said Barnes was the true definition of a gentleman and a man of great integrity, who led an exemplary life of public service.
“As a former FBI agent, he brought his law enforcement experience to the Assembly where he championed legislation to help keep New Jersey safe,” he said. “He represented Middlesex County and New Jersey honorably and dutifully. New Jersey lost one of its very best today.”
Edison Police Chief Thomas Bryan said he has always had the greatest respect for Barnes.
“Mr. Barnes has always been a great friend to the entire law enforcement community and will be missed immensely,” he said.
Bryan said Barnes was an accomplished FBI Agent, police director and assemblyman.
“When he was the police director in Edison Township in the ‘90s, I worked with him while I was the union president and a detective,” he said. “[Barnes] was an integral part of bringing testing into the department for the first time regarding our promotional process.”
Bryan recalled in 1991 Barnes was present on the scene during the John Jaime Arias hostage situation on Roxy Avenue and was one of the negotiators, ultimately ending the siege. According to news reports, the siege lasted more than 27 hours.
Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe said Barnes served Middlesex County faithfully for many years, both in the legislature and during his time as its Democratic chairman.
“I would also be remiss not to note that Assemblyman Barnes passed on a day when we commemorate the fallen and the first responders who gave their lives in service to our nation,” he said. “As a former FBI agent, Assemblyman Barnes embodied the spirit we remember today, courage, service and unwavering ethics and loyalty.”
Freeholder Deputy Director Charles Tomaro said he has known the Barnes family for decades growing up with Barnes’ children.
“I grew up around the corner and we would play and ice skate at what we called Costa Pond,” he said, adding the area was owned by the family, who once owned Costa Ice Cream in Metuchen.
Tomaro said the loss of the elder Barnes is a sad day for Edison, Middlesex County and the state.
“We lost a true hero, someone who worked his whole life with public service as an FBI agent, police director in Edison and East Brunswick, assemblyman, Parole Board and Democratic chair,” he said. “It was said if you earned the respect of Mr. Barnes, it was the best respect to receive as a politician and a friend.”
The Edison Township Council held a moment of silence in honor of Barnes at a meeting on Sept. 12.
Councilman Robert Diehl recalled a story about Barnes, which has stayed with him over the years.
“Mr. Barnes would go to the firehouses on a Sunday with a paper and Dunkin’ Donuts and sit there for an hour or two and just talk with the firemen,” he said. “It really enabled him to get an insight into individuals at the firehouses.”
Barnes graduated from LaSalle Academy in Providence and served in the U.S. Army Military Police, later receiving a football scholarship to Marianapolis Prep in Thompson, Connecticut. He graduated with honors from Providence College in 1954 and received an appointment to the FBI where he enjoyed a remarkable career until his retirement in 1980.
Following his retirement, Barnes embarked on a career as a security consultant, which led him to the investigation of several notable cases. Barnes also served as director of security for the New Jersey Devils seeing the NHL team to its first Stanley Cup championship.
Barnes served 11 years in the New Jersey Legislature where he represented the 18th District. He was the Majority Whip and Chairman of the Law and Public Safety Committee. In addition, he was a member of the Regulatory Oversight Committee and Human Services Committee. During his time in the Assembly, Barnes was the primary sponsor of 62 bills that were signed into law, including but not limited to a landmark bill to reform criminal sentencing practices, smart gun legislation, and stem cell research. Over the years, Barnes established a reputation for candor and collegiality.
Following his retirement from the Assembly, Barnes was appointed as chairman of the New Jersey Parole Board assisting in the formation of prison reentry programs for parolees. Additionally, Barnes served two terms as chairman of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization. Barnes also served on the Executive Board for the Metuchen-Edison YMCA where the Peter J. Barnes Community Champion Award was established in his honor. In addition, Barnes was named Irishman of the Year by the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and received the Good Citizens Award by the Boys Scouts of America. For 20 years he was a member of the Metuchen Savings Bank Board of Directors.
Barnes was a faithful communicant at St Francis Cathedral in Metuchen.
Barnes was predeceased by his son-in-law Rick Stewart and his daughter-in-law Dr. Virginia (née Monsul). Barnes is survived by his wife Barbara (née Gallogly) with whom he shared 63 years of marriage, his sister Bette of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, his children Peter J. Barnes III of Edison, John Patrick Barnes of Sea Girt, Sheila Clemente of New Canaan, Connecticut, Kelly Stewart of Darien, Connecticut, as well as his daughter-in-law Katie Barnes, son-in-law Paolo Clemente, and his 10 grandchildren.
Visitation was held at the Costello-Runyon Funeral Home in Metuchen on Sept. 14. A mass of Christian Burial was held at St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral on Sept. 15, followed by interment at Hillside Cemetery in Metuchen.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the Central Jersey Spinal Cord Association, PO Box 74, New Brunswick, N.J. 08903, or the YMCA of MEWSA, 483 Middlesex Ave., Metuchen 08840.