‘Pillar Of The Community’ Joe Borst Mourned By Family, Friends, And Colleagues
UPDATE: This story was updated at 11:30 am on April 3 to include some added thoughts about Joe Borst from community members.
Newtown learned this week of the death of one of its treasures, longtime Sandy Hook resident and former First Selectman Joseph Borst.
Joseph Edward Borst was born on July 17, 1927, in Jackson Heights, Queens, N.Y. He died March 31, 2020, at Bishop Wicke Health and Rehabilitation Center in Shelton. He was 92 years old and had literally been named a Town Treasure in November 2016, when he and former Superintendent of Schools Dr John Reed were fêted during a testimonial “Newtown Treasures” event organized by town officials.
Borst had long been known for his patriotism, dedication to community, and love of family.
Wendy LaBarge, one of Borst’s ten grandchildren, summed up her grandfather’s qualities Wednesday afternoon, saying “Even if you disagreed with his policies, it was impossible to deny that he had a deep love for his town, his family, and his community.”
A veteran of World War II, Borst served in the US Army Air Corps and subsequently the US Air Force.
In speaking in November 2014 of his service to fellow members of Newtown Senior Center’s Men’s Breakfast Club — several of whom were also veterans — Borst said many men were caught up in the “nationalistic attitude” present during that era. Every man who could, wanted to enlist, he said.
Borst served two tours in the military. After being initially discharged in 1947, he reenlisted five years later for another tour, that time with the US Air Force.
“It was my job,” he said during his senior center presentation. “It’s all our jobs.”
He and Barbara Ann Caron were married July 31, 1954.
The newlyweds moved from New York to Sandy Hook the following year, into one of the first homes in the Buttonball area development. There they raised their five children — Joe, Jr, Liz, Michael, Jim, and Mary.
By then, Borst was also working with Sikorsky Aircraft as a technical services engineer. The family relocated for a few years during the early 1960s to South Dakota, where Borst worked on the aforementioned missile projects.
Returning to Newtown in 1963, he worked for Perkin Elmer for 17 years, and took early retirement in 1984. Then he was employed by Sikorsky as a contract administrator, retiring in 1994.
His federal service included work as a government contractor on projects such as the Titan and Minuteman Missiles and the Hubbell Telescope, among many others.
A Life Of Public Service
Borst almost immediately began his public service to Newtown, becoming a Justice of the Peace shortly after moving here. He was devoted to residents of all ages over the years, having served as everything from a school bus owner-operator to president and secretary of Newtown Housing for the Elderly.
He was long involved in town governance, including, but not limited to, the Planning & Zoning Committee, the Legislative Council, and Board of Selectmen, culminating with his election as first selectman in 2007.
Following his term as the town’s top official, he remained active as part of the Sustainable Energy Commission and the Public Building & Site Commission (PBSC). In 2016, Borst was the first person to be named chairman emeritus of the PBSC.
Then-First Selectman Pat Llodra told Borst that while the new position was a nonvoting one, “You will still have a seat at the table, your voice and opinion on projects will continue to be heard and respected, and your presence with the commission will be honored for as long as you wish to serve.”
Llodra also felt Borst’s commitment to his hometown was without question.
“His capacity for giving of himself is remarkable and he always seems to be driven by the common good,” she said, at that time. “We have benefited by his service and thank him for all he has done.”
PBSC Chair Robert Mitchell was also one to comment on the appointment of his newly appointed colleague then.
“Joe has a mental history of Newtown that is an incredible resource to us,” Mitchell told The Newtown Bee in June 2016. Borst, he said, “helps give PBSC a personality.
“We may wander quite a bit from our discussions while Joe describes the growth and development of a project site, or why part of Sandy Hook looks the way it does, but he adds color to our discussions and deliberations.
“His memories of the projects, how they were run, the various personalities is vivid,” Mitchell added.
Over the course of his time in town, Borst was a point person consulting on the conversion of a former tractor and power supply store into the current police station and municipal office space for Social Services and Parks & Recreation offices. He also consulted on the original Newtown High School construction project and several other school projects, including roof installations and upgrades.
When he spoke to The Newtown Bee in 2016, he was excited about a solar farm being developed at that time for a large parcel at the town’s transfer station.
While certainly involved in politics, and long a member of the town’s Republican Town Committee, Borst did not see party affiliations as a defining measure of a person’s commitment to community. Longtime family friend and fellow Newtown official Anna Wiedemann shared a memory from 2016.
