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Town Historian Passes Torch, But Love of History Remains

After 20 years of serving as the township historian, June O. Kennedy has retired as of this year.

June O. Kennedy, the township's historian for 20 years, can rattle off facts, figures and stories about Bernard’s Township and the surrounding area with great passion and exuberance.

But Kennedy, now in her early eighties, has officially retired as historian as of 2011, and is passing the torch to the next generation. As of this time, she has not been replaced.

Kennedy has an extraordinary love of history, which she sees as a grounding force for anyone who wants to feel connected to their own time and place.

“How do you learn unless you look at the past? How do you know what to do in the future if you don’t look to the past?” said Kennedy.

“If you know about the area where you live, it gives you a sense of belonging. It makes you feel a part of the area. It would be awful not to know who the settlers were,” said Kennedy.

This year's township mayor, John Malay, spoke of Kennedy when he started his term as mayor this year.

"June has been our township historian since 1990 and provided valuable knowledge even before that. Literally thousands of local school students have been tutored in Bernards Township history by Mrs. Kennedy."

Malay also thanked Kennedy for her very active role in planning the township's celebration of its 250th anniversary in 2010.

"It was she who suggested to me in a conversation a number of years ago that we needed to start planning for our 250th anniversary," Malay said. He noted the success of 2010's 250th anniversary celebration.

Kennedy said she taught history camp to many local children for nine years, until about 2002. She said she still will be involved in activities with children at the town's Brick Academy museum.

Kennedy said that her love of history came from her passion for reading and her own need to feel a part of the community.

When she and her husband moved to Basking Ridge, she said she began investigating the town’s history. She then wrote about the history of town hall. 

As she followed the threads of history, she began taking on more and more projects until the town passed an ordinance making her the official township historian.   

Kennedy then began her two-decade journey and applied her research and writing abilities and her tenacity to articulating the story of Bernard’s Township.

Kennedy attended Fairleigh Dickinson University, and graduated with the first class that included returning World War II Veterans.

 "Many of the men were attending college through the new G.I .Bill and they were intent on getting an education and getting on with their lives. They were wonderful men, but you could tell they were really suffering,” Kennedy said.

 It’s not surprising that Kennedy began her career as a news reporter.

Her determination was evident early on. She said when she was fresh out of college in the 1940’s, she wanted to work in the news business, but got temporarily sidetracked.

“I first got a job at an advertising agency in New York City but I had to get up very early and after taxes I realized I wasn’t making very much for my effort. I was eating my lunch in Chock Full o' Nuts one day and said to myself, this is ridiculous,” said Kennedy.

She then determined she would get a job as a news reporter in New Jersey.

At her first interview, the editor of the local newspaper told her that he would be happy to hire her as a reporter, but he didn’t have enough readers. So applied her determination again and spent the next few weeks pounding the pavement and getting subscriptions and then began working as a reporter.

She worked for a weekly and a daily newspaper in Bergen County and she recalls that’s how she met her husband.

“I was covering a meeting at the American Legion Post 97. In order to write the story, I was told to talk to Bob Kennedy. Well, someone pointed him out and I was happily surprised to meet this very handsome man,” said Kennedy.

“He invited me to a Thanksgiving dance and  — well the rest is history,” said the longtime historian, and wife.

Kennedy remains a trustee with the Historical Society of The Somerset Hills, based at the town's downtown on Oak Street. She volunteered at the academy for more 20 years, running a summer history camp that is remembered by many young people as part of growing up in
Basking Ridge.

She also has taught crafts, conducted historic research and carried out public relations functions for the historic schoolhouse, which now serves at the headquarters for The Historical Society of the Somerset Hills.

In 1851, the Brick Academy which was built in 1809, was then designated by the state as School District Number 12 and was the first public school in Bernard’s Township. Prior to 1851, the Brick Academy was a private boys school only.  

Kennedy said she has enjoyed her 20 years as as township historian, but she is looking forward to enjoying some free time. However, she said people throughout the area still call her to ask her questions about the town that only she has the answers to — right at her fingertips.

Kennedy also said she looks forward to spending more time with her husband, two daughters and four grandsons and catching up on reading which she is passionate about.

But at every opportunity, Kennedy will still tell the stories about the town that she has immersed herself in. For instance, she will tell you that The Store Restaurant was the first hotel in town.

“They would meet guests of the hotel at the train station in town or visitors had the option of choosing ‘Rent-a-Horse” – yes, you know how you can rent a car today, well back then you could rent a horse. How else would you get around?” said Kennedy.

For Kennedy, exploring history is all-consuming. She will never stop investigating the stories of the people and places of the past.

She said, “Exploring history is like eating peanuts. Once you start, you can’t stop.”

Paige Gilberti March 01, 2011 at 12:23 PM
Great article! June has been an invaluable resource in connecting us with our rich, inspiring past, and brings such radiant, vigorous knowledge and passion to the task that it's impossible not to have fun! When I first moved to the township many years ago, I went to June to ask her about the history of where I was living. She very kindly gave me a wonderful synopsis. It was just what I wanted; I shared her description with my neighborhood, and it has enriched our lives here ever since. Thanks, June!

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