A truly special and impactful New Jerseyan died Sept. 1, and I don't use those words to describe him just because I was his grandson.

To know Peter Carey prior to the early 1980s, so several years before I was born, was to know a dedicated public servant who had the Garden State in his blood. Born in Passaic in 1939, he graduated Clifton High School in 1957 and was then a letter carrier for the Clifton Post Office for a quarter-century.

He followed the Mets and the football Giants, the latter even more closely after they moved to his backyard in East Rutherford in 1976, and used to say that he and my grandmother could go to a Devils game, see the first two periods, then drive home in time to watch the whole third period on TV.

All that would have been enough of a biography for almost anyone, and sufficient for recognition of a great New Jersey life.

But by 1980 — exactly halfway through his time on Earth, as it turned out — Peter Carey was just getting started.

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It was then, after seven years of night school at Drew University working toward his Master's in theology, that Peter began to fulfill his true calling by being ordained as Protestant Chaplain at Passaic General Hospital, now St. Mary's General.

He continued to counsel the sick and their families, one-third of an interfaith approach with local Catholic and Jewish leaders, at that hospital for 41 years, up until just six days before his passing from aggressive melanoma. It is the hospital at which our family gathered two Wednesdays ago to say goodbye.

And even that would have been enough to pack into most people's lives.

Not my Pop-Pop.

In 1983, he was called to become Pastor at Wallington Presbyterian Church. If you are familiar with southern Bergen County, and the span of Paterson Avenue between Passaic and East Rutherford, you surely have walked or driven past this beautiful bright, white building with heavy, red doors and detailed stained glass.

Wallington Presbyterian Church
Photo courtesy of Wallington Presbyterian Church via Facebook

The church was failing at the time, without a regular pastor, and with dwindling membership and persistent whispers of closure. But it became Rev. Carey's home base for the next 38 years, and although membership continued to ebb and flow — most recently impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — Wallington Presbyterian was never shut down.

Two years after taking over at Wallington, my grandfather performed the wedding ceremony for my parents. Two years after that, I was born, meaning I was around to see Rev. Carey become Rev. Dr. Carey, earning his Doctorate of Divinity from Drew in 1991. And I was so, so proud that my wife Kristen and I were able to call on him to officiate our own wedding in 2015.

Still ... not enough.

Rev. Dr. Peter H. Carey, Jr.
Rev. Dr. Peter H. Carey, Jr., with my mom and me (Photo courtesy Maryellen Lavery)

Beginning in 1994, Peter oversaw the revolutionary nonprofit Parish Nursing Interfaith & Outreach, built in part on his experiences in hospice care across the state of New Jersey, as well as the "Journey to Grief" program he'd previously founded in Passaic and Clifton.

Along with nurse Marion Spranger, Rev. Dr. Carey administered holistic care emphasizing compassionate, spiritual counseling and guidance as equal components of healing alongside medical treatment.

That was my grandfather's hallmark: a deep understanding of suffering that informed his prioritizing of the processing of grief as natural and necessary parts of the human experience. For him, that process was intensely personal.

At age 22, he sought enlistment in the United States Army, but did not qualify on medical grounds. Subsequently, a plane full of recruits he might have otherwise been on, Imperial Airlines Flight 201/8, crashed on approach to landing in Virginia on Nov. 8, 1961, killing 74 passengers and three crew.

Had things gone differently, there would be no remembrance of Rev. Dr. Peter H. Carey, Jr.

I also would not be here to tell you about him.

It's no secret in my family that I grew up with more of Pop-Pop's temperament than that of either of my parents. His loss hurts profoundly, and in many ways my own process of grieving has barely begun. But I am trying to do what he did and keep things in constant perspective. He did not respond well to chemotherapy, but was proud that he kept his impeccably coiffed white hair (I thankfully inherited his hairline too).

And I'm reminding myself that as much as he meant to us, he was a beacon of light for four decades to so many, whether they were church friends he knew as well as family, or hospital patients he was meeting for the first time.

My sister said something in acknowledging his death on social media that rings so true, that no amount of time would have been enough to spend with him.

Still, we've all come back to a Bible verse wholly appropriate to encapsulate his impact:

"Well done, good and faithful servant."

The Lavery and Carey families, July 4, 2021 (Photo courtesy Maryellen Lavery)
The Lavery and Carey families, July 4, 2021 (Photo courtesy Maryellen Lavery)

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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