"If you look up 'Princetonian' in the dictionary, you will see Mark's picture! He really cares about this town, and is always ready to help out." John Roberto, co-owner of Hinkson's Office Store, has known his cousin, Mark Freda all his life, and he has adroitly defined Mr. Freda's relationship with his home town.
Former Borough Councilman, President of the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad, volunteer fireman, founding member of The Spirit of Princeton, Mark Freda is a home town boy, who has remained true to his roots, while seeking to extend Princeton's opportunities to a wider group of its citizens.
"When I was on Borough Council, I really liked dealing with the residents," he explains. "I'd walk around town and see people and hear their views. This is very important."
Communicating with people has always been a major part of Mr. Freda's m.o. whether as a boy working after school at Hinkson's, as chief shop steward for the Service Employees International Union at Princeton University, or later, on Borough Council.
Born in Princeton Hospital, Mark was the youngest child of Henry and Ann Freda, and brother to Maureen and Kathy. He remembers a happy childhood, consisting of informal, unstructured good times, as well as after-school and weekend jobs.
Group of Kids
He attended St. Paul's School through eighth grade, and then went to Notre Dame High School in Lawrence. "In school, I enjoyed geography and history," he reports, "and I loved to read, especially mysteries and world history.
"I grew up on Erdman Avenue, and there was always a group of kids who got together for informal basketball or baseball, depending on the season. I remember having a good time growing up. Being around family a lot, and just getting on our bikes and going for a ride. My mom would say to be home at a certain time, and I was."
After school and on weekends, Mark worked at Hinkson's, which was owned by his uncle, Bert Roberto. "I worked there from the fifth grade on, and a lot of the cousins were there, too," recalls Mr. Freda. "My uncle Bert had a big influence on me. He was very much a gentleman, and had a very good work ethic.
"My mom was another important influence. She was a nurse, and worked at Princeton Hospital. She was very definite about what was right and wrong." Mark also enjoyed family trips in the summer to Scranton, Pa. to visit his maternal grandparents. "We had good times there," he says. "My grandfather was a barber at the Casey Hotel, which was the hotel in Scranton, and he'd take us there."
After graduating from Notre Dame in 1974, Mark went to Rider College not his happiest educational experience, he reports.
"I went for two years, but it wasn't a good match. I never had a problem being vocal, and I felt their teaching system was ineffective. It was a time when they were having non-professors teach classes that is, actual accountants teaching accounting, etc. and I don't think it worked. At least not for me."
So, he left, taking time off to re-group and earn some money. He worked at Jasna Polana, Citgo Gas Station, and later with the grounds crew at Princeton University. "I wanted to save money and go to Mercer County Community College at night," he explains.
"Mercer County was great. I graduated in 1979 in business management, and I met a lot of people there at night a different set of students. The classes had a lot of student participation. It was very positive."
Throughout his time at Mercer County, Mark continued to work full-time at Princeton, and he became chief shop steward for the Service Employees International Union, an experience which would prove invaluable.
"I had a lot of dealings with the Princeton University Human Resources department in that capacity," he points out. "We also ended up organizing the food service workers, who later joined the union. They felt they were being treated unfairly by the University, and eventually we had a strike on their behalf. In my role as chief shop steward, I took the issue through the grievance procedures, and since Princeton wouldn't come to an agreement, we filed with a federal labor mediator and had an arbitration.
"It was the first time Princeton University lost an arbitration, and from then on, I was a marked man," quips Mr. Freda, smiling. "I really liked the work as a shop steward. I felt I was making a difference and standing up for people."
It was time to move on however, and Mark had decided to go back to college full-time to get his degree.
"Princeton University gave me a part-time job, and I wasn't involved in any more union activities," he notes. "I went to Trenton State (now the College of New Jersey) for two years, and graduated in 1982 with a degree in political science, with an emphasis on public administration."
He enjoyed Trenton State and appreciated the interaction with professors. "There were a lot of good professors there," he remembers. "One of my best teachers was Professor Sullivan. She taught a course on the Vietnam War, and we had great discussions about it. She didn't come with a particular point of view. She just said 'here's something for you to question and think about.'"
During his years at college, Mark was also an active volunteer both at the Hook & Ladder Fire Company and the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad.
