HAMILTON — Former and longtime Councilman, Kevin Meara, has been at the center of controversy and tragedy.
While they’ve prompted him to carve a path in politics and in the nonprofit arena, all roads eventually lead back to his love of public service.
Meara spent his early years in the Wilbur section of Trenton, a middle child amid a large Irish-Catholic brood.
“We had our own basketball and baseball team,” he said of his seven other siblings. “It was city life; everyone lived close to one another.”
But the city showed signs of a changing dynamics, forcing Meara’s parents to set their eyes on nearby Hamilton.
“There were the riots of ’68,” Meara said, describing the racial tension that spread throughout the country that year, bubbling over onto Trenton’s streets. “I think there were six or seven of us at that point, and (my parents) were afraid they were going to lose one of us.”
Shortly thereafter, the Mearas found themselves in the neighboring township, with a yard that backed up into the Italian-American Sportsmen’s Club, not to mention a horse farm.
“It was pretty rural at the time,” he said.
As a St. Anthony High School graduate, Meara attended Mercer County College for a short spell.
He began exploring a future in the military, only to learn that a traumatic childhood eye injury would rob him of the chance to enlist.
“I bounced around a bit — I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he said.
In 1981, Meara signed on with PSE&G, more recently representing the company’s large customer accounts, the likes of which include Princeton University, the Veteran’s Administration and Mercer County.
Over the years, he’s taken on the roles of an Irish-American activist, recreational football and soccer coach and often, a dissenting voice among politicians.
“Every Irish-Catholic kid who grew up in the time of Kennedy was a democrat,” Meara said.
At a young age, his brother, Gerard, roped Meara into campaigning for Francis McManimon, a highly influential public figure, who held office in the state assembly and senate back in 1980s.
“He used to say, ‘You have to learn the game and you have to learn the players,” Meara recalls. “Politicians do have a valuable role in changing things.”
Those pearls of wisdom appeared to pay off when Meara first won his bid for the Hamilton Township Council in 1989.
Twelve years, on and off and along both sides of the aisle, he served.
“In 1993, I lost reelection, after the (Gov.) Florio backlash,” he said.
Around 2003, after being brushed off by the Democrats, Meara’s ties to the Irish-American community and his strong background in labor, enticed Hamilton Republicans to jock him as a conservative convert.
“I had friends on both sides,” he said. “I was already pro-life and pro-second amendment.”
He changed party affiliation and just like that, claimed another election victory.
“Politicians have an ego,” Meara admits. “We think that (the public) can’t do without us and we stay too long.”
But Meara priorities began to change after the summer of 2008, when he and his wife discovered their son, K.C., dead in their home of an overdose.
“I couldn’t even spell heroin; it was so foreign to us,” he said. “That’s where your life changes forever. When he died, friends and parents would come to us, saying, ‘Our son or daughter has a problem, can you help us?’”
While K.C.’s death brought immeasurable pain to Meara, along with his wife Maryann, and his son and daughter Killian and Kelly Rose, the chance to do good and to change lives sprang from their devastation.
That’s how City of Angels came to be, officially becoming a 501C3 in 2009.
What began as a small group of concerned citizens and parents soon morphed into meetings with major players, individuals who sculpted polices, had intricate knowledge of the medical or judicial system or just had personal experience with the disease of addiction.
“It was a whole group of like-minded people,” Meara said. “We were trying to figure out how the system works or doesn’t work.”
Today, the organization has its hands in everything from training volunteers to coaching to acting as a liaison for after-care and recovery resources.
Even though City of Angel’s roots will alway be in Hamilton, it’s since migrated to Gloucester County, Manasquan, Hunterdon County, in North Jersey and Tom’s River
“I can’t bring my son back…but these are preventable deaths.”