Obituary of Gerald "Jerry" Costello
Gerald “Jerry” Michael Costello, the founding editor of three newspapers —Catholic New York, The Beacon, and Suburban Trends—and author of two highly-acclaimed books in the Catholic Press, whose writing as a reporter, columnist, and author informed readers about international, national, and local Catholic news for more than 60 years, died on Monday, July 19th after a courageous battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 90.
Costello was the founding editor of Catholic New York where he worked as a full-time editor from 1981 -1991 and then as a consulting editor until 1996. He was hired by the late Cardinal Terence Cooke in 1981 to begin the first official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, succeeding the privately owned Catholic News. Costello worked closely and traveled extensively with Cardinal John O’Connor, Cooke’s successor as Archbishop of New York. Costello was also the founding editor of The Beacon, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Paterson, and served as editor from 1966-1981. Under Costello’s leadership, both newspapers won many journalistic awards and were widely recognized for their excellence in editing, writing, and design. Costello was the founding editor of Suburban Trends, a weekly that began in Riverdale, New Jersey, in 1958.
Costello authored two award-winning books. Mission to Latin America: The Successes and Failures of a Twentieth Century Crusade, published in 1979, detailed the story of countless North American priests, nuns, and lay missionaries who worked in Latin America in the 1960s. Costello wrote about the good that was accomplished through those missions, and he was unwavering in his opinion that there were grave missteps, particularly the North American Church’s penchant for imposing its way of life on the native people of Latin America. Costello’s second book, Without Fear or Favor: George Higgins on the Record, published in 1984, tells the story of Msgr. George Higgins, the late “labor priest” and highly respected church spokesperson for human and worker’s rights who fervently believed that the Church has a responsibility to actively help the poor and oppressed. Costello told the story of how Higgins’ convictions and action furthered such diverse causes and movements as organized labor, civil rights, nuclear disarmament, Christian and Jewish relations, and women’s rights.
Costello’s reporting covered current issues, events, and trends—those that influenced and were influenced by the Catholic Church— but it was the Church’s social teaching on the most pressing issues of our time including poverty, war, and racial and economic justice where he made his most significant contributions. Costello believed passionately that journalists should be on the ground where the story was happening and talk directly to the people who were most affected. He was the consummate listener, observer and learner—determined to get to the heart of a story through the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds of those who were living it. Among the many memorable examples of Costello’s travels to the source of a story was his interview with labor and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers union, in his remote Tehachapi Mountain headquarters in California. Costello’s long interview with Chavez and many farm workers was published in installments in The Beacon beginning in March, 1973 and bought firsthand accounts to Catholic readers of the squalid living conditions and unfair pay for many growers. Over his career, Costello’s reporting took him to five continents. He traveled to Bolivia and Peru to report on the Church’s missions to the poor in Latin America; he visited Northern Ireland where he reported on the “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants; and, he reported from The Philippines, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Jerusalem, filing countless stories on the Church’s work to address war, famine, and political and religious strife.
As satisfying as Costello’s professional achievements, awards, and honors were throughout his career, in 2011, he wrote in his self-published book So Far, So Good: “Any professional accomplishments take a back seat to raising a family with my wife, Jane. When I think of my legacy, I think of our six children, our (now 21) grandchildren, and our (now eight) great-grandchildren.” His children and grandchildren would add that their father and grandfather, “Papa Jerry,” has left them with a deep love of faith, family, show tunes, the written word, the Fighting Irish, the METS, the Giants, and the “Sunday phone call.” They would also agree that growing up in Pompton Plains, the family home was filled with newspapers, music, and their father’s familiar and signature phrases: “Stop that rough housing!” “Oh Brother!” and “For Crying out Loud!” His children remember a favorite game that he played with them: guessing the headline of the New York Post the day after a major news event. Raised as an only child, Costello had to make some adjustments as the father of six children, including a compromise on family road trips to switch occasionally from his all-news radio to a Top 40 station, and the installation of a second phone line when the bishop of Paterson continued to get a busy signal when attempting to reach Costello about important church business. But most of all, his family remembers the glorious sounds of Papa Jerry playing jazz and show tunes on his baby grand piano after dinner most evenings and always at holidays and family gatherings.
