BY MATT FRIEDMAN and MAX PIZARRO
Dr. David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics and frequent media commentator, died this morning after suffering a heart attack while teaching class at Rider. He was 58.
Politicians, fellow political experts, students and family members alike today celebrated his powers of understanding and his ability to explain the confounding political dynamics of his native state.
“I would see him on the trail,” said Senate President Richard Codey. “He knew his stuff without question, and he was the number one go-to guy to get a quote about politics. It’s a loss to the state and a loss to Rider University.”
“Dr. Rebovich had a profound impact on politics and public policy in New Jersey,” said Minority Leader Alex DeCroce. “He spoke passionately about the political environment in our state and how it could be improved. We may not have always seen eye-to-eye, but I always respected his opinions because they were expressed with crystal clarity and only after thoughtful consideration. His is one New Jersey voice that will be sorely missed.”
Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts also testified to Dr. Rebovich’s influence.
“Professor Rebovich was an absolute gentleman who helped distill both the complexities and foibles of New Jersey’s political scene into understandable terms for state residents,” said Roberts. “The tens of thousands of Google hits his name triggers are a testament to his life’s work and his influence on New Jersey politics.”
For all of the recognition, those who knew him remembered Dr. Rebovich as an expert but down-to-earth and self-effacing New Jersey original – “Reb,” an academic who could talk Plato’s Cave just as casually as break down local politics at Fred and Pete’s Deli on Route 33 in his beloved hometown.
A resident of Hamilton, he grew up in Perth Amboy, earned a BA from Johns Hopkins Univeristy and an MA and PhD from Rutgers University in political science. He played the back court on the basketball team at Perth Amboy High School and at Johns Hopkins University.
Fairness defined him as a professor, commentator and writer, according to those who knew and worked with him – and he sought the best from politicians.
“He expected total integrity out of public figures and he never chose sides,” said his younger brother Kurt Rebovich of Perth Amboy, who described Dr. Rebovich as a dedicated athlete and reader of newspapers from an early age.
“We played sports together all the time, basketball in the backyard and baseball. He was a good baseball player,” said Kurt Rebovich. “We caught frogs in the woods and went to the movies downtown. Perth Amboy was the best of both worlds.”
The mood at the Rider campus was somber today, said his students, who remembered their professor as a man of humility and humor, whom they gave a 4.5 out of 5 rating at ratemyprofessor.com.
Rider University President Mordechai Rozanski said Rebovich was a prized member of the college’s faculty.
“A loss of this magnitude cannot be expressed in words,” wrote Rozanski in a statement. “David’s contributions to our community, his passion for his work and his love of teaching were unsurpassed.“
Just yesterday, Dr. Rebovich gathered with students during a free period to plan for the upcoming debate at Rider University between the College Democrats and the College Republicans. He was going to be the moderator, and he told his students again about the importance of resisting partisanship.
“He was always getting us to answer to the substantive issues,” said Kyle Battaglia, a sophomore political science major.
Justin Pone, another sophomore who took classes from Dr. Rebovich in understanding politics, campaigning and New Jersey government, said, “He taught me to always have an open view about politics, and to look at issues from every side.”
Hamilton residents like their late professor, Pone and Battaglia said they take special pride in living their town’s political culture, made up of two strong parties and a massive middle ground of independent voters. As his expertise on issues stretched across the state, Dr. Rebovich was also delighted to reside in the always politically charged atmosphere of Hamilton Township.
“I love it,” he said of the Democratic and Republican party rivalries in the Mercer County town that borders the State Capitol.
An unassuming man who talked politics at the barbershop or discussed the Hamilton Township budget outside the Corner Bookstore, Dr. Rebovich was scheduled to serve as NJN television’s lead political analyst on election night, as he has been numerous times in the past. Today, the station’s lead political reporter, Michael Aron, lamented the death of a great contributor.
“We need a new lead analyst on election night three weeks away,” said Aron. “It literally leaves a void – we have an empty chair to fill. When he started at this he was just a college professor who taught politics and read the newspapers, but he became really one of the incisive minds who understood the lay of the land.”
Aron said they used to joke that one of the reasons Dr. Rebovich was the most quoted was because he was one of the closest to the Statehouse physically and it was easy to get him.
Reporters could track him down easily by telephone, too.
“I’m here most mornings,” said Dr. Rebovich’s familiar, friendly voice on his voice mail. “Leave a message or feel free to call me at home.”
The guests on Reporters Roundtable got the news of Dr. Rebovich’s death while they were taping the show, said Aron.
He was as much a reporter himself as an academic. What made Dr. Rebovich unique was that he practiced a “soak and poke” method of political science, according to Fairleigh Dickinson University pollster Peter Woolley. He showed up in Trenton frequently and hung out with the actors on the political stage rather than basing his conclusions on secondary sources.
“Among political scientists, in that way certainly, he was a very rare character, and able to put the street together with the ivory tower,” said Woolley. “I think that was his real gift.”
Another poltical expert, Ingrid Reed, director of the Eagleton Institute’s New Jersey Project, remembered Dr. Rebovich as someone unafraid to criticize aspects of the political system but who maintained a steadfast faith in the process.
Reed and Dr. Rebovich collaborated regularly, having their students clip political articles from different newspapers and share them.
“He always had a dignified and never flip approach to explaining what was happening, of respecting the politicians, but not being afraid to point out when things weren’t working well. But he did it with the expectation that politics could work,” said Reed.
From the theoretical back to the practical, the classroom down to the gritty crossroads of politics, the day brought partisans together in mourning, as Dr. Rebovich’s commentary was remembered as fair, insightful and influential by officials on both sides of the isle.
Republican State Chairman Tom Wilson said his passing “leaves a a major void in New Jersey Politics.”
“David was the rare academic whose insights reflected the complex realities of politics. is level of understanding, insight and knowledge made him the undisputed Dean of political observers in New Jersey,” said Wilson.
Democratic State Chairman/Assemblyman Joe Cryan said that, while Rebovich’s passing is a huge loss to the political and academic community, his students will help carry on his legacy.
“He provided insight and perspective to New Jersey politics, which is no small achievement, and he did it with as much passion as intelligence,” said Cryan. “He will never be replaced, but we should remember that his legacy will include all the students he taught and inspired.”
In addition to his daughter, Melissa, a freshman at Rider, Dr. Rebovich is survived by his brothers, George, Jr., of Acton, Mass., and Kurt of Perth Amboy; nieces Gayle and Samantha and nephew Kurt, Jr. And his parents, George and Gloria of Perth Amboy.