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Honoring Harrisonian Joseph Cundari

Mar 20, 2022
Joseph Cundari with Anselmo Millan and NJIT Your Engineers Early Days of Redvelopment Plans

Photo: Professors and Students from NJIT review map of the Town of Harrison with Town Engineer Joseph Cundari (4th from the Left) along with then Councilman Anselmo Millan (3rd from the Left).

Stories about  Harrison’s longtime Town Engineer abound.  Before computers and CAD (Computer-Aided Design) systems, there were engineering plans on large blueprint size paper done by hand.  Those plans were filed on large tables and countertops in the Town of Harrison Construction Department both rolled up and flat.  Joseph “Joe” Cundari knew exactly where a plan was and could pull it out if an issue came up about a particular building and/or infrastructure project.

One story is when someone was looking for a shutoff valve on South Frank E. Rodgers Blvd and could not find it.  Joe Cundari was called.  Without any plan or reference guide, Joe advised the site engineer that the valve was at a particular location and the crew should dig there.  The site engineer pointed out that the section Joe indicated was blacktop with no indication of a valve cover or anything else that would lead one to believe there was a valve at that location.  Joe assured him the valve was there.  Of course, the contractor dug carefully and the valve covered by blacktop was in the spot where Joe Cundari said it was.

Joe Cundari was much more than a Town Engineer.  He was a well-rounded person whose life experiences and interests were diverse and his philanthropy substantial. Joe was born in Harrison NJ on July 11, 1914.  He was the son of Anthony Cundari and Carolina (D’Amico) Cundari.  He went to Holy Cross Grammar School followed by high school at the Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange graduating in 1932.  After Seton Hall Prep, as it is called today, Joe went on to Manhattan College graduating in 1936, and then continued his study to obtain a Master’s degree in 1938 in civil engineering.

In 1941, Joe Cundari would be taken from Harrison to serve in the United States Army during World War II. Joe was a master sergeant in the United States Army 341st Engineer Regiment. In 1943, he was one of the engineers who supervised the construction of the Alaska Military Highway between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson in British Columbia. From 1944 to 1945, he was in Europe overseeing the reconstruction of railroad bridges in France, Belgium, and Germany.  Among other service medals, Joe Cundari was awarded the Legion of Merit Medal for his services during World War II.

Before becoming the Town of Harrison’s Engineer in 1946, Joe Cundari worked for Ford Motor Company, Hugh A. Kelly Associates in Jersey City NJ, and Wigton-Abbot Corp. of Plainfield NJ.

The late Mayor Frank E. Rodgers sought Joe Cundari out after World War II and hired him as the Town Engineer.  At the time, Harrison was the “Beehive of Industry” and its residents had helped provide ammunition and other wartime supplies for the soldiers fighting in Europe to defeat Adolph Hitler and the Nazi Third Reich. Joe Cundari saw the slow death of industrial Harrison and its gradual transformation into a residential town.  Cundari supervised all major public works projects including the construction of the Route 280 William Stickle Bridge in Harrison, Route 280 Construction Planning and Route, the John F. Kennedy Stadium (presently Riverpark at Harrison), Harrison Recreation Center (former Warner Theatre), Harrison High School (now Washington School), an addition to Lincoln School, Harrison Fire Department Headquarters on Sussex Street, improvements to the Harrison Public Library and Harrison Senior Citizens Center, reconstruction of Bridge Street and Jackson Street bridges, demolition of the PSE&G natural gas tanks, construction of playgrounds, basketball courts, “The Courts” mini soccer field and tennis courts. 

Joe Cundari had to do the plans for the mini-soccer fields now known as “The Courts” next to the Veterans Monument in Harrison’s Library Park.  “The Courts” took away the tennis court that Joe Cundari had put in as an avid tennis player and fan.  The children of Harrison had a different idea for the space and started playing soccer on the tennis court and breaking the netting.  Eventually, Mayor Rodgers had to tell Joe Cundari that his tennis courts were history and that he needed plans for a soccer field after all Harrison was Soccer Town USA.  If you did not already get it, “The Courts” was an abbreviation for “The Tennis Courts” that it replaced.

