Type.Tune.Tint.

Fred Rossi: At the intersection of past and present New Jersey

June 12, 2022 Fred Rossi Season 3 Episode 5
Type.Tune.Tint.
Fred Rossi: At the intersection of past and present New Jersey
Show Notes Transcript

At a time when local newspapers across America are struggling, Fred Rossi has worked for the same central New Jersey newspaper for 23 years. He's a lifelong New Jersey resident and student of its history. So, it's no surprise that his book, Jersey Stories: Stories You May Not Have Heard About People and Places in New Jersey, is rich in the history that helped forge New Jersey and the America we live in today. Even if you're not a New Jerseyan, you'll learn a lot from Fred's book. In the meantime, join us for a little chat about the Garden State, past and present. It won't hurt, really.

Fred's book is available by emailing him directly at jerseystoriesnj@gmail.com.

Thanks to John Pizzarelli and Joseph Cosgriff for their permission to use the song, "I Like Jersey Best."

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:00 Tom Kranz
Welcome to the Type Tune Tint podcast. John Pizzarelli sets the tone for today’s episode.

:05 (SOT up full, "I Like Jersey Best")

:25 Tom Kranz (Music under)
New Jersey takes its share of hits in the media and cultural arts. But it’s a state rich in history, including history that’s being made today. At the intersection of New Jersey’s past and present is Fred Rossi, a career journalist who, amazingly, has worked at the same local newspaper for 23 years. As a lifelong history buff and New Jersey native with great writing chops, he put all those qualities to work to write the book Jersey Stories. Fred joins me today.

:54 (Music up full, then under)

1:07 Tom Kranz
And Fred Rossi joins me now from his palatial estate in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Fred, how are you today:

Fred Rossi
Good, very good, Tom.

Tom Kranz
Good good. So Fred and I tend to run into each other in places in and around this part of New Jersey, Fanwood and Scotch Plains. Fred has been a journalist for many years at our local weekly newspaper that recently changed hands and changed names. And I kind of do the same thing for our town. So, we sometimes show up at the same events. But a couple years ago, Fred wrote a book, which we're going to get to shortly, Jersey Stories, which is really great. I mean, even if you're not a New Jersey person, there's history in here that you'd probably never knew is ascribed to New Jersey and dammit, you should know that. All right. So but Fred first, tell me a little bit about your background. Did you grow up as a journalist? Did you go to school for that? Or did you go to school for tool and dye making?

2:04 Fred Rossi
I grew up in New Jersey, born and raised here. I grew up down the shore mostly in Ocean Township, just next to Asbury Park. Spent, most of the 1980s in and out of college, in Washington, and Virginia, Northern Virginia pursuing a political science degree. And for about three of those years I dropped out and worked at a newsletter publisher down in Arlington, Virginia, which kind of lit the spark for being you know, in the journalism field in general.  By the time I went back to college to get my degree, it was too late to change majors. So, I just kind of rode out the political science degree and got my degree and came back to New Jersey immediately and decided to give journalism a whirl, even though I had never really written anything except a couple of writing courses in college. And my very first journalism job was in Fanwood at the now-departed Whitaker Newsletters owned by Joel Whitaker. I think you might know him.

Tom Kranz
Yeah, he was, he was on the Council when I first got here.

Fred Rossi
Yeah, he was on the Council for a little while. But I worked for him starting in 1988. Wrote some business newsletters for him for several years and then left there and went to a consulting firm in Linden and wrote a newsletter right as the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were being liberated. And it was basically a newsletter about business opportunities for U.S. companies over there. And the sources were impossible to find. It was a very hard one to write because there was nothing out there. There was no information. So I was there for about five, six years and then I was walking down downtown Westfield one afternoon in the fall of 1998 and I walked past the Westfield Leader office and like yeah, let me just pop it here and see if they need any help. And I never looked back.

Tom Kranz
And the rest is history.

