James F. Ahearn, a legendary and respected New Jersey reporter and editor, died on Saturday. He was 88.
Ahearn launched his journalism career as a wire service reporter with United Press International in Boston. UPI sent him to Trenton in 1959 to cover New Jersey state government and politics.
The (Bergen) Record opened their first full-time Trenton bureau in January 1961 and recruited Ahearn to run it. Ahearn’ presence allowed the fabled Robert Comstock to focus as The Record’s chief political reporter without the encumbrances of covering state government and public policy.
Gov. Robert Meyner delivered his State of the State address on Ahearn’s first day with the Record. His maiden Record story appeared the following morning with this lede: “Governor Robert B. Meyner’s 1961 message to the Legislature received a lukewarm welcome. Senate Majority Leader Walter H. Jones (R, Bergen) complimented Meyner on many of the 70-plus proposals in the message, delivered by the Governor yesterday at a joint legislative session.”
Ahearn left the Trenton bureau in 1965 to become an editorial writer for The Record. He became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1970, where he studied urban and suburban affairs. He was the first Record reporter to receive a Nieman fellowship and the third New Jersey reporter to gain that honor.
When he returned to New Jersey in 1971, The Record promoted him to associate editor and head of the editorial page. He replaced William Caldwell, who retired after 46 years with The Record.
Ahearn was named managing editor of The Record in October 1977. The appointment was made by Comstock, his predecessor in Trenton, who was the executive editor.
He was a member of the Pulitzer Prize screening jury in 1985.
After an internal shakeup in the spring of 1987, The Record hired James Robison, the managing editor of the Orange County Register in California, as the senior managing editor. Ahearn moved back to his pot as associate editor, where he supervised special projects and returned to more frequent writing.
Ahearn continued as associate editor and columnist after Robison left The Record after a little more than a year and was replaced by Bernard Buranelli. He became the senior editor in 1992, and a contributing editor in 1993. He continued to write for The Record until 2013.
He could be the last living New Jersey journalists to witness an execution. Ahearn witnessed the executions of Fred Sturdivant and Joseph Ernst in 1962. The last execution in New Jersey was in 1963.
Ahearn came from a newspaper family. His father, Francis T. Ahearn, was the city editor for the Hartford Times and his younger brother, David, was a journalist in Washington. He graduated from Amherst College and served in the U.S. Navy from 1954 to 1957, assigned to destroyers in the North Atlantic as a combat information officer.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Mary Ann, four children and two grandchildren.
Friends may call on the Ahearn family at the Burnett & White Funeral Home in Rhinebeck, New York today from 3-6 PM. Memorial donations in honor of him may be made to the Niemann Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.