“I went to his house to take his picture for the program book the year that he and Dr John Reed were being honored by the town,” she said. After the photo was taken, according to Wiedemann, Borst asked if she was a Democrat or a Republican.
“He said he didn’t know which I was,” she said. “I replied, ‘Does it really matter?’ He looked at me and said ‘You are absolutely right. We should all just be serving the community for the right reason regardless of our party affiliation.’ I completely agreed!”
A few months later, accepting the 2019 Community Americanism Award on behalf of his father, Michael Borst said his father’s qualities of serving God, his country, his town, and community exemplify the traits many people associate with those of the Greatest Generation. He could not remember a time, Michael said, when his father was not actively involved in the community.
“I know for a fact my father will always hold Newtown close to his heart,” Michael said during a Veterans Day ceremony hosted by American Legion Post 202.
A Love Of Family
When they were able to break away from town affairs, the Borsts traveled extensively.
Over the years they traveled to many locations throughout the continental United States, plus Hawaii, taking all 22 immediate family members to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 2004.
They also traveled to Ireland, France, England, Austria, Germany, Italy, and the Dominican Republic, among other destinations.
The couple also traveled with the Newtown High School Band as chaperones on several of these trips, while others were strictly for pleasure with family.
In fact, in announcing his decision to not run for a second term as First Selectman in 2009, Borst told The Newtown Bee he had already made plans for another family vacation.
He also planned to “catch up with a lot of chores on my honey-do list once I’m finished here,” he added.
The Borsts celebrated their 60th anniversary in 2014. A silver anniversary party was held at The Inn at Newtown, organized by their children Joe, Jr, and Kristi Borst, Liz Haugaard, Michael Borst, Jim and Laurie Borst, and Mary and Fred Marks.
Many of their ten grandchildren were able to attend, as were two of Borst’s brothers, Bob and Jack, both members of the original bridal party.
Msgr Weiss Pastor of St Rose of Lima Parish said "We remember Joe Borst with great sadness at his passing but with great peace being aware of all that he accomplished in his life."
Referring to Borst as "a true Newtown legend,' Msgr Weiss said the former town leader "will always be affectionately remembered by the thousands of people he served in the military, as a Newtown school bus driver, as a First Selectman and as an outstanding Catholic gentleman. Our prayers are with his family in these days. May he have the rest and peace he so richly deserves with the lord and all who have gone before him."
Former school board member and long-time acquaintance Kathy Hamilton said she remembered Borst when he was a well-liked local school bus owner-operator. Her term on the Board of Education overlapped his tenure as first selectman.
"Joe always put the town first in his thoughts right after his immediate family," Hamilton said. "He served in so many capacities helping move the town forward. "I was very sad to hear about his passing — Joe and his family are in my thoughts."
Anna Wiedemann said what struck her the most was Borst’s “unending love for his wife.” She recalled being at a Christmas party once, and asking Borst where his wife was.
“She had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimers,” Wiedemann said. “He told me that his greatest hope was that they would come up with a cure, and she could be the first one to be cured.
“He was very devoted to her, and she to him.”
In May 2019, one of Mr Borst’s granddaughters was among those who participated in a Twitter series hosted by this newspaper. In response to the question “Who or what would you say is a Newtown treasure?” Wendy LaBarge tweeted “I might be biased, but Joe and Barbara Borst have loved and done their best to serve Newtown since the 1960s. Everything they did was with love in their hearts for the town.”
The Borsts lived in Sandy Hook until just a few years ago, when they moved into an assisted living facility. They did not go far from their beloved home, however, relocating just over the town line into Southbury.
Bob Hall, who was friends with Borst for 54 years, recalled the day last year when he picked up his friend so that he could attend the funeral of another longtime resident, Mae Schmidle. The service and reception were at St Rose Church.
“He was positively invigorated by being back in Newtown among his friends,” Hall shared. “He had his picture taken with all the living first selectmen” in attendance that day.
“When I asked how he was holding up, he was very clear that he wanted to partake in the reception,” he continued. “It was wonderful to see him so alive and refreshed, like the Joe Borst we knew when he lived here.”
Maureen Crick Owen also recalls that day.
“My most recent memory of Joe was at Mae Schmidle’s funeral,” said the selectman. “After Joe received Communion, he started to walk back to his pew. As he entered his pew, our current first selectman got up and walked to our elder, former first selectman to extend his hand to help him to his seat.
“I am sure Joe helped many people in Newtown throughout his time here,” Crick Owen continued. “That day it was about someone helping him.”
Within hours of hearing of the loss, local friends and colleagues began sharing tributes to Borst.