Costello’s family was an attentive audience for the issues their father often wrote about, and those stories sometimes left the printed page and found their way into their daily lives. While covering the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, Costello wrote about Operation Vacation, a program sponsored by Catholic Charities which provided city youth of color the opportunity to spend part of the summer with white suburban families. Jerry and Jane Costello and their children opened their home and welcomed city kids of color to live with them over two summers. The Costello children also watched closely as their father worked on the 1976 mayoral campaign for Herb Neal, the town’s only Black resident at the time, who won his bid for mayor and served four one-year terms in the late 70s and early 80s.
Costello’s children and his wife, Jane, spoke of the dignity and occasional frustration Jerry experienced in living with Parkinson’s disease during the past five years, particularly as it affected his ability to read, speak, and play the piano—not an easy diagnosis for a journalist and musician. Costello would never settle on the first word that came to mind when telling a story. Each story demanded its own particular—and precise—vocabulary, even if it meant struggling for a while to summon the phrase he wanted. Family members cheered when he said ‘extrapolate’ while watching the presidential debates, and admired his use of ‘eschew’ when lamenting the dearth of objective reporting in today’s news.
Jerry’s family legacy is remarkable when considering that he was the only child born to Michael and Catherine Costello on May 17, 1931 in Utica, New York. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Hawthorne, New Jersey, where Jerry attended elementary and high school and formed lifelong friendships. For more than 60 years, one of Jerry’s favorite social activities was monthly lunches at Shortway’s in Hawthorne with friends from the raucous “Hawthorne group.”
Beginning at the age of seven—while a student at Lincoln School in Hawthorne“—Jerry took the bus to Paterson, N.J. for lessons on the alto saxophone, planting a seed that would become a life-long passion for music and joy in his life. While still in grammar school, Costello was a member of a marching band, a dance band, and an all-Hawthorne youth orchestra. As his interest in popular music grew, Jerry also learned to play the clarinet. He said, “My fellow young musicians and I lived and breathed the Big Band era and faithfully listened to the Make Believe Ballroom program on the radio and played whenever and wherever we could.”
At Hawthorne High School, Costello played with the school’s marching band and dance band orchestra which played at school dances and for War Bond rallies. A high school elective course in music theory sparked an interest for Jerry in orchestral arranging. He wrote dozens of arrangements for his high school and college dance orchestras and, at the end of the Big Band era, even became an arranger for legendary composer and bandleader, Artie Shaw.
Costello attended the University of Notre Dame where he was a Speech major preparing for a career in the television industry. While at Notre Dame, he was a member of the University’s marching band and dance band for four years—solidifying his passion for Fighting Irish sports, especially football.
Following graduation from Notre Dame in 1952, Costello enrolled in a master’s program in communication arts at Fordham University intending to work in the television industry; however, a professor of journalism conveyed such a love of the newspaper business to Jerry that he headed down a new career path. In 1953, he began his first job as a reporter for the Paterson Evening News. On the first day of work, he held the door open for another reporter entering the building who turned out to be his future wife, Jane Van Saun, a Syracuse University graduate. Jerry liked to say that their meeting was like something out of a Hollywood script-- two young people walking down a city street, both beginning their newspaper careers and both entering the building at the same time. Their first date was a reporting assignment covering the dedication of a statue of Christopher Columbus in Paterson’s Eastside Park.
