Steve Adubato Sr.
Born: December 24, 1932, in Newark, New Jersey
Died: October 13, 2020
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2023: Public Service
He was known as “Big Steve,” but Steve Adubato Sr. was not a particularly large man. Rather, his “bigness” was measured in his influence over politics, education and social services in Newark—the city to which he dedicated much of his substantial energy.
Adubato’s childhood in Newark was not easy. One of five children, he grew up in a tenement on Factory Street. His father, an educated man, ran a gas station to eke out a living during the Depression. He died of heart disease at the age of 44, leaving his wife to raise five kids.
After graduation from Barrington High School, Adubato worked his way through college, earning a bachelor’s degree at Seton Hall University. Following a stint in the Army, he started his career as a social-studies teacher, took a stab at law school, then returned to Seton Hall for his master’s degree in political science. He made his first foray into politics in 1962, winning a spot as a Democratic district leader. “I found out I was a natural,” he told New Jersey Monthly in 2009.
Even as riots roiled Newark in 1967, Adubato stayed put, earning the loyalty of blacks and Hispanics in the North Ward. By 1968, he was elected North Ward party chairman. Two years later, he boldly supported the candidacy of Ken Gibson, who was running to become the first African American mayor of Newark. Gibson won–and his administration subsequently provided Adubato with the backing to help launch the North Ward Center.
The North Ward Center became Adubato’s seat of power and a prized community institution. In time, the non-profit, based in a fortress-like 19-century mansion on Mount Prospect Avenue, would operate a pre-school; a job-training and language-training center; an adult medical day care center; youth recreation programs; a day program for young adults on the autism spectrum; and Adubato’s crown jewel, the Robert Treat Academy, an award-winning charter school.
The Robert Treat Academy, one of the first charter schools in New Jersey, became a source of great pride for Adubato. Serving students K-8, the school is renowned for putting kids on the road to a quality higher education; it was named a Blue Ribbon School in 2008 by the U.S. Department of Education.
Adubato was a complicated man, beloved by the North Ward kids who dubbed him “Big Steve,” but feared by his political foes. He nurtured the careers of several of today’s most prominent Essex County political figures, but quashed the careers of others.
The street-tough Adubato never hesitated to speak his mind, often in ways that might be considered politically incorrect. “Anybody who sits across from Steve knows his biases are equally applied to all, from Italians, to Polish, to blacks, to Latinos,” Senator Cory Booker told New Jersey Monthly. “That’s what’s redeeming about him.”