It’s among the most defining relics of Byron Baer’s life: a 1961 mug shot taken in Jackson, Mississippi, just before his 45-day stint at Parchman Penitentiary. In the black-and-white photo, a 31-year-old Baer, who had just been arrested for being a Freedom Rider, stares at the camera defiantly, with his head cocked slightly to one side.
Baer had never even seen the picture until he was visited last month by a fellow Freedom Rider who he had taken under his wing back in 1961. But even in his last days, on painkillers and gradually slipping away, he was visibly pleased to see it, his family said.
Like that former freedom rider, today dozens of people – politicians and others — came out to a Hackensack funeral home to show respect to the local politician who, in one way or another, touched them. They had many stories about them, but there was a common thread to all of them: Baer stood up for the public, and most of all the downtrodden.
“It’s been absolutely incredible,” said Baer’s widow, Judge Linda Pollitt Baer, who emphasized that Baer’s helping hand stretched far. “We’ve gotten calls from political people, but also some people whose names I don’t even recognize.”
Baer’s son David, 52, a lawyer who now lives in California, recalled his father’s struggles to integrate the then de facto segregated Englewood school system. Baer took his son out of school in protest, placing him in a network of literally underground alternative classrooms, where integrated classes were taught in various families’ basements.
“They weren’t just babysitting kids – it was a real school,” said David Baer. “He played a pivotal role in having it organized.”
While Baer was always known more for his attention to detail than for his eloquence, some guests described him as a powerful voice nonetheless.
“He was the lion of Bergen County,” said Christopher Gagliardi, 26, a youth advocate for the physically and mentally challenged in the New Jersey Department of Education who knew Baer since he was eight. “When he roared, when he spoke, everybody just listened.”
All of the guests marveled at Baer’s accomplishments in office, especially the Open Records Act, or “Sunshine Law,” which many credit with making great strides towards government transparency.
But the motivation for his reforms and for his support of the downtrodden was best said by the deceased Senator himself, quoted in a 1969 Bergen Record story.
“I’d always come to view the German people critically,” said Baer, who credited the holocaust with his socio-political awakening. “I always felt they were responsible for the rise of Nazism as much through acts of omission as commission. Then the freedom rides started in 1961, and the bus was burned – it has a tremendous impact on me. In an overly dramatic, overly simplified way, I felt I had a responsibility as a citizen.”
Baer’s memorial service is scheduled for tomorrow morning at the Bergen Performing Arts Center at 30 North Van Brunt Street in Englewood.