Frank Lautenberg, the senior U.S. senator from New Jersey, was a friend and colleague. He was an outstanding senator, a patriot who served our country in World War II, an extraordinarily successful businessman, and a person whose life was the embodiment of the American Dream. We will miss him.
Sen. Lautenberg’s story is very familiar to the Jewish community. His parents were immigrants from Poland and Russia who were brought to the United States as infants. His family was poor when he was growing up. His father Sam sold coal, farmed, ran a tavern, worked in the silk mills in Paterson, New Jersey, and – during the Depression – took part in the Works Progress Administration. He died when Sen. Lautenberg was just 19. Frank graduated from high school and then enlisted in the Army at the age of 18. He served in the Army Signal Corps and landed in France shortly after D-Day. He was the last senator who served in World War II.
When Frank returned to the States he was eligible for the G.I. Bill educational benefits. He wanted to pursue a law degree, but he felt he couldn’t stay in school that long since he was supporting his widowed mother and younger sister. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Columbia University and then went to work full time.
He joined forces with two brothers, Henry and Joe Taub, whose immigrant father had also worked in the mills, in building a payroll company that became Automatic Data Processing (ADP) – one of the most successful companies in U.S. history. Back then, the mill owners didn’t always pay the workers in full or on time. Sen. Lautenberg said that one of the motivating factors in offering payroll services to the manufacturers in and around Paterson was to make sure the workers got paid properly. Even though he became a wealthy man, he maintained his empathy for working people and their families all his life, and became their champion as a United States senator.
A comprehensive listing of Sen. Lautenberg’s legislative accomplishments would be very long indeed. He was indefatigable and he was fearless. He took on some of the most powerful special interests – the tobacco, alcohol, gun and chemical industries – and won.
Sen. Lautenberg authored the bill that prohibits smoking on commercial flights. We take something like that for granted now, but it was a hard-fought victory. We all breathe easier – literally – because of Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
A champion of the environment, Sen. Lautenberg fought tirelessly for decades to keep toxic chemicals out of our communities, to ensure that our water is safe for drinking and our beaches are safe for swimming, and to protect all humankind from the threat of climate change. Our world is cleaner and our public health has benefitted because of his efforts. I had the honor to work side by side with him on the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, where his energy, skill and dedication were an inspiration to all of us.
The state of Israel also has lost a stalwart friend and ally. He was a leader in defending Israel against its enemies, like Iran, and consistently supported Israel in its quest for peace. He was a member of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust in the 1970s and a national chairman of the UJA. Over the years, he served on the boards of the Bank Leumi, Hebrew University and the Diaspora Museum of Tel Aviv. Near to his heart was the establishment of the Lautenberg Center for General and Tumor Immunology, a major cancer center, at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Frank’s compassion also extended to his legacy of lifting the burden of proof on religious minorities who are fleeing persecution for the U.S. His work aided thousands of Soviet Jews, as well as other religious minorities over the last two decades.
Frank Lautenberg lived the American Dream, lifting himself from poverty to prosperity. He was a child of Jewish immigrant parents who built a successful business from the ground up. He gave back to his nation and community through military, public service and tzedakah. He achieved great wealth, power, and prestige in his life. And yet he never forgot his roots. Frank Lautenberg defended the widow, the orphan, the working poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled and the veteran.
I cherished my friendship with Sen. Lautenberg. I will miss his brave voice and his principled example, which will serve as a continued source of inspiration and dedication for generations to come.
Ben Cardin is a Democrat senator from Maryland.