Fred Rossi
And they added a Scotch Plains beat about a month later and--23 and a half years! It started as a six-month stint but it turned into one of the most fun experiences of my life.

Tom Kranz
So the Westfield Leader at the time, served mostly Westfield, New Jersey. But then there was a second version, that was much of the paper was the same except the front page, which was the Times of Scotch Plains-Fanwood and your work showed up in both of those papers.

4:35 Fred Rossi
I started covering the Council there in December of '98 and then gradually added on the Planning and Zoning boards, and then anything except the Board of Education I cover basically now

Tom Kranz
So after 23 years--I think it's fairly common knowledge of this point that the local newspaper business has really changed. Not for the better, I think, for people looking for news. What's it done? What's your take on that? And how has it affected you specifically in what you're covering and how often, that kind of stuff?

5:12 Fred Rossi
Well yeah, I mean just thinking back when I started, it was our paper, the Record Press which is another local paper. The Suburban News was pretty active in Scotch Plains, still. I remember seeing their reporter at some of the meetings early on. And now it's basically me and then you have the Tap online paper, which covers, it's, you know, it's not as, it's more of a community newspaper with, you know, not as much hard news as ours tends to have, you know, lots of pictures and lots of, you know, it's announcements of events and things like that.  So, I mean, I basically you know, think I'm the only game in town if you want to know what's going on in town, you know, town government anyway, in elections and all that.

Tom Kranz
So, you still cover government and you cover still, hard news as it were.

Fred Rossi
I cover the Council regularly and Planning and Zoning Boards. I covered the elections. I cover, well, downtown redevelopment stuff that's underway. I don't cover the Board of Ed but I cover, you know, anything else, feature stories.

6:16 Tom Kranz
Well, I've been a news consumer my entire life and I got to tell you that, you know, you're like a hero because how many people are there like you, you know, in any place? I know, you know, John Mooney, who publishes the TapInto, which you've mentioned and that's our local online publication here. You know, John's great and John is a journalist and he's a writer. But John is the owner who also does sales and he covers, covers government. He covers football games and he takes the pictures, right? And he does all of this. So he can't possibly be in a million places at once. Neither can you, of course.

6:50 Fred Rossi
Of course. He's got my admiration and I, you know, I truly like I said, it's been the funnest experience, you know, just getting to meet dozens and hundreds of great people in Scotch Plains and as well as Fanwood and Westfield and you know making a lot of friends and over the years you know, every year at the end of the year, I thought, well maybe I'll hang it up this year and then like, I want see what happens next year--

Tom Kranz
What else you gonna do, right? 

Fred Rossi
Maybe there's an election coming up or other things coming up, so I want to stick around and see what happens.

Tom Kranz
So good for you.

Fred Rossi
I'm here till I'm 90.

Tom Kranz
That's good. And, you know, I'll keep reading the, the newspaper used to be the Leader is now called The Hawk of Union County. It was sold a couple years ago and they now cover, what is it, seven different communities, something like that. 

Fred Rossi
They expanded into Clark and I think Summit too.

Tom Kranz
Yeah Garwood I think. They cover a lot of different towns so I'm finding that Fanwood's not getting in the paper as often as it used to. And I think that the editor is trying very hard to stick to as much harder news as she can, you know, and I think we, suddenly we're covering seven towns, you have to be a little more selective sometime.

Fred Rossi
And we're shorthanded too. I mean, sometimes I'll attend the Fanwood meeting if I'm free, but it's, you know, it's very hard to get reporters and people who know how to write, too. It's tough.

8:11 Tom Kranz
Sure. So, have you always been a history buff? I mean, we're gonna talk about Jersey Stories now, which is your book, it's the name of your book. It's exactly what it says for those of you out there. First of all, you need to buy this book right away. If you live in New Jersey, for sure. But if you don't, you need to find out about the first, the first person to vote, the first black man to vote after the 15th Amendment was passed, the person who was almost a president of the United States, but not quite, Mr. Hobart. Were you always interested in history?

