Stafford Leader

After 30 Years in Public Office, Spodofora’s Legacy Marked by Efforts to Make Stafford the Best It Can Be

By DAVID BIGGY | Dec 14, 2018
File Photo by Jack Reynolds

The year was 1960. A random, somewhat scrawny freshman of just over 100 pounds had been walking through the hall at Southern Regional High School when he came across another random kid, much bigger in size, who took an opportunity to call somebody a derogatory name.

“He called me a ‘guinea’ and I got really mad,” said Stafford Mayor John Spodofora. “He was bigger, but I grabbed this kid and slammed him into a locker. I had to jump to hit the kid, so I took him to the floor and started hitting him down there. All of a sudden, a hand grabbed my shirt and pulled me off him.”

That hand belonged to teacher Al Hair, who took the boys aside and asked for an explanation. After warning the larger boy to never use a derogatory name toward another student ever again, Hair turned to Spodofora and asked a simple question.

“He looks at me and asks, ‘You think you’re pretty tough, don’t you?’ I said, ‘No. I was just mad,’” Spodofora recalled, laughing. “Well, he said he’d let me off the hook if I joined the wrestling team. So I wrestled at 106 pounds my freshman year.”

Now, some 58 years later, it’s that fighting spirit that lends itself as one of the hallmarks of Spodofora’s time in public service and elected office – the unwillingness to put up with others trying to push him around or cause him defeat in some way, and not standing by apathetically when something needs to get done.

“I’ve always believed that 90 percent of everything you do comes from the heart,” Spodofora said. “And if you let anybody tell you that you can’t do something or let them push you around, you can’t get anywhere. I stand up for what I believe in and try to do the right thing.”

Hence the reason Spodofora ultimately ended up in elected office, illustrated by another brief story from the mayor’s past.

The year was 1982. Spodofora, who moved into Stafford Township in 1957, lived in the downtown region of the township, and a developer went before the planning board with plans to build a bunch of townhouses. Spodofora fought it on the premise that the development wouldn’t have allowed any place for stormwater to end up.

“I decided to fight the plan, along with all my neighbors,” he said. “I challenged the developer, and that’s when I researched and learned more about stormwater management, which then led to the development of the system we use in town now.”

Spodofora managed to sway the planning board into not allowing the townhome development and in the process became part of the township environmental commission. He later joined the zoning board as well.

But while Spodofora helped get the town’s stormwater management system in place, and received several awards and national accolades for that effort, another pet project took form – cleaning up Manahawkin Lake, which had become more like a swamp and had been closed to swimming for more than 10 years.

“That took a long time and a lot of hours to get done,” said Spodofora, who received a small grant of about $30,000 to do the studies necessary to gain approval of dredging and cleaning up the lake. “But we did all the studies, had a lot of volunteers helping us out, and managed to get the EPA’s entire Clean Lakes Program funds for that year. We got the lake dredged, cleaned it up, and that’s still a project I take a lot of pride in.”

Interestingly, despite a disdain for politics, Spodofora’s life in public office began in 1988 when he won a term to the township council.

“At the time I was involved in a lot with the town, and I knew a lot of people from all the work I’d done with the environmental commission,” he said. “So it was pretty easy to get elected back then.”

After years on the council, Spodofora “realized I had to get more involved in other areas of town management, to get a better understanding of how it all worked.” In May 2011, he was appointed as mayor to fulfill former mayor John McMenamin’s term after McMenamin was removed by the council in April 2011 after his moving to Long Beach Island.

During the past 7½ years, Spodofora has worked tirelessly to help improve town hall with its fiscal responsibility, reducing bond debt and crosstraining municipal employees for more efficient, in-house operation. At the same time, he continued to help clear pathways for improved commerce along Route 72 and the downtown region as well as striving to make Stafford Township a cleaner, more environmentally friendly place to live for future generations.

Yes, Spodofora has been met with several challenges along the way – Superstorm Sandy and the infamous “stolen valor” controversy among them. But through it all, he’s maintained his faith, determination to do what he believed was right and willingness to sacrifice many things to make Stafford Township a great place to live.

“The longer you’re in office, the more challenges you face and the more enemies you make,” he said. “But when I get into something, I put everything I have into it. I love this town, and I love being involved in my town. Yeah ... I did consider leaving at one point, because what was going on at the time was hurtful to me and my family. But when things are tough, you don’t back down and run away.

“Getting the stormwater management system in place was hard. Cleaning up the lake was hard. Recovering from Sandy was hard. If I didn’t feel I was doing a good job, doing right by the town, and wasn’t needed anymore, I would have left. But I believed God had me on this path, and that when my time was up he’d let me know. And he did.”

In June, Spodofora lost in the primary election to Greg Myhre, effectively ending his second term as mayor and 30 years of elected office at the end of this month. It was a shock at first, but Spodofora soon came to realize that it was all OK.

“The past 30-plus years have been a tremendous learning experience,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of great people over the years, and it’s been a blessing to my life. It’s always been about doing the right things for the town and fighting for what was right. I have a better appreciation for the people we have here, and it’s changed me in a lot of ways.”

Spodofora said he’s been most humbled by the willingness of many people in town to help others – noting that when he needed people to help with the Manahawkin Lake studies, or when Sandy obliterated parts of town and the recovery efforts got underway, or when a family was hurting and needed a meal prepared, so many generous individuals rose to the occasion and came through with kindness.

“The volunteerism in this town has always been amazing,” he said. “We have a lot of great people who love to help their neighbors in this town. When Sandy happened, I had more volunteers than I knew what to do with. What has stayed the same throughout my life here is the spirit of the town. I’ve always been impressed by the people wanting to help other people.”

And now, at almost 73, Spodofora looks ahead with a willingness to keep helping his neighbors in Stafford.

“First, I’m going to take a little time off to do some things around my own house,” he said with a laugh, noting that his wife, Helen, has put up with his being a public servant long enough and that maybe it’s time he gets to stay home a bit more. “But I’m not going away. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be doing during the coming years, but I’ll be involved.

“There are still some things that need to be done to make our area more flood resistant and to help reduce the number of pollutants in the bay. I feel like there’s still work to do, but the good thing is I don’t have to be mayor to do it. The whole point of what I’ve been doing here the past 30-plus years was about making Stafford Township better. That’s all I’ve ever cared about.

“And I wish Greg and his team the very best as they take on their new roles in town hall. I want them to succeed because I live here and I love Stafford. All I’ve ever wanted was for this town to be the best it can be for many generations. But I’ll still be around, somewhere, to help out where I can.”

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