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La Bella Vita!
01/01/2005 - By Jeffrey Moser
Jeffrey Moser interviews the honorable mayor of Colts Neck, Lillian Burry...It is apparent almost instantly as I pull up the long drive to the home of Colts Neck Mayor Lillian Burry and her husband Don. Their home just exudes ...
It is apparent almost instantly as I pull up the long drive to the home of Colts Neck Mayor Lillian Burry and her husband Don. Their home just exudes happiness and life lived to its fullest. They are both avid gardeners and their plots are brimming with perennials in bloom ("Except the ones the deer eat," Don remarks). As the couple led me on a tour of their tastefully decorated home, they are often finishing each other's sentences, and both display a sweetness to each other that exemplifies a mutual love. Don proudly shows me a patent for a ticker tape machine that his grandfather invented. When I pass by the gorgeous scenes depicted in the paintings of one of their favorite artists, Thomas McKnight, I could see that the visions of beauty depicted in his work really come alive in their home. It is then I realize, and as I conduct the interview, it becomes quite clear: This is a couple that knows how to experience the joy of living. They met at Wagner College, and after “The shortest stay in history,” in North Dakota, where Don was to pursue his Masters, they settled in Staten Island. They later settled in Matawan, and then moved to Colts Neck.
You’re originally from New York City. How has this experience shaped you?
I was born in Manhattan and later my family moved to the suburbs, which was Brooklyn at the time. In some ways I feel very blessed. Growing up in Brooklyn really added to my cultural experience. As a young girl I was always using public transportation to get around the city. Either that or we were taking long bike rides or roller-skating to explore our surroundings. I really gained a sense of independence at an early age. There was a lot to do then, and you kind of did it on your own. All you needed was a Spalding ball and you could do so many things with it- stickball, street-ball, handball. We also went to a lot of movies. It was a good time.
So things have changed today?
In some ways growing up in the area isn’t the real world- it’s an insulated environment. Kids are dependant on their parents for transportation. I was always in the library when I was young- either the local one (in Bensonhurst) or the one on 42nd St (in Manhattan).
When you were a child what did you picture yourself doing when you grew up?
As a child, I used to walk around in a nursing outfit, with the hat and everything. It’s funny, because nursing, as a profession, is the farthest thing that I wanted to pursue later. Really- I wanted to be a lawyer.
Who do you feel has had the most influence on shaping/inspiring your political career?
I would have to say my father, who was in some ways the reincarnation of Machiavelli (laughs). He loved history and he was very knowledgeable in interpreting it. I have always believed that you have to understand where you’ve been in order to understand where you’re going. That has been my credo. Growing up, my family owned the restaurant Del Monico’s. My father ran it, did all of the ordering. He was generally recognized as a master chef. My parents were both born in Italy, and we grew up with a tremendous appreciation for the arts, particularly the Renaissance artists.
Tell us more about your family.
My daughter Lenore has been with me for 15 years at Colts Neck Realty. She is a terrific salesperson and everyone loves her. I am very proud of my husband, who right now is retired. I have a granddaughter Stephanie who is a student at Monmouth University, and she marches to her own drum. She had blue hair when she was 14; it turned orange when she was 15. But as my daughter says, “There are far more important things than the color of one’s hair.” She has since become quite the beautiful gal. We have a grandson, Vito, who is in law school in Chicago. He said, “Grandma, people told me that I would meet a lot of Italians in Chicago and I haven’t met any yet!” I told him to keep his sense of humor- it is more valuable than anything else.
Was there anyone who influenced you business career?
Initially, it was Don’s father. He was a great inspiration. He was the ultimate salesman. Everybody loved him. He got involved with realty in the area after he retired and persuaded me to join him. And having been so involved in the workings of governments and municipalities, I had a great knowledge of zoning, of land use, of planning and this all helped with real estate because I knew what I was talking about. That was 30 years ago.
How did you first get interested in politics?
We first moved to Matawan from New York, and it was here that I began to get involved through the schools. I helped start a chapter of the League Of Women Voters, and served as its president for a while. We ran a program on the study of China- this is when it was just emerging as a world power. We held seminars that would rival a masters program. I have a lot of respect for the League. Later on, I ran for council and won- I was the first woman elected to governing body of the town. I also headed up the historic preservation program in Matawan. We purchased the Borough’s mansion that dates back to the 1600s and totally restored it. We also restored Town Hall.
In the next election in Matawan I was running for reelection. But this was at the time of Watergate. Everyone under the Republican label was washed out like a tidal wave. I lost my council position; it was a big loss.
Did this leave you feeling like you had enough with politics?
The initial result was thinking, I am not doing this anymore. I swore off politics. Being kicked in the teeth once was enough. I felt I had done so much. It made me angry- the initial result was not to get involved anymore and two years later, there was a school board issue, and I got involved. It just gets ingrained in your system.
Has preservation and conservation always been an interest for you?
Yes, very much so. I love history, so historic preservation is something that I felt was very important. As for conservation, I have always led the charge for environmental issues. I first got involved while in Matawan, purchasing the town’s wetlands. We found out that a company, Imperial Oil was dumping at the Burnt Fly Bog, and this became a real fight. People used to say to me (regarding my activism) “It’s a wonder you didn’t become roadkill.”
How about in Colts Neck?
Farmland preservation has always been one of my babies. I helped start the (Farmland Preservation) program here in Colts Neck and have been involved in it ever since. We have a great committee and recently we were able to buy 800 acres that will be preserved as farmland. Part of my (role) to citizens is preservation, in different forms. Environmentally, open space and preserving the farmland are important goals. Recently, we acquired the Montrose school, a one-room schoolhouse, and the town now owns it and will be restoring it. The fun part will be when we are completed with the restoration, and we can open it up to children who studied history in the primary school.
What are some of the challenges you faced as mayor today?
One of the things that I have been very much into is the Mt. Laurel challenge in this town, which is low and moderate income housing. I’m not opposed to the principals of Mt. Laurel; I just think they very poorly applied here. We don’t have the infrastructure to handle the high-density. We don’t have the employment that residents would need and seek, and we don’t have the (public) transportation- this is a two-car community. It doesn’t work in a place like this and initially it wasn’t meant for a town like Colts Neck. But then they decided to make it a regional thing- Colts Neck is in Asbury Park region, which extends to Trenton when calculating the numbers.
We were also fighting it on an environmental level, too. It’s an area that is bounded by farmland-preserved property. We had to come to some agreement and the resolution is that there will be 48 single units on 40 acres of property. Initially they wanted to put in 267. The irony is that is all for market value, and they’re being priced between $750,000-800,000 so is that a sham, or what? Isn’t it awful? They call it inclusive housing?
And now I’m fighting the Navy. Earle Naval Weapons Station wants to privatize 340 housing units- sell them to the public. But a weapons station! 82% of those weapons have been sent over to Iraq. And you’re going to put anyone there? It doesn’t make any sense. I am working on that with Congressman Smith and a number of others. So that is the most recent challenge that reared its ugly head this year. I said, “Why does it always wait till I’m mayor (laughs).
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