Fred Rossi
For as long as I can remember. I mean, I remember being 10 years old and waking up in the morning and riding my bike to the Krauser's convenience store by myself to get the newspaper. Read the sports section probably for the first year or two and then I slowly expanded. But I think 1976 was when I really became a news and history addict with the presidential campaign and then I just I got into it. 

Tom Kranz
So, so this book is packed with these great stories and you've got, like, 10 pages of citations and, and sources. How long did it take you to gather all this, or was this book just a kind of an extension of what you've been doing, you know, kind of as a hobby all your life?

9:30 Fred Rossi
Well, actually it was about 2010 or so, I had this idea for a calendar, a wall calendar for about 10 or 15 years. So, again, New Jersey wall calendar with every date on the calendar, every month with a little, you know, this on this date in New Jersey history, this happened just a little sentence, so and so was born or the Hindenburg blew up or blah, blah, blah.  But I never did it. I just collected these bits and pieces of dated information over the years, I had, you know, 10, 15 years, I had, you know, on a piece of paper. And then finally about 2010, I decided let me see if I can do this calendar and I assembled all this stuff and I filled in all the dates that I hadn't filled in yet, and I published it in 2011 and 2012. And it was fun, it was great, you know, but the sales were tough and it was very expensive to get it printed in color and advertised for it.  So, it was just a two-year lark and I forgot about it. And then three years ago now, I guess June of 2019, I was working on some other independent writing stuff, a short story I was writing working on in a screenplay and I ran into writers block in both of them and I was frustrated. Then, a light bulb went off in my head and I'm like, oh wait, let me dig that calendar out, I'm gonna write a book! Just out of the blue.  And I started about this time in June of 2019 and 24/7. It was just on my mind, I thought about it in my sleep.

Tom Kranz
Really. So you just kind of you banged it out all at once, basically? 

11:03 Fred Rossi
Yeah. I didn't, you know, I went to the calendar and wrote down about 20 entries that I thought could be researched into full chapters. And, yeah, I just spent every day, researching and writing the first draft. It took about four months to write the whole book, r esearch it and write the first draft. And then my sister read it for me. I read it. And reread it several times. The pictures, I laid it out and you know, proofread it. My main objective was not to embarrass myself.

Tom Kranz
Of course!

Fred Rossi
I didn't want people here reading it and snickering behind my back so I was very careful not to do a half-assed job.

Tom Kranz
So, this started as your calendar which kind of was like an outline and then you just kind of flushed out the stories that you liked.

Fred Rossi
Yeah. I mean, you know, for the one about Garrett Hobart, from Patterson, I had, I think on the calendar, I think I had his birthday, you know, or something like, you know, this some reference to him.  So, I just went on the internet and found a biography that was written about him after he died. I read a memoir that his widow wrote 30 years after his death. I found, you know, millions of newspaper clippings from, you know, the time he was a New Jersey politician up until Washington and his death and, you know, and that's what it was, just wrote everything in long-hand, all the notes, and then just put them all together for each reach chapter, one at a time.

Tom Kranz
Very cool. So I reviewed your book when it first came out a couple years ago and I'm gonna read about, you brought up Garrett Hobart. I just love this guy's story and I wrote, "My favorite story is Hobart's, who by every account was an honorable honest, affable, humble, reluctant politician who treated the office of vice president with respect and shunned the trappings of privilege. He's credited with elevating the office to more than just an afterthought of history. Fred Rossi tells his story with detail and a certain amount of affection, a kind of homage to an individual who, if not for his premature death to illness, may well have been the 26th president of the United States instead of Teddy Roosevelt." What I loved about this guy is the whole idea that you can be, you know, a high-profile politician and be honorable honest, affable, humble and a reluctant politician, I love that. And we God, don't, we really need that right now, you know?

