BY MARK PORTER
for Montclair Local
There’s a life-sized model of a skeleton propped up in a chair outside Pat Brechka’s office. It’s a reminder to her, from colleagues in the municipal building, not to work until her demise.
After serving for 37 years, Pat Brechka is imminently retiring from Montclair’s municipal government. Today, Aug. 1, is her final day as the director of the Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department.
From the accolades showering on Brechka, it’s an eminent retirement.
“Pat has earned the respect and genuine affection not only of everyone who worked with her, including the many council members, fellow employees, and committee members she liaised with, but also the members of the community she served,” states a resolution approved last week by the township council.
The council resolution cites Brechka’s oversight of or collaboration with myriad activities and events. These include Montclair’s annual Fourth of July parade, picnics and fireworks; the annual holiday tree-lighting fete, partnering with the Business Improvement District; the township’s Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and 911 commemorations, and the First Night Montclair fetes held for many years. With the Montclair YMCA, Brechka has co-directed the annual 10-K Montclair Run. And there’s the Duck Derby held with the Montclair Ambulance Unit in Edgemont Pond every October.
“We’ve seen it all,” said Brechka, who for the past 15 years has headed the department. She and her staff have helped assemble and sustain all of the activities.
Brechka has never seen the Fourth of July parade, she acknowledges this week as she packs up personal items in her office.
“Every year, I’m at the beginning making sure everything gets going, and then I have to run to the end to be at the reviewing stand,” she said.
In the summer, rec department-sponsored activities include operating the three swimming pools and running a day camp in Clary Anderson Arena. When winter arrives, the rec staff and part-timers offer courses such as skiing, a sport that Brechka excels at. Once a week during wintertime, the department buses about 100 young people to Mountain Creek Resort in Vernon for a day of enjoying the slopes.
“It’s never been a chore,” Brechka said. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”
“She’s an organizer, a collaborator, a multitasker,” said Annette Speach, who began working in the municipal building in 1977 and was buddies with Brechka for all of their 37 years together.
“Pat’s a people person. She’s good at bringing people together,” Speach affirmed. “She’s an excellent manager, but she’s also very hands-on. She’s somewhat of a perfectionist. She’s the champion list-maker.”
Donato DiGeronimo, the now-retired battalion chief of the Montclair Fire Department, said Brechka has yellow pads going back 40 years. He’s worked with Brechka on numerous committees and events ranging from “beefsteak dinner” fundraisers to the Fourth of July Committee.
DiGeronimo noted that Brechka’s meticulous scribing reflected her institutional memory of the municipal government and its numerous local activities and events spanning the decades.
“She was always there,” DiGeronimo said. “She always got it done.”
Montclair was New Jersey’s first municipality to sponsor First Night, begun by then-Recreation Director Perry Doerr in 1987, and overseen by Brechka and the-Program Coordinator Eileen Sheehan, until it ceased due to expenses and staff downsizing in 2013. Offering an alternative to boozing it up on New Year’s Eve, First Night Montclair enlisted local venues — clubs, bars, restaurants, public buildings — and featured musicians, comedians, magicians, craftspeople, fireworks, and opportunities to chat with fellow Montclairites.
“Probably the best times I experienced with Pat was First Night,” recalled Montclair Communications Director Katya Wowk, who started her career in the municipal government in 2004 in the rec department. “You’d have a hundred volunteers. Organizing the acts, the participants, the annual change of themes, Pat would be there cracking the whip, and everything would fall into place.”
Adorning the rec department Office are several First Night Montclair posters, including those created by award-winning local artist Donna Bonavita. In her office, Brechka opened a drawer and showed a variety of colorful First Night buttons.
Brechka has run the department with two longtime activities managers, Garland Thornton and Michele Cammarata.
Thirty years ago, Cammarata began her career in the rec department working as a manager alongside Brechka, overseen by Perry Doerr and Lonnie Brandon, before switching to part-time work to raise a family. “When Pat headed the recreation department, she persuaded me to come back full-time, probably about 15 years ago.”
Back from monitoring the township’s three public swimming pools, Cammarata observed that Brechka was “pretty notorious” for compiling lists of preparations for, and summaries of every event. “She’s a fastidious note-taker. That old legal pad has its use.”
Earlier this week, Brechka was cleaning out her office on the municipal building’s first floor. Admitting that nobody else will thumb through the file cabinets of paper dating back decades, she’s recycled almost all of her stacks of legal pads.
As Cammarata observed, the department’s regimen is now online. While the rec department was once a “huge generator of fliers,” now “they’re going out digitally. The trees love us now.”
Speach, who retired this past Jan. 1 after having served as executive assistant in the township manager’s Office since 1989, said of her and Brechka’s careers: “It seems like yesterday that we started.”
Raised in Roselle, Brechka earned a degree in recreation and health from Kean College. Soon after she began working in the rec department, Brechka moved to Montclair — an advantage for workers such as Speach and herself during snowstorms, when they could hike through mounds of snow and reach their offices. An aficionado of the Jersey Shore, Brechka will likely relocate in or near Sea Girt. And, she noted, skiing in Vermont also beckons her.
“The most rewarding thing is, through my 37 years here, I’ve seen many kids come through our programs, and then they come back and they’re either employed by us as camp counselors or they become parents and bring their own kids to the programs, and they thank you. That’s what it’s all about.
“It’s been a pleasure serving the residents of Montclair,” said Brechka. “It’s time for me to take time and enjoy things.”
And perhaps enjoy a Montclair Fourth of July parade from the sidelines.