Remembering Joseph Thomasberger

Posted on January 23, 2018

Ceil shares memories of a strong advocate and longtime friend of ACNJ

Joseph Thomasberger

Joseph Thomasberger, an activist for social justice and a good friend to Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ), passed away on December 21, 2017 after a series of illnesses. Joe, who was 87 years old, spent his life advocating for the poor and vulnerable, as an American Baptist minister, head of a community non-profit in Newark and, in his later years, as an advocate who cared deeply about inequality, especially for children.

I first met Joe in 1998 when ACNJ pulled together the Early Care and Education Coalition in light of a recent state Supreme Court decision, mandating that New Jersey provide “well-planned, high-quality preschool” for 3 – and 4-year-old children in the poorest school districts.

The coalition was made up of groups like child care providers, Head Start and school districts – who were dedicated to early education but who had never worked together. The level of trust among this group was not high and our discussions were often contentious. There were many times that I doubted we could agree on even the smallest issues, much less help to design a system in which everyone’s point of view was considered.

Joe was a welcome voice of reason in this group. More than once, he managed to refocus an angry discussion on the issues we had in common, rather than what pushed us apart. His respect for all points of view and his problem-solving approach reminded us, time and time again, about the power of putting our voices together for a higher good. And, more than anything, he ensured that we did not lose sight of the amazing opportunity we had for children if we could come together.

The list of what Joe accomplished in his long life is extensive, but it does not do justice to the unique and remarkable person that he was. Joe was a man of great integrity. He had a gentle soul and a generous spirit. He elevated everyone he met. He was that unique individual who does not seek credit or acclaim for himself, but saw his role in supporting others to a greater good.

Shortly after Joe’s death, someone posted on his Facebook page, a quote from author Kent Nerburn. It describes him perfectly: “We are not saints, we are not heroes. Our lives are lived in the quiet corners of the ordinary. We build tiny hearth fires, sometimes barely strong enough to give off warmth. But to the person lost in the darkness, our tiny flame may be the road to safety, the path to salvation. It is not given us to know who is lost in the darkness that surrounds us or even if our light is seen. We can only know that against even the smallest of lights, darkness cannot stand …. It is not an issue of quality or intensity or purity. It is simply an issue of the presence of light.”

Joe leaves behind his wife, Rebecca Doggett, who he married in 2009, four children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A celebration of his life will be held on February 4, 2017 at 2 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Montclair.

Click here to read his obituary.

– Cecilia Zalkind