Among those were current and former first selectmen.
Dan Rosenthal has known Borst most of his life, he said this week. He “had the pleasure of serving with him on the Legislative Council” before Borst defeated Herb Rosenthal in 2007 in the campaign for first selectman. Despite his father’s loss to Borst, “I can honestly say our relationship never changed,” Dan said this week.
“Joe would always encourage me to stay involved in the town, and was one of the first people to congratulate me when I was elected first selectman,” Rosenthal said.
“Joe loved Newtown and raised his hand to serve in countless ways. There’s no question we are a better community because of Joe,” he added. “May he rest in peace, and his family find comfort in our collective gratitude.”
Herb Rosenthal, who was first selectman from 1997 until 2007, also served with Borst for two years on the Board of Selectmen.
“Although we sometimes had our differences, I knew that he was always interested in doing what he thought to be in the best interests of Newtown,” Herb Rosenthal said this week. “Most of all we were always able to remain friends over the years.”
Sue Marcinek, the executive assistant in the office of the first selectman, began working for the town four days after Joe Borst took office.
“It was an honor and a privilege to work with him,” she said. “Joe was a respectful man, a true gentleman through and through, and someone I remained close to after he completed his term,” she added. “He deserves to be remembered for his dedicated service to the Town of Newtown.”
Calling Borst “a uniquely sweet man who was purely honest and pulled no punches, never hesitating to speak his mind because he cared,” State Representative Mitch Bolinsky offered his condolences to the Borst family. “The deep affection Joe had for his wonderful family always shined through. It was admirable to see and feel, and I am so sorry for the sense of loss and emptiness being felt by the entire Borst family.”
Bolinsky noted that for Borst, “serving others was a labor of love. He always wanted to do what was best for others.”
Bolinsky also noted Borst’s quiet intelligence.
“Sometimes we talk about keeping things simple,” the state representative said. “When trying to assure someone they are up to a task, I often use the expression ‘it’s not rocket science.’
“Then in my soul I smile a secret smile each time, knowing that Joe Borst was a rocket scientist,” he continued. “He never openly talked about that work, and was never one to boast, but, in my mind, Joe was that ‘Rocket Scientist.’ Eventually I’ll smile, knowing this sweet Rocket Scientist is among the stars and watching out for all of us.”
Selectman and longtime political colleague Jeff Capeci on April 1 echoed the sentiments of others, noting Borst “spent his entire adult life selflessly serving both his country and his hometown. Newtown and America are better places because of Joe’s love for his community.
“Joe is dearly missed and my thoughts and prayers go out to Barbara and his family in this time of loss,” Capeci added.
Former Selectman and Legislative Council Chair Will Rodgers also admired Borst’s leadership by example.
“Joe was the epitome of volunteerism,” he said. “He put his money were his mouth was,” he added, saying Borst reportedly became involved in local government after hearing ride sharers from his Perkin-Elmer days complain about perceived political problems without offering solutions or actions.
“He will be missed, and Moira and I extend our sympathies and condolences to his families, friends, and indeed the whole town.”
Robert Hall was among those who spoke about Borst during the 2016 Newtown Treasures event. He closed, he said, “on the theme that for all his accomplishments he remained a humble man, and never sought the recognition he deserved. The world would be a better place if we had more people like Joe Borst living in it.”
Another longtime friend, Barbara O’Connor said she and her husband moved into Newtown the same year the Borsts did. The former town official and fellow Republican Town Committee (RTC) member also joined the Newtown RTC around the same time.
“Joe and Barbara were always involved, working on fundraisers, campaigns, wherever and whenever anything was needed to help get Republicans elected,” she recalled. “Joe really stepped up to the plate when we needed a Republican candidate for first selectman. He always wanted to be involved in any position on a board or commission that would be a benefit to the town.”
He was, she said, “a really good guy.”
Former selectman and longtime RTC colleague William Brimmer also met Borst through the local political chapter.
“When I first moved to Newtown and began attending RTC meetings, Joe took me under his wing and made sure to guide me on how to become assimilated into Newtown,” Mr Brimmer said. That guidance extended well beyond politics, however.
“I remember that he and his wife, Barbara, invited my wife Barbara and I to sit with them at a Newtown Scholarship Association annual gala. Joe was always thinking of others before himself. He was a kind and generous man.”
Current RTC Chair Dennis Bloom echoed the sentiments of many others.
“Joe was a pillar of the community,” he said. “He put in countless volunteer hours over many, many years and was a well-respected community leader, father, grandfather, and friend.”