John Farmer, a journalist of extraordinary gravitas who covered national and state politics for more than 50 years, died on May 8. He was 89.
Farmer started out as a local reporter for the Newark Evening News around 1955, first working out of the Clifton bureau and later covering Jersey City, where he grew up as the son of Irish immigrants. He quickly worked his way to Trenton as a statehouse reporter for the Newark Evening News.
After the Newark News went under in 1972, Farmer went to work for the Philadelphia Bulletin. He eventually rose to the position of national news editor.
In March 1981, Farmer left the newspaper business to move over to the dark side as communications director – it was called director of public information in those days – to lame-duck Gov. Brendan Byrne. He served in that post until Byrne left office in January 1982.
He joined the Star-Ledger in 1982 as a columnist. His work was nationally syndicated through the Newhouse News Network.
Among a long list of accomplishments: Farmer was the originator of the Byrne-Kean Dialogues, a weekly discussion of state and national issues between Byrne and former Gov. Thomas Kean.
At age 78, Farmer stepped in to become the Star-Ledger editorial page editor in 2008 after nearly the entire editorial board took a buyout package. Farmer needed to rebuild the opinion writing staff almost from scratch. He recruited Tom Moran, who had left the newspaper for an unsatisfying job at PSE&G. About a year later, he turned the reigns over to Moran and retired.
While he retired in 2009, he never stopped writing. His last column for the Star-Ledger appeared in April 2019.
Farmer has seen a lot of history.
He was in Los Angeles when New Jersey Gov. Robert Meyner went to the 1960 Democratic National Convention with the hopes of emerging as the presidential nominee if John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t win on the first ballot. New Jersey cast their votes for Meyner, but when the governor realized that Kennedy’s win was inevitable, the he tried to shift his home state to JFK but couldn’t get the convention chairman to recognize him.
Farmer’s lede was classic: “Governor Meyner is resting comfortably, after being hit by a bandwagon last night.”
He was also in Los Angeles in June 1968 when presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed.
He once described growing up “under the Hague Hudson County Democratic machine, which produced a winning streak the Yankees or even the Kremlin would envy — 30 years straight. Nary a loss. Vote theft, part of the machine’s winning formula, was not only a crime; it was an art form.”
Farmer is survived by his wife of 64 years, Jane, four children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His son, John Farmer II, served as attorney general of New Jersey under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and was the governor of New Jersey for about 90 minutes in 2002.
The Star-Ledger’s Ted Sherman wrote an outstanding obituary that is a must-read.