August 12, 1998
Tina Markoe, Courier-Post
Joseph Azzolina, chairman of the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission,
poses with a model of the warship.
captained the battle from the beginning
Legislature formed the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission in
1980, Democrat and then-Gov. Brendan T. Byrne could have selected
a member of his own party to lead it. Instead, he chose Assemblyman
Joseph Azzolina, a Republican from Middletown, Monmouth County.
"He didn't pick me because of my politics,
but because of my Navy background, my association with the ship,
my experience as a legislator and contacts in Washington at the
Pentagon," said Azzolina, a veteran who served aboard the
USS New Jersey.
Many of the other original members of the
commission had political connections, but they have since been
replaced primarily by people with a historical interest in the
ship because of their military service or professional backgrounds.
Five of the 15 commission members are also
members of the New Jersey Battleship Museum Society and were
appointed mainly because of that tie, said Azzolina, 72.
The private, nonprofit museum society predated
the commission and began the initial efforts to secure the ship
from the Navy if and when it was ever taken out of active or
"I said then, it might be 20 or 25 years
before the Navy would ever release the ship, so there was not
as much interest then," Azzolina said. "There was a
lot of political dead wood on the commission at first, and most
of them never attended meetings or participated in any way."
This, he said, prompted him to replace them
with more dedicated professionals, some of whom he met by chance.
"I wanted to get away from political
appointees. Over the years I have found not only more society
members, but engineers and others with a keen interest in naval
history or the ship. They were appointed by three different governors
for commission seats on my recommendation. With their backgrounds,
they have been invaluable and have even done in-house studies
and worked out the particulars for towing the ship back here."
Karie Hamilton, Associated Press
UP: Joseph Azzolina (center), a retired Navy captain, and Eugene
Simko (right), both of the USS New Jersey Commission, confer
after a tour of the ship in 1997 in Bremerton, Wash.
Gloria Patrizio of Middletown, the only other
original commission member, said there are no partisan politics
involved at the commission level.
"This is a very professional group,"
said the former teacher, one of five commissioners in the museum
Only a few members, like former Salem County
Republican freeholder Joseph Dyer of Pennsville, have political
connections. But even they have Navy backgrounds and say politics
will not enter into the decision.
The commission is made up of volunteers and
has no operating budget. Members receive no pay, and often their
devotion to bringing the battleship back to its namesake state
as a floating museum has cost them money.
"He (Azzolina) has sunk close to $100,000
of his own money in this to keep the commission moving. How many
people do you know would do this and serve in a job without compensation?,"
asks Gordon Bishop, executive director of the fund-raising arm
of the battleship effort, the Battleship New Jersey Foundation,
which has several full-time staff members who serve both the
foundation and the commission.
Other commissioners like Tom Foreman, Walter
Olkowski and retired Rear Admiral George Reider also have taken
trips at their own expense to see other battleships. Many have
purchased equipment for the ship or paid for towing plans to
get it to New Jersey.
Azzolina is president of Food Circus Markets
Inc., a Foodtown store chain with 1,200 employees that operates
12 stores along the Jersey Shore. He also is vice president of
Twin County Grocers Inc. of Edison, a wholesale and distribution
cooperative with more than $1 billion in gross sales annually.
"I wanted to get things started, and
I was fortunate to have my own money to do it," he said.
Always using his own money, the chairman has
made trips to Bremerton, Wash., where the ship has been docked
in a naval reserve area. He even paid part of the bill for a
New Jersey Network television crew that wanted to film a documentary
on the ship.
Every few months, he and commission member
Tom Gorman also visit the USS Iowa -- one of three sister ships
to the New Jersey -- which has been docked at the former Philadelphia
Naval Shipyard for several years.
"The ship is helpful because it's the
same as the New Jersey, so when we want to check something out
or show others what the New Jersey is like, we go to Philadelphia,"
A graduate of Holy Cross College, Azzolina
served in both World War II and the Korean War during his 42
years in the Navy and Naval Reserves. He retired as a captain.
It was not until 1983, however, that he encountered
That year he spent seven months without pay
aboard the USS New Jersey as a special assistant to the captain.
But what was planned as a goodwill cruise to the Far East escalated
into two combat situations as the battleship's firepower was
summoned to the coasts of Central America and later to Beirut,
Lebanon, where U.S. Marines were killed by a terrorist bomb attack.
Serving coincidentally in Beirut at that time
was Marine and now Camden Mayor Milton Milan, who is trying to
lure the battleship to his city for its permanent home.
Azzolina is a longtime national director and
former vice president of the U.S. Navy League in Washington,
D.C. His legislative career began in 1966, when he was elected
to the Assembly from the 13th district, which represents parts
of Middlesex and Monmouth counties.
He served in the state Senate from 1972 to
1974, but lost in a Democratic landslide year in 1973 following
the Watergate scandal in Washington.
He returned to the Assembly in 1991 and has
been re-elected three times.