Home News Tribune - January 29, 1987
‘Main Street Layer' Joseph T. Karcher, 83, dies
SAYREVILLE – Joseph T. Karcher, long time borough attorney, pioneer in Middlesex County Democratic circles, and father of the current Assembly minority leader, died yesterday at South Amboy Memorial Hospital after a short illness. He was 83.
Mr. Karcher's friends and associates praised his legal acumen, noting that he was much more than the small-town lawyer he described in his autobiography, "Main Street Lawyer."
"It (the book) couldn't have been farther from the truth," said attorney David Wilentz of Perth Amboy. "He was much more sophisticated than that. He was very respected as an outstanding attorney and I admired his work. I thought of him as both my father and my brother."
"I had the pleasure of working on a case with him – while I was the counsel for Middlesex County and he was the counsel for Sayreville," said Wilentz, father of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz. "I was very impressed with him because he was so prolific in his work. As a matter of fact, I was so impressed I still have his book, ‘How To Build A Successful Law Practice,' in my office."
As a Democratic leader in Sayreville, Mr. Karcher was a leader of the Democratic Party that was just beginning to make a showing in Middlesex County politics, according to Perth Amboy mayor and state Assemblyman George Otlowski. "It was inevitable that they (the local Democratic leaders) would become a force of leadership in the county," Otlowski said.
Mr. Karcher was a great campaigner who loved to get out on the stump, said Otlowski. "I would just like to listen to him," he said.
Karcher's son, state Assembly Minority Leader Alan J. Karcher of Sayreville, said his father's legacy was that "he had an incredible sense of social justice … particularly for the common man."
While in private practice, Mr. Karcher successfully sued several large industrial companies which had polluted the South River – one of the first suits of its kind in the county. Eventually, the defendants paid homeowners in the area of the river more than $250,000 in damages.
"That is what life was about (for him)," the younger Karcher said of his father. He said his father used to say that the corporations and the rich could take care of themselves, but "the common people need someone to fight for them."
As the borough attorney in Sayreville from 1938 to 1965, Mr. Karcher served under five mayors and became an expert in the field of municipal law.
"I will miss my father's advice and counsel," said his son, who followed in his father's footsteps as borough attorney. "He was the brightest man I knew." Mr. Karcher is credited with the development of off-street parking, recreational facilities and storm water control in the borough and was involved in the acquisition of several major industrial retables in the borough which have helped to stabilize local taxes. One of the companies he attracted to the borough was National Lead, which relocated in Sayreville in 1930. The company, renamed NL Industries, closed its plant in 1983.
But the local accomplishment he was most proud of was the creation in 1938 of the borough's Shade Tree Commission. Mr. Karcher served on the board of directors and as the local counsel for the Sayre & Fisher Brick Co. for 27 years, until the company's demise in 1970.
Karcher was involved in settling the borough's tax claims against Sayre & Fisher, not only collecting the $175,000 in back taxes owed, but also gaining a 40-acre parcel of land for the borough in lieu of $25,000 in interest due.
That parcel became the present site of the borough's municipal buildings and is also home to Memorial Park, tennis courts and public parking lots. After serving as borough magistrate from 1928 to 1930, Mr. Karcher was elected to three one-year terms in the state Assembly from 1930 to 1932.
According to Otlowski, Mr. Karcher was the first Democrat to break the Republication hold on the county legislative delegation. From 1932 to 1938, he served as Middlesex County Deputy Surrogate.
Mr. Karcher was an unsuccessful candidate for the state Senate in the early 1950's and in 1972 lost a four way race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Clifford P. Case. In addition to his autobiography, Mr. Karcher was the author of more than 15 books, including "History of the Sayre & Fisher Brick Co.," and two histories of Sayreville and edited a number of anthologies of great quotations by famous people. He also wrote more than 50 articles on law, history and government that were published in various national and state bar journals and other periodicals. He was also the author of two histories of the borough of Sayreville.
"He was able to fulfill all his dreams," said Alan Karcher. "His life was representative of the American Dream. He was born poor, struggled and became successful, and not just materially." Mr. Karcher served as parliamentarian of the New Jersey State Bar Association from 1955 to 1971 and was a member of the editorial board of the association's journal.
A 1927 graduate of New Jersey Law School, now Rutgers University Law School, Mr. Karcher was a member of the Middlesex County, New Jersey and American Bar Associations and the Middlesex County, New Jersey and American Trial Lawyers Associations. He was a communicant of Our Lady of Victories R.C. Church, Sayreville, and served for more than a dozen years as a church trustee. He was a member of the Sayreville Knights of Columbus Our Lady of Victory Council 2061 and its Fourth Degree Assembly.
His wife of 35 years, Ellen Joseph Karcher, died in 1963. He was also predeceased by a daughter, Joyce Rhaesa, who died in 1977. In addition to his son, Mr. Karcher is survived by two daughters, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Rosemary Reavey of Sayreville and Evelyn Graff of Spring Lake; and 11 grandchildren.
Services will be Saturday at 8:45 a.m. from the Maliszewski Memorial Home, 121-123 Main St., Sayreville, followed by a 9:30 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial at Our Lady of Victories R.C. Church, Sayreville. Burial will be in New Calvary Cemetery, Sayreville.
Memorial contributions may be made to Cenacle Retreat House, c/o Sister Mary McGarry, 411 River Road, Highland Park, 08904; St. Peter's High School Second Century Fund, 94 Somerset St., New Brunswick, 08901, and St. Joseph's Senior Residence c/o Sister Mary Louise, 1 St. Joseph's Terrace, Woodbridge, 07095.
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