Fred Rossi
And to be liked and respected by both parties, too, immensely, you know, in Trenton and in Washington. Everyone liked him, not just because he was a nice guy but because he was, he was honorable, and, you know, honest and decent.

Tom Kranz
So now you also have you have somebody in your distant past who is a figure in history. Tell us about Nathaniel.

13:42 Fred Rossi
Yeah, well back right before the Revolutionary War, the King of England appointed Ben Franklin's son, who was a Tori, as the Royal Governor of New Jersey. Obviously, father Ben was fighting for independence and his son, William Franklin was siding with the king. The Royal Governor's Mansion was in Perth Amboy and is still standing there as a proprietary house. The people accessed it from the waterfront.  And so in 1776 the rebels in New Jersey finally had enough of him and they declared him an enemy to the people. And they ordered a guy named Colonel Nathaniel Heard who was a militia leader, to go to Perth Amboy, arrest him and remove him from power. And this was in mid June of 1776. So after a couple days and negotiation, they pulled him out of the proprietary house and brought him down to Burlington where the other state capital was at a time and he was done.  And that was the story. The footnote to it is Nathaniel Heard went on to be a brigadier general in the Revolutionary War. He lived in Woodbridge and he died in, I guess, late1794 or 1792. I think his great-great granddaughter in the mid 1800s married my great-great grandfather. And so I'm Nathaniel Heard's great-great-great-great-great-great grandson.

Tom Kranz
How'd you find that out?

Fred Rossi
I heard that all my life. My father and my aunt and my parents told me this, you know, we're related to, you know, some Revolutionary War guy. And I heard the name. I knew the very vague outlines of the story, but once I started researching it, I found out more about him, William Franklin as well. We went to his gravesite in Woodbridge at the Presbyterian Church. It was very neat to, you know, confirm that I wasn't being lied to all these years.

Tom Kranz
Yeah, no kidding. Well, that's really cool. Do you have any other books in the works at the moment? 

Fred Rossi
At the moment, no, I am thinking about doing another one. Maybe kind of the same theme as Jersey Stories about, maybe with new stories or you know, whatever. But I need a, you know, a big dose of time and confidence and get-to-it-ism.

Tom Kranz
Well, you must have the confidence by now. I know time is always an issue, especially when you have a day job as we like to say. But you know, I don't know that you have anything else to prove. This book is great. I found it interesting and, you know, I'm a reluctant New Jersey transplant. I'm from Philadelphia. I moved up here in 1994 because I got a job in New York and Fanwood was as close as I could get to New York and, you know, afford a house, basically. So you know, I certainly had heard all the kind of, you know, the stuff that people laugh at New Jersey about, you know, mobs and corruption and all that stuff. But people, there's nothing wrong with learning about actual history about New Jersey! You should try it sometime!  And this is a great, this book is a great place to start. How can we buy your book, Fred?

16:50 Fred Rossi
I'm selling it out of my house right now. You can email me. I have an email address, and then I can send you links to pay by Venmo or PayPal or Zelle. And my email address is jerseystoriesnj@gmail.com.

Tom Kranz
And you have a Facebook page also for the book, don't you?

Fred Rossi
Yeah, yeah. I think it's Jersey_Stories.

Tom Kranz
So, if they search Jersey Stories or Jersey_Stories, they'll find it.

 Fred Rossi
Yeah, yeah for sure.

Tom Kranz
Fred, I really appreciate it and I really love your stories . So I really, I wish you nothing but success. I'll see you on the road, I guess. 


Fred Rossi
I'll race you to the next book completion.

Tom Kranz
Exactly. And, you know, keep on telling the stories of our community in the newspaper.

Fred Rossi
I appreciate it. I certainly will.

Tom Kranz
You bet. Alright, we'll talk soon.

Fred Rossi
Thanks, Tom.

(Music, "I Like Jersey Best" up and out)

18:05 End