The city mourned this week as a longtime public servant – and mayor for a week – passed away. Joseph J. Cullen, who served on the City Council for 14 years, including a stint as chairman, was hailed by city leaders as a man who gave back to his community in various ways. Cullen died last week after a long illness.
While friends and family mourned the loss of a father, brother, grandfather, uncle and companion, city leaders, including Mayor Nancy Rossi gave tribute to a man known for being a person of few words, and who didn’t suffer fools gladly. While on the council, and certainly as chairman, Cullen was known for his straight talk, and impatience with those who tried to skirt issues or questions. Still, despite his sometimes curtness, he was known as a generous man and giver of his time to his community.
“I regret to share with our community that former West Haven Mayor Joseph J. Cullen Sr. passed away on Monday, July 13. Mr. Cullen was a longtime elected official and was a member of the West Haven City Council. A number of those years he spent acting as the council’s chairman, culminating in his service as mayor in 2005. Throughout his life, Joseph wore many hats and served many parts of the West Haven community,” Mayor Nancy Rossi said this week.
A veteran of the Connecticut National Guard, Cullen worked as a Scout leader and was a communicant of Our Lady of Victory Church. A believer in public service, he never accepted a salary associated with his elected positions. He donated the money to the West Haven Emergency Assistance Task Force (WHEAT), a group he followed even in his retirement.
“Not enough good words can be said about Mr. Cullen, who gave many years of his life to the people of West Haven and whom our city truly mourns today. Joseph was the example that all government officials should strive toward. I extend thoughts of comfort and condolences to his grieving family and to our community. Thank you, Mr. Cullen, for your service to our nation and our city,” Rossi said finally.
While he was on the City Council as chairman, one of the strangest events in city political history – a history filled with the unusual – took place. Seven-term Mayor H. Richard Borer, Jr. had lost a primary battle to future Mayor John Picard. Borer attempted to remain in office with the formation of the A Better Future Party in 2005. He lost in a close race.
Borer’s years of service entitled him to retirement benefits and other benefits associated with city employ. But it was found that if he allowed his term to expire, he would lose those benefits. Instead, he resigned a week before the term was to end, putting Chairman Cullen in the office for five days.
According to Cullen’s Employee Change of Status Report, filed with the Personnel Department on Dec. 1, 2005: “Due to the early retirement of Mayor Borer, pursuant the City Charter, the Chairman of the City Council assumes the office of the Mayor and receives his rate of pay if he serves longer than 48 hours. Mr. Cullen will be Mayor from December 1, 2005 thru December 4, 2005. Please see he is compensated for 3 and one-half days at the above rate. Please remove Mr. Cullen effective December 4 at noon.”
Current Executive Director of the West Haven Chamber of Commerce Alan Olenick was an assistant in the Borer administration and later an employee in City Hall. He has some fond memories of Cullen.
“The city lost a great leader in Joe Cullen,” Olenick said. “When I first started working for then Mayor Borer, Joe was one of the first people to greet me in my new office. Back then I was pretty new to West Haven politics but Joe had a way about him that you knew he could be trusted.”
Due to his position, Olenick worked closely with the Chairman of the City Counci.
“One of my duties was to meet with him every Friday before a City Council meeting. We would go over the agenda package. If there was an item he had a question on and I did not have the answer, I had the opportunity to get the answer or get back to him before the meeting. Invariably on Monday morning, I’d get a message that Joe Cullen was on the line for me. More than likely he already had the answer, he just liked making sure I had the same information,” Olenick said.
He reinforces the story that Cullen saw public service as just that “service.”
“I remember on time they were talking about raising the stipend for City Council members. His response was I don’t really care, it will just mean WHEAT gets more money. It was that moment I found out that he donated that money to WHEAT and how he raised the bar a little higher,” Olenick said.
But he also knew a man who was not above making a complaint when he saw things were not the way they should be.
“One of Joe’s pet peeves was the upkeep of a little pocket park of Contact Drive. The city had not maintained and was very frustrated by it. It was his persistence that got crews out there to cut down brush and over the course of a couple of seasons the park became usable again. I’ve walked grandchildren who have played there and two dogs there over the years. Every time I go I thank Joe Cullen for his hard work,” Olenick said finally.
The wake was at West Haven Funeral Home across from the Green. A Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m. at Our Lady of Victory Church, St. John Vianney Campus, 300 Captain Thomas Blvd. Interment was private. The family requests that donations be sent to WHEAT, 674 Washington Ave., West Haven, CT 06516 or at www.wheatpantry.org.