Obituary for Robert Edward Wesp
Robert E. Wesp, age 94, former Rutherford Councilman from 1958 to 64, passed away peacefully on June 5, 2017. Born in Bronx NY on March 17, 1923, he was the son of the late Philip and Edna Wesp.
Loving husband to his late wife Beverly DeKoning Wesp and predeceased by Sister Ruth Haug. Devoted father survived by daughters Sharon Wesp Reinhardt and husband John of Riverside CA and Wendy Wesp of Wayne NJ; Granddaughters Lisa Molner Gulino of Limerick PA and Katie Reinhardt of Playa Del Rey CA; Great-Grandson Joseph Gulino of Limerick PA.
During WWII he served as a Naval Officer. He obtained his BA of Economics at University of Penn and MBA from Wharton School of Business. Bob began his career in 1947 at Metropolitan Life Ins Co, NYC, and retired as VP of Operations.
His first venture into political activism helped compel the Board of Health to provide free polio vaccines for Rutherford children. He campaigned for President Eisenhower and Senator Case. He founded and was Chairman of the 1st Civil Rights commission in Bergen Co in 1964 and tirelessly pursued his passion for human and equal rights. Bob spent over 4 decades serving as the voice and soul of Rutherford’s civil rights endeavors to prevent discrimination. His life’s passion was to “Do justice, Show mercy, Walk humbly” (ref: Micah 6:8)
In 1985 he helped organize and was President of the Rutherford Senior Kip Center. In 1987 he launched his vision of affordable senior housing in Rutherford and led the Senior Housing Corp to break ground for the Rutherford Senior Manor.
Bob’s commitments have been shaped by the steady and uplifting moral guidepost of the Rutherford Congregational Church for over 90 years. There he served on the Board of Trustees, Finance, Mission, Membership and Fellowship, and was Church Council President for many years. He used the church as inspiration for reaching out to the community. As co-creator, he used the RCC sign board to bring inspirational messages, witticisms and community announcements to thousands of passers-by for 30 years. Some of Bob’s community involvement included President of the Interfaith Council, Treasurer of the Library, Crop Walks for Hunger, Meals on Wheels, Bridgebuilders and Starfish.
In addition to stamp collecting, Bob was active in sports in his youth, playing baseball, basketball and ice hockey. He enjoyed cheering for the NJ Devils and was a devoted Detroit Tiger fan, often seen wearing the team cap.
Family and friends will be received on Thursday June 22 from 6 to 8 pm in Calhoun-Mania, 19 Lincoln Ave Rutherford NJ. A Celebration of Bob’s Life will be held Friday June 23, 2017 gathering at 11am in Rutherford Congregational Church, 251 Union Ave, Rutherford NJ, 07070 followed by Interment at Hillside Cemetery, Lyndhurst.
Memorial Donations may be made to Rutherford Congregational Church Robert Wesp Memorial.
Please use this link (copy & paste) to read Mr. Wesp's Bergen Record editorial...
In 1964, Robert Wesp saw his neighbors being told what blocks they could not live on and unable to rent some apartments in Rutherford. Instead of ignoring racial discrimination, Wesp took action. He created the first civil rights commission in Bergen County – the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission.
Wesp spent 40 years as the commission's chairman, taking on segregation, intimidation and discrimination throughout the borough. His life’s mission was to “Do justice, show mercy, walk humbly.”
Wesp died on June 5th. He was 94.
The civil rights advocate's first venture into political and social activism began with compeling the Rutherford Board of Health to provide free polio vaccines for Rutherford children.
In 1964, after witnessing the injustices his black neighbors experienced, Wesp started the commission where complaints could be filed and investigated--with outcomes of changed policies for future generations.
See: An interview with Bob Wesp
Wesp and fellow commissioners fought continuous battles against "blockbusting" or segregating blacks to certain areas in the borough and employing white "testers" to see if landlords and real estate agents were engaging in discriminatory practices. The group won other victories in the 1960s and 1970s, successfully registering scores of black voters, and eliminating a racist double standard from local beautician exams, which required black stylists to learn how to cut white peoples' hair but did not require white stylists to cut black peoples' hair.
One of Wesp’s most notable achievements led the group's challenge of the Elks Club's "whites only" rule when the Rutherford chapter applied for a liquor license from the mayor and council in 1971. The case went to the Supreme Court. When the club reapplied for its license in 1974, the town dropped the discriminatory clause.
"Wesp served as the voice, if not the soul, of Rutherford’s civil rights endeavors. Its mission (as stated in the enabling legislation) is to prevent discrimination against any person because of his or her sex, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or age. Wesp was particularly ardent about job discrimination and fighting the practice of 'red lining,' which restricted blacks from purchasing houses in white neighborhoods,” said Rod Leith, borough historian.
On April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Wesp joined other Rutherfordians marching down Park Avenue, holding a sign that said "Dr. King Lives On."
"Little towns can do big things, but they always come slowly, sort of like Rosa Parks sitting on the back of the bus," he said.
When Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008, Wesp told the South Bergenite he was inspired and that he didn’t think he would live long enough to see a black president.
Reverend Ray Frazier of Mount Ararat Baptist Church, who was the first black American Rutherford councilman, credited Wesp for helping to pave the way for his and others' success.
Today, the Rutherford Civil Rights Commission is still active and helps to resolve discrimination complaints.
Wesp’s activism was far reaching. In 1985, he helped organize the Rutherford Senior Kip Center. In 1987 he launched his vision of affordable senior housing in Rutherford and led the Senior Housing Corp to break ground for the Rutherford Senior Manor.
He was active at the all-inclusive church, Rutherford Congregational Church, for over 90 years. His messages on the board outside served as an inspiration and sometimes gave a chuckle to motorists and pedestrians for 30 years.
"His marquee sayings were at times quirky, sometimes humorous, but always profound," said Leith.
Other community involvement included President of the Interfaith Council, Treasurer of the Library, Crop Walks for Hunger, Meals on Wheels, Bridgebuilders and Starfish. In 1991, the Rutherford Chamber of Commerce named him Citizen of the Year.
Family and friends will be received on Thursday, June 22, 6 - 8 p.m. at Calhoun-Mania, 19 Lincoln Ave., Rutherford. A Celebration of Bob’s Life will be held Friday, June 23, 11 a.m. in Rutherford Congregational Church, 251 Union Ave, Rutherford.
Memorial Donations may be made to Rutherford Congregational Church Robert Wesp Memorial Garden.