" I always wanted to do it," he explains. "Also, a lot of people in my neighborhood belonged to the fire department. You learn a lot there. You meet a lot of different people and are in a lot of different situations."
It was his work at the Rescue Squad that actually led to his first job after college, however. "It's interesting how I got my first job at Commodities Corporation. They made donations to First Aid & Rescue, and I went over to pick up the check," he says.
"I needed a job, and while I was there, I asked who I could see about getting one. They said to leave my resume, and three months later, they called me. I started in September 1983 in the facilities department. It was a perfect match. Commodities Corporation was very involved with the community; so if I had to leave to go to a fire, they understood."
It led to a satisfying career for him. Mr. Freda is now a vice president with Goldman Sachs, Inc., which purchased Commodities Corporation in 1997.
"In January 1998, they asked me to go on temporary assignment in New York. It was administrative, facilities-related work, concerning space planning and renovation," he explains. "I was back and forth between New York and Princeton, and just recently, I have been headquartered in Jersey City.
"It's a great company," he continues. "I like the work. I get out and don't have to sit at a desk all day. What I enjoy most about the work is that it's trying to solve a puzzle, and if you solve it right, you save time and money."
Solving problems was often the challenge when Mr. Freda served on Borough Council, and he looked forward to the opportunity. His earlier involvement both with the fire department and rescue squad gave him the chance to observe Council procedures at close hand, and he attended many meetings, starting in the 1970s.
"In the late '70s, the First Aid & Rescue Squad was finding it hard to get people to volunteer during the day," recalls Mr. Freda. "A group of us lobbied Borough Council and Township Committee in an effort to fund a paid day crew. Finally, in 1980, they agreed to pay two EMT people during the day.
"This was an important achievement," he points out. It solved two problems. (1) We were able to provide the community with ambulances during the day, and (2) it made a huge difference in the Princeton First Aid Squad. That was 26 years ago, and we now have one of the most successful professional EMT programs run by a volunteer organization."
As a visible and vocal visitor to Council meetings, Mr. Freda was certainly noticed. "I enjoyed going to meetings," he says, and one was especially memorable.
"I was sitting behind Mayor Barbara Sigmund, and at one point, she turned around and said, 'Would you be interested in running for Council?' I said 'Sure!'"
It all seemed to come naturally to him. No stranger to hard work, he didn't mind the campaigning or boning up on issues. "I really liked campaigning. I'd go out every weekend and visit people. I'd say 'I'm volunteering for the community.' I was especially interested in affordable housing. People shouldn't have to leave here when they have lived in Princeton all their lives.
"I'd have great conversations with people, going door-to-door. I'd tell them I wasn't tied to any established group in town or politics. I was open to hearing their ideas."
His approach led to success, and both he, a Democrat, and Richard Woodbridge, a Republican (later Mayor of Princeton Township), were elected.
"I loved being on Council," says Mr. Freda. "I wanted to make a difference. If you do the job properly, it is a real time commitment. But it can make a huge difference when you really work at something."
He took a hands-on, direct approach, trying to cut through bureaucracy when possible. "A number of times, Council would be faced with trying to resolve something, and I'd say, 'Let's go talk to people face-to-face. Don't just send a lawyer.'
"A lot of residents would call me at home with questions, and I'd say I'd look into it and get back to them. I always listened, and I did get back. I considered myself an elected official, not a politician."
His methods did not go unnoticed. "I am one of Mark's biggest fans," says Marcy Crimmins, managing agent for Princeton Community Housing, and who has known him for many years.
"When I was executive director of Princeton Housing Authority, Mark was Borough Council liaison. Mark is the kind of Council person who got things done. He was very effective and cut through the bureaucracy. I felt extremely fortunate to have him as our liaison. He made a big effort to know about the issues and the organization. I think he is a very valuable community asset."
Claire Jacobus, President of the Friends of the Princeton Public Library, agrees. "Mark cares deeply about the community. He is, in the very best sense of the word, a straight arrow. He can be powerfully candid. I knew him originally when he was on Borough Council and was liaison to the Commission on Aging. He had to contend with a lot of testy elders, myself included, and he did very well!"
During the 13 years he was a Councilman, Mr. Freda was Council President (deputy mayor) for five years, served on the Public Works Committee, was Council representative to the Princeton Housing Authority and to the Borough Affordable Housing Board. He was also Police Commissioner and Chairman of the Public Safety Committee.
