There are few ceremonial silences in the Statehouse to rival what is created by an oration for the dead.
Former State Sen. Alexander J. Menza died this week of a heart attack in Rome after a long battle with cancer. On Thursday, Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen went to the floor to speak about his former boss, who brought him up in Union County politics.
"I was the kid licking stamps," Cohen told colleagues of his days as an aide in Menza’s office. "At all times he encouraged those who worked for him."
Cohen choked up as he recalled his political mentor, who in 1978 quixotically challenged Bill Bradley in a primary for the U.S. Senate. Menza met Dollar Bill’s account of his flashy basketball youth with allusions to his own work as a lawyer registering voters in the Deep South at the height of the Civil Rights movement.
Cohen said he was watching and listening all the while.
"I came into campaigning because of Bobby Kennedy," Cohen said. "I came into politics because of Alex Menza."
The assemblyman noted that Menza was "the voice for the voiceless," and celebrated Menza’s work on behalf of developmentally disabled children, the handicapped, and children who receive bilingual instruction in New Jersey.
"With the stroke of a pen, he changed people’s lives," Cohen said. "The Bilingual Act benefits a million kids, kids who will never know Alex Menza."
Reaching the end of the speech was toughest for the Union County politician, when he stammered how proud he was of his work on stem cell research, which Menza would have supported. His gravel-voice breaking, Cohen pointed out that the District 20 Assembly seat he now occupies once belonged to Menza.
"Most of what I learned and became is because of him," the assemblyman said.
Speaker Joseph J. Roberts urged everyone to rise for a moment of silence. They did.
The moment passed and Roberts dropped the gavel.
"Thanks," Cohen managed.
He walked to the back of the chamber, and sank into the arms of friends.