By ERIN ROLL and LINDA MOSS
Stunned friends are mourning the death of the Montclair State University faculty member who was killed in a car accident Wednesday, a crash that has township residents calling for action to address traffic hazards on county-maintained Grove Street.
The incident in which Mary DeFilippis, a 73-year-old Montclair resident, was fatally struck by a vehicle near the corner of Grove and Chestnut Road is still under investigation, by both local police and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. On Friday Montclair Police Lt. David O’Dowd said that authorities had not yet decided whether to file charges against the driver involved in the accident, a 60-year-old Bloomfield woman,pending the outcome of the investigation. Police haven’t released the motorist’s name.
The fatality has restarted discussions and complaints regarding several Essex County roads that traverse Montclair, not only Grove Street but also Bloomfield Avenue and Valley Road. On Grove in particular, some residents claim that lighting along the street is inadequate at night and that drivers often speed down the roadway, unchecked by police. Township officials declined to talk about the issue on Friday, and county officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
But at least one former township official who has championed pedestrian and bicyclist safety in Montclair spoke out.
“At some point you have to ask yourself are these accidents?” said Jerry Fried, a former township mayor. “It’s a public safety issue, that’s what it comes down to. And that’s the responsibility of our county government, to protect us.”
Meanwhile, township residents who knew DeFilippis, who was fatally injured while out on her evening walk, remembered her fondly and expressed shock at her death.
“Mary was the kindest, most gentle lady,” Gregg Monsees said. “She was always upbeat, cheerful, and happy to see you. She always had a smile on, and a wonderful infectious laugh. A new grandmother, she loved to talk about her grandchild.”
DeFilippis and her family belong to Union Congregational Church on Cooper Avenue, where Monsees, his family and his former spouse Polly Monsees also worship. DeFilippis and her husband have three sons.
Polly Monsees had been friends with DeFilippis for 37 years. She said that she met DeFilippis when their respective children were in the church’s nursery school. DeFilippis was also a member of several church committees, and she acted with the Union Congregational Players.
“Many people might find it surprising, she was quite a comedic actress,” Polly Monsees remembered, saying that DeFilippis could have the audience “in stitches.”
She also recalled that DeFilippis was quite social, but it was sometimes difficult to make plans with her for an evening out because her family’s schedule always came first.
“Sometimes we would see each other in the parking lot at the Upper Montclair CVS, and we would be there quite a while catching up on our families,” Gregg Monsees said. “Mary was also a dog lover. ”
DeFilippis’s death was “horrible: an utter shock; senseless,” he said.
“It is a tremendous loss to everyone: family, friends, church, work, (MSU), and Montclair,” he said. “It is impossible to comprehend that this wonderful person is now gone from our lives. It was a privilege and honor to have known her.”
UNION CONGREGATIONAL TIES
Polly Monsees said that she had been spending time with DeFilippis’s family, and that the Rev. David Shaw, the pastor of Union Congregational, had been meeting with them. A service was being planned as of Friday afternoon, but that the details had not yet been finalized, according to Monsees.
On Facebook, Janice Arnold wrote, “What a horror. I taught Mary’s boys in elementary school here in Montclair. Such a terrible loss. My heart goes out to George, Stephen, John, and Michael, and all other relatives and friends. They are such a wonderful family.”
Michelle Trevenen was also shaken up by DeFilippis’s death.
“I will so miss catching up with her at church, our breakfast group, and chatting on Polly’s porch,” she said. “I almost lost it in ShopRite this morning as that was one of the places I ran into Mary the most. We take so much for granted.”
Karen Ermler had similar memories.
“I, too, always ran into Mary at the ShopRite,” Ermler said. “We would laugh about it and try to guess when we would see each other again … also loved sitting with her at church.”
DeFilippis’s colleagues at MSU also praised her in a statement on Thursday, the day after her death. Most recently, she was the academic adviser for the MBA program at the Feliciano School of Business.
DeFilippis began her career at MSU as the Secretary of the Hispanic Institute for Applied Psychology in 1993 and over the past 24 years she worked in the Psychoeducational Center and the Educational Opportunity Fund Programs before joining the business school in 2002. Her first duty there was as the secretary for the Department of Information & Decision Sciences and Management & Information Systems, according to MSU.
MUM ON PROBE
DeFilippis studied history and government at Russell Sage College in Troy, New York, and was from Wynantskill, New York, a suburb of Troy, according to her Facebook page.
The accident took place near in an area where the First Ward and the Second Ward border each other. Deputy Mayor William Hurlock, who represents the First Ward, declined to comment on DeFilippis’s death or safety issues on Grove Street on Friday.
“Because it’s an active and ongoing investigation, we can’t comment on it,” Hurlock said. “I am to refer everyone to the Montclair Police Department.”
Second Ward Councilwoman Robin Schlager couldn’t be reached for comment.
Several residents have raised concerns about low levels of street lighting in the area.
ONGOING SAFETY ISSUES
Javier Guardo is a township resident who has been working on a project, through the Planet Civic website, to identify all of the burnt-out streetlights in town, as well as to map out corners and intersections that residents believe do not have enough lighting at night. He said that at least two residents participating in the streetlight project had raised concerns about Grove Street.
Fried, an avid bicyclist, worked hard on traffic safety issues when he was mayor, and Montclair was the first place in New Jersey to implement a complete-streets safety policy. Roughly 10 years ago, Fried said, Township Engineer Kimberli Craft drafted a safety plan for Grove Street, involving its multi-use shoulders for pedestrians and bicyclists. But her plan was ultimately “watered down by the county engineer,” according to Fried.
“Particularly at this time, where there is much more demand for accountability in government at all levels particularly since the election, I think its important to ascribe responsibility for pedestrian injuries and fatalities, particularly when they happen on county property,” Fried said. “If you look at crash data, you’ll notice that most of the crashes with injuries and fatalities happen on county roads. “
Said Fried, ‘These are not accidents. They are public safety hazards that have not been adequately addressed by the county engineering department.”
The spokesman for Essex County Executive Joseph Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., Anthony Puglisi, couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday, nor could Freeholder Vice President at-Large Brendan Gill, a Montclair resident.
The county, in partnership with Montclair and five other Essex County towns, last month launched a safety program called Street Smart NJ to curtail pedestrian accidents on bustling Bloomfield Avenue.