Looking back, he is especially proud of the efforts made in affordable housing. "I am happy that we made great strides in affordable housing. It is very important, and we were able to get it underway on John Street, Maple Street, and later, on Quarry Street and Shirley Court."
When his work with Goldman Sachs became more demanding, Mr. Freda resigned from Council in 1999. It was a matter of the time commitment. He didn't want to take on something, if he couldn't give it his full attention.
"I still miss it though," he says.
Mr. Freda has certainly not neglected his home town since 1999, however. He serves as President of the Princeton First Aid & Rescue Squad, and remains a member of the Hook & Ladder Fire Company. Previously, he was chairman of the Princeton Volunteer Fire Department Bicentennial Committee during the multi-year effort to plan and implement activities celebrating Princeton Hook & Ladder Company's 200th anniversary, and also to distribute excess funds among the three fire companies in the Princeton Fire Department.
He has also served on the Princeton Committee of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund since 2001, and on the Dorothea van Dyke McLane Association Board, which helps provide scholarships to students and support non-profits in town.
In 1997, along with a group of other concerned citizens, including Ray Wadsworth, Herb Hobler, Frank Tylus, and Pam Hersh, Mr. Freda was a founding member of The Spirit of Princeton, an organization he continues to serve.
"The VFW said they could no longer put together the Memorial Day Parade, and the two municipalities said they couldn't support it," he explains. "So, we got together and tried to get something going. It's our town, and it's good to promote some of these patriotic events at no charge to the people."
The organization, which is funded by private donations (also through the Memorial Park Brick program), supports the Memorial Day Parade, Flag Day events, Fourth of July fireworks, and Veterans' Day ceremonies. "It is not self-funding," notes Mr. Freda. "We have to keep raising money. We are always trying to find a financial plan."
In addition to his community activities and professional life, Mr. Freda is very involved with his family, which is always foremost. He married Beth Ogilvie in 1988, and they have two children, Rebecca, 10 and Alex, 7.
"I met Beth, who has lived in Princeton since she was seven, at the First Aid Squad, and it didn't take long to know she was the one," he reports.
"I am an involved father," he adds. "I enjoy being with my kids, and I look forward to doing more things with them. We also all like to spend time in Cape Cod in the summer."
Riding his Harley is another big pleasure, and he is anticipating a good time on their bikes with his friend, Borough Police Chief Anthony Federico.
"I've known Mark for many years," says Chief Federico. "He's a great individual. I first met him a long time ago, when I was young on the police force, and Mark was on Borough Council and was Police Commissioner. He's just a terrific person. He does so much for the community. We have become good friends over the years, and we'll be riding our motorcycles together this summer."
As a life-long Princeton resident, Mr. Freda has seen many changes in his home town. Its extraordinary growth is perhaps the most striking.
"The major change I see in Princeton is that it's a small city, not a town anymore," he says. "We've become an attractive destination for tourists.
"Also, I think the biggest problems facing Princeton are taxes and the political in-fighting between the two municipalities, This blocks progress. It's important to make decisions that are in the best interests of the community as a whole. It might not be solely in the best interests of the Borough or the Township, but we must think in terms of one Princeton and what is best for it."
Whether these concerns will result in a political role for him remains unknown, he says, but there is no question he cares about the direction Princeton is taking, and he continues to be engaged.
"I'm not sure what I'll do politically," he notes. "I am a member of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, and I am still involved. Just much more behind the scenes now. When certain issues come up, I'll talk to people. We'll have to see what happens down the road."
There are many who would be glad to have him back on Council, believes Henry Landau, co-owner of Landau of Princeton. "I've known Mark since before he was on Council, and he's a really good guy. Honest beyond belief! It's a shame he's not on Council anymore."
Adds Ray Disch, former owner of Triumph Brewery, and now founder and broker of Disch Real Estate in Hopewell: "I came to know Mark when we built Triumph Brewery in 1995. What I liked about him, from my perspective, is that he understood that the role of government is to guide development and not obstruct it. He understood that there needs to be a partnership between government and business. And both partners should be concerned about being the steward of the community assets. Mark always understood that."
A lot of people are waiting to see what the future has in store for Mark Freda.
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