At the May 23 South Orange Board of Health meeting, township officials bid a tearful goodbye to John Festa, who announced that he would be retiring as of June 3 after serving the town for more than 32 years.
“John’s work during the pandemic most surely saved lives,” said Trustee and Board of Health President Donna Coallier, “particularly when in the early days COVID was so so deadly. The contact tracing that happened … was so important to keeping our numbers down and keeping this community healthy.”
“He drew deeply on that knowledge and experience,” added Coallier, noting Festa’s long tenure.
Village President Sheena Collum lauded Festa’s work on everything from restaurant inspections to instituting the Trap/Neuter/Release program for feral cats to fighting the proliferation of Norway rats, but grew emotional talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think anybody will every understand how many lives you saved,” said Collum, asserting that Festa worked “23 hours a day” through the pandemic.
“You really deserve this retirement … you save lives, John,” said Collum. “If we didn’t have you in this full time capacity in the past 26 months we would have lost a lot more people in this town. You are our hero.”
“It’s just very bittersweet,” said Festa. “It isn’t goodbye. I”ll pop by again.”
From South Orange Township:
South Orange Village announced Tuesday the retirement of Health Officer, John M. Festa, effective June 3, 2022.
“Congratulations to Health Officer John Festa on his retirement,” offered Village President, Sheena Collum. “John has served our community as an exemplary public servant and led us through some of the most challenging times imaginable with professionalism, compassion and tireless dedication. For the last two and a half years John has worked 7 days a week coordinating our pandemic response. On behalf of myself and my colleagues on the Board of Trustees, I offer our sincere thanks and admiration for all that he has done for South Orange during this public health crisis and his over 32 years of service to our community.”
“There is no doubt that we owe John a considerable debt for his leadership during the most significant public health emergency in generations, but his contributions prior to the pandemic also deserve mention. John has always gone above and beyond his required duties as Health Officer. He has organized and championed a variety of community programs including the annual Health Fair, the ‘File of Life’ program and the annual Turkey Giveaway, demonstrating his commitment to the health and well-being of our community. His retirement is well-deserved and his presence on local board of health will be greatly missed,” added Trustee Donna Coallier, President of the South Orange Board of Health.
Festa began his public health career in 1985 as a Health Educator in Irvington. In 1989 he began working part-time in South Orange as a Health Educator with a focus on lead burdened children. He was hired as South Orange’s full-time Health Officer in 1992. Under his stewardship South Orange Village has always enjoyed satisfactory compliance evaluations from the NJ Department of Health.
Village Administrator Adam Loehner noted, “In addition to John’s legendary work ethic, it must also be noted that John always managed the Health Office with a great deal of fiscal responsibility. He negotiated favorable contracts for outside services in the areas of animal control and food testing and obtained professional licenses allowing him to do his own inspections in a variety of areas. These efforts have helped minimize the overall departmental expenses while maintaining and exemplary level of service.”
In addition to his work in South Orange, Festa served in the Army National Guard from 1984 to 2005 and was honorably discharged with the rank of Major.
“It has been a privilege to serve numerous governing bodies, generations of South Orange residents, Seton Hall University students and staff, a plethora of grammar and high school students as well as a dedicated Village employee staff. During the last several years, the COVID-19 crisis has proven to be a challenge to the Health Department, I endeavored to persevere in managing that public health crisis, as well as the many daily responsibilities of the Health Officer, and more,” stated Festa.
Festa plans to enjoy retirement with his family, including his wife Nancy and son Michael, a Sergeant in the Marine Corp, while continuing his many volunteer activities, including his work serving Veterans, holding off-station parties for Vets and supporting the work of Shriners Hospitals Network. He is also a member of the Freemasons; the National Sojourners; the Wharton American Legion Post 91 and the Essex Troop at the West Orange Armory.