A few months later, Costello was drafted and served (from 1953-55) in the 532nd Military Intelligence Battalion in Stuttgart, Germany. Jerry’s military service interrupted his courtship with Jane, but the romance continued via daily letters home including a marriage proposal by mail in the summer of 1954. Jane said ‘yes,’ and they decided to have the wedding in December when Jerry would be home on Christmas leave. Meanwhile, Jerry faced the challenge of how to present Jane with an engagement ring while he was in Germany and she was in New Jersey, so he enlisted his father, Michael, as a stand in to slip the ring on Jane’s finger at her parent’s home in Pompton Plains, NJ. Jane—summoning her own reporter’s instincts—always maintained to Jerry, with a smile: “Technically, I think I’m engaged to your father.” Jerry and Jane were married in December, 1954 at Holy Spirit Church in Pequannock, New Jersey, during Jerry’s three-week leave from the service. Jane and Jerry returned to Stuttgart in the New Year where they lived in a second floor apartment in a country farmhouse.
After returning from the service, Costello went back to work as a reporter at the Paterson Evening News. In 1958, at the age of 27, he was offered the job of founding editor of the Suburban Trends. From 1962-64, Costello was the news editor for The Advocate, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Newark. In 1964, he became the assistant suburban editor of The Herald News in Passaic, New Jersey.
While at The Herald News, Costello was assigned to interview Bishop Lawrence B. Casey of the Paterson Diocese. In the fall of 1966, Casey invited Costello to be the founding editor of The Beacon. In 1981, Cardinal Terence Cooke asked Costello to be the founding editor of Catholic New York.
After retiring from Catholic New York, Costello was president and administrator of The Christophers, a Catholic organization founded in 1945 by Father James Keller, which uses print and digital media to remind each individual that God has given them a special mission in life. Costello also worked as a consultant for the Propagation of the Faith, an international association coordinating assistance for Catholic missionary priests, brothers, and religious sisters and educating Catholics about the needs of the Church’s missions around the world.
Costello received numerous awards including an honorary doctorate from St. John’s University in New York in 1997. Costello was the first layman to receive the Bishop John England Award as president and publisher of The Christophers in 2003. Costello was honored in 2004 with the prestigious St. Francis de Sales Award, the Catholic Press Association’s highest honor for distinguished achievement in the Catholic press.
Costello was also the editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Treasury of Catholic Stories published in 1999, and in 2006 he edited an updated version of Father Keller’s classic 1948 best seller, You Can Change the World.
In February, Costello’s oldest son Michael, age 61, died due to complications from Covid-19. Michael was very close to his father and gave his parents great comfort during the pandemic including calling to check on their wellbeing at least twice each week. The family believes that today a father and his beloved son are reunited and at peace.
Costello is survived by his beloved wife of 66 years, Jane Costello of Pompton Plains, New Jersey; his daughters Nancy Rishty and her husband Joey of Mechanicsburg, PA; and Eileen Marx and her husband, Joe of Lawrenceville, New Jersey; his sons Brian and his wife Rose of Edmond, OK; John and his wife Veronica of College Park, Maryland; and Bob and his wife Evelyn of Morristown, New Jersey, and his daughter-in-law Francesca of Silver Spring, Maryland. He is also survived by his grandchildren: Nicole, Ray, Bobby, Teresa, Grant, Joey, Kevin, Chris, Katy, Kyle, Carly, Clare, Patty, Charlie, Sebastian, Matteus, Shannon, Robbie, Logan, Kellen, and Cameron and his great-grandchildren Chloe, Fulton, Brayden, Ivy, Josiah, Levi, Reese, and Everett.
In reflecting on the end of his life, Costello wrote:
“The special memory I keep is one where I’m part of a band—a big one, of course – on a night when everything is going just right. All the sections are working together, and the five saxes that I’m leading are playing in perfect harmony, The music we’re making is so good, so joyous that the crowd on the floor in front of us stops dancing – just so they can listen. It may not have happened all the time, but often enough. And when it did, it brought a feeling of excited contentment that I remember still.”
Visitation will be on Thursday, July 22, 2021 from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. at M. John Scanlan Home in Pompton Plains, New Jersey. A funeral Mass will be held 10:30 am Friday, July 23, 2021, at Holy Spirit Church, Pequannock. Burial will follow at Our Lady of Magnificat Cemetery, Kinnelon. Donations in memory of Gerald M. Costello can be made to Holy Spirit Church, Pequannock, N.J. or The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
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