Infrastructure was also one of Joe Cundari’s forte.  He was responsible for plans and specifications for the construction of water mains, sanitary and storm sewers, street paving, and Gamewell Fire Alarm box system and traffic control lights.  At one point, Harrison had a traffic light at every corner, or at least it seemed like it did.  Or was that a Bar/Tavern on every corner? Maybe both.

Joe Cundari was a great advocate for high education.  Education had opened doors for him and allowed him to excel in life both professionally and personally.  In 1990, he was appointed to the Hudson County Community College (HCCC) in Jersey City NJ.  In 1998, he was involved in fundraising on behalf of the college. In addition, he established scholarships for students.  In recognition of his contributions and service to the college, he was named Trustee Emeritus and a newly constructed wing of the college was dedicated The Joseph A. Cundari Center.

Joe Cundari’s contributions to HCCC was not an anomaly Joe Cundari found time outside of his Town Engineer position to be involved in various community organizations including the following, the West Hudson Hospital Association, Vice President of the Harrison Board of Education, member of the Sgt. Williams A. Sawelson VFW Post No. 340, Knights of Columbus Our Lady of Grace Council No. 402, Holy Cross Church Holy Name Society, Arlington Tennis Society of neighboring Kearny and several professional engineering societies.

Tennis playing was one of his passions.  His attempt to place tennis courts in Harrison by Library Park failed terribly when the youth of Harrison started to use the Tennis Court as a Soccer Court.  After it became apparent that Soccer was more popular in Tennis, the Tennis nets came down and Joe Cundari engineered the plans to put up fencing to turn the Tennis Courts into a mini soccer field.  The rest is history.  “The Courts” as they are fondly called in homage to their original purpose have served the Youth and Adults very well.  Many professional soccer players who grew up in Harrison and Kearny played at “The Courts” and credit it with building their skills due to exposure to other players and the need to control the soccer ball in such a tight space.

 In 1999, Joe Cundari was honored by the Christopher Columbus Foundation as an outstanding citizen. In 2002, the Town of Harrison and Mayor Raymond McDonough honored Joe Cundari as Harrison’s Outstanding Senior Citizen.  In 2011, the Harrison Board of Education named the tennis courts at Harrison High School’s new school “The Joseph A. Cundari Tennis Courts”.  The tennis courts serve as a memorial to Jose Cundari’s love of Harrison and tennis.

 Joe Cundari always wore a suit at work.  Whenever he went to banquets or dinners, he dressed very dapperly.  You knew Joe Cundari was special because of the way he carried himself.  He enjoyed the theatre and operas and many did not know he was an accomplished pianist.  He was also an avid photographer and oil painter. Joe Cundari’s exercise was playing tennis.  Tennis was a major interest initially as a player and founder of the Harcy Tennis Club.  Joe Cundari was a lifetime member of the Arlington Players Tennis Club in Kearny and served the club in various capacities throughout the years.  The New Jersey State Tennis Championship Tournament had the good fortune of having Jose Cundari as a major sponsor for over 40 years.

 Joe Cundari was known as “Uncle Joe” to his family.  He had no children.  He had a long-time companion of over 30 years Rena Stoll.  If you ever saw them together, you could see the love between them and how impeccably dress both were.  There was a definite connection between the two of them.

 When Joe Cundari passed in 2013 he was survived by one of his brothers, Joseph P. Cundari.  He had been predeceased by his parents, Anthony and Carolina Cundari, his sisters Catherine and Vincentine Cundari, and his other brother Dominic Cundari.  His nephews are Anthony Cundari, Joseph Cundari, his nieces, Johanna Powers, Maria Horvath, and Carolyn Williams Sardella.  He also has many grand-nephews and grand-nieces and great-grand nephews and nieces.

 Joe Cundari lived in Harrison on North Frank E. Rodgers and walked a block to work in the Town of Harrison.