South Brunswick has undergone countless changes over the years, but for the past two decades if there was any constant in the township, it was Ellen Gambatese.
A tireless and compassionate advocate for numerous charitable causes throughout the community, Ellen, wife of South Brunswick Mayor Frank Gambatese, died on Sunday at the age of 76.
Her death marks a profound loss for all of South Brunswick, but her legacy will continue in the various organizations and groups she helped achieve myriad goals during her time in the township.
"She was the definition of a dedicated civil servant who always put the township and her causes first," said South Brunswick Councilman Joseph Camarota. "She was one of those people who we always talk about when it comes to what makes South Brunswick a great town. It is because of dedicated volunteers like Ellen Gambatese, who just made the town better by her activities, her dedication, and her commitment. She will be sorely missed."
Ellen was born in Paterson in 1936 and grew up in Wayne before moving back to Paterson, where she and her husband raisied a family of five children for 27 years. Ellen would graduate Magna Cum Laude from Seton Hall University with a Bachelor of Science in Education in 1966. She worked as an English teacher at St. Phillip's Elementary School in Clifton before retiring in 1985.
The Gambatese family moved to South Brunswick in 1992, beginning an extensive body of volunteer work in the community that made Ellen a township cornerstone.
Ellen volunteered as a communicant of St. Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church in Kendall Park and was a member of the Columbiettes. She served as president of the South Brunswick Library Board of Trustees, served as and was a former member of the Board of Directors of the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey. She also worked on a local effort that sent aid to D’Iberville, Mississippi, a town devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
"I worked with Ellen on the Hurricane Katrina relief committee in 2005," said Hank Kalet, former editor of the South Brunswick Post and former Patch Regional Editor. "She was quite committed to making sure that the people in the Mississippi town we were working with were not forgotten. Over the years that I knew her, we ended up having conversations about all kinds of things — about politics, of course, but also literature and the arts. I always viewed Frank and Ellen as a team, which is not something I would say about many of the political families I’ve covered over the years."
Ellen was also involved in helping to raise funds for South Brunswick's Hugs for Brady Foundation. The foundation began after Kendall Park infant Brady Wells died in 2010 at the age of 23 months from pediatric leukemia. Brady's parents Mike and Sherrie Wells started the foundation with the goal of helping the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and the Bristol-Myers Squibb Children's Hospital fight pediatric cancer.
As a neighbor of the Wells family, Ellen was a volunteer for the foundation on a number of fund raising endeavors.
"Ellen was a beautiful and giving person that I was lucky enough to call a friend," said Sherrie Wells. "The success of the Hugs for Brady Foundation was due in large part to Ellen’s commitment to help spread the word about childhood cancers, by volunteering countless hours, and by creating her own fundraiser of a gourmet breakfast to raise money for pediatric cancer research. Ellen loved Brady and she was committed to helping Hugs for Brady find a cure, one fundraiser at a time. Her passion and her warm smile will be missed tremendously."
Ellen was honored on several occasions over the years for her volunteer work, including the Silvio O. Conte Award from the state Brain Injury Association, the and she was named the Library Trustee of the Year by Middlesex County in 2010.
Despite her numerous honors, Ellen was always humble and quick to give credit to those she worked with on various causes.
"It's quite an honor, but I wouldn't have been able to do any of this if it weren't for the people who helped me," Ellen said in 2011 after receiving the Barry Indik Award. "None of these things have been done in isolation. There was always a great team behind me, so this award is just as much for them as it is for me."
Ellen was also a driving force for the South Brunswick Public Library, where she founded a number of popular fund raising events, including the Miele Wine Tasting and the Beef Steak Dinner. She organized, baked, fought through red tape, packed books, worked book sales, worked to obtain grant funds, and was instrumental in getting an original George Segal sculpture for the SBPL lobby, township officials said.
Ellen was able to secure Community Development Block Grant funds in the amount of $75,000 for the installation of the SBPL elevator. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, she also lobbied for additional Block Grant and federal funds totaling approximately $20,000 for a new ADA compliant restroom and over $4,000 for large print materials, according to SBPL Director Chris Carbone.
"She has been a tremendous advocate and supporter for not only the library, but for many organzations in town," Carbone said. "She was a true servant for South Brunswick."
Even with all of her community work, Ellen remained devoted to her family throughout her life. She and her husband are caretakers for their adult son, who suffered a traumatic brain injury after being struck by a car while riding a bicycle at the age of 19.
Those lucky enough to have met her remember Ellen by her altruistic spirit, as well as her genuine warmth and compassion for everyone she came into contact with.
"(Ellen and Frank Gambatese) were attached at the hip and he leaned on her so much," Camarota said. "She was the moral compass of South Brunswick. She was actively involved in so many causes. Between her and her husband, they were probably the most recognized team committed to South Brunswick that we have. They were both retired and worked tirelessly for the betterment of South Brunswick. Because of them South Brunswick is a better place to live."
Friends and relatives may call on Thursday, Nov. 15 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at St Augustine of Canterbury Roman Catholic Church, located at 45 Henderson Road in Kendall Park.
A Mass will be held on Friday, at 10 a.m., at St. Augustine's. In lieu of flowers contributions may be made to the American Red Cross or any Hurricane Sandy Relief charity of your choice.
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