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Thursday, August 11, 2005Past Issues - S | M | T | W | T | F | S
 
South Jersey


By Tina Markoe, Courier-Post

LEADER: Joseph Azzolina, chairman of the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission, poses with a model of the warship.


Wednesday, August 12, 1998

Azzolina captained the battle from the beginning

By CAROL COMEGNO
Courier-Post staff

When the 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 reserve service.

"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.

By Karie Hamilton, Associated Press

CLOSE 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.


"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."

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 society.

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," Azzolina said.

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 the battleship.

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.



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