If you lived in Highlands in the 1970s, 80s and beyond, then you knew Bob Higgins. If you lived on the hill in Highlands in those decades, then you knew Bob as the runner, often with his daughters, around the streets, keeping fit and healthy whether he was a fireman on the job in New York, later a court officer in Monmouth County, or just a dad enjoying the company of his wife, Irene, and kids. Bob was the kind of guy who made you feel good just for knowing him.
But there was one incident back in 1980 when this everyday hero scored one for the common man with the Motor Vehicle Agency. Granted the Motor Vehicle at that time was a lot less courteous and helpful then than they are today. But a fighting fireman like Bob, a loving and caring father like Bob, wasn’t letting that agency of that time get away with anything.
In true Bob Higgins character, he did not want his name known at the time, but wanted his story to show that things can be done and can be done right if public servants are challenged.
When I wrote the story for the Courier in May, 1980, he was simply Joe Marathon. Bob Higgins, hero to his family friend to all, died Dec. 11, 2017. Here’s The Courier story from 1980.
A modern day David took on the mighty Goliath of the state Motor Vehicle Agency on Route 36 last month, and struck a blow in favor of all who have ever waited in long lines there, have been treated to the surly dispositions of some employees or gotten a taste of how little the employees care about the value of some one else’s time. For his trouble, he was arrested and hauled into court. Another blow for justice was struck in the court room. He was found innocent of the charge against him. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call him Joe Marathon.
Joe Marathon is a normally mild-mannered, good looking, hardworking family man. He’s a big city firefighter by profession and has been recognized for valor and cool professionalism on the job. He’s an avid promoter of all local involvements for his kids, and is active in Little League, Pop Warner, Booster clubs and school PTAs. Joe Marathon is the kind of guy you’re happy to have as a neighbor.
If was for one of his kids that Joe Marathon was at the inspection agency a few weeks ago. One of his daughters had taken her driving test, and in order to save time and mileage on another trip, he planned on getting the necessary applications for a moped license for his 15-year old daughter. In the maze of applications over the years for various civic and athletic memberships, Joe had inadvertently lost her birth certificate and came to the inspection station with a baptismal certificate from his parish church which clearly showed the daughter was well over 15 years of age.
Joe had read the manual for moped users closely and figured that where it said proof of age could be “birth certificates.” a baptismal certificate would qualify under “etc.” But to be absolutely certain, he asked one of the female clerks in the officer before he got into the long line. Yes, she said, it would be OK. So Joe got in line and waited an hour and a half. He got the necessary moped application.
But then Joe went into the exam room armed with his application and baptismal certificate and was told by the clerk there it wouldn’t do. Birth was needed, not baptismal, she said.
Now Joe had already waited 90 minutes, he had had already been assured he had a qualifying paper, he wasn’t going to take no easily. He explained all this to the clerk, said it wasn’t right he would be given two different stories, and left, his blood pressure up just a wee little bit.
Joe re-entered about five minutes later and at the clerk’s suggestion, was referred to “someone higher in authority. “ He then went inside the waist high “door control” and met an armed Highway Patrol Officer seated at another desk. Joe waited while the officer finished his business with a person there, then approached the armed officer and asked why a baptismal certificate wouldn’t be acceptable as proof of age. In his testimony in court later, Joe said, “I couldn’t get any reasonable explanation of why it wouldn’t do, or what “etc.” meant,” He then added the immortal words expressed by thousands who have done business there, “It just seems that no one cares if you wait one or two hours.”
The officers wasn’t helpful, declined to explain what ‘etc.,” meant and Joe left again.
But Joe’s daughters were with him. They wondered why their father couldn’t get a reasonable explanation, they wondered why the manual said one thing and their dad couldn’t be helped. And Joe was determined he’d have the proper answers for his daughters.
So he went back into the inspection station, this time armed with the manual and written proof of “birth certificate, etc.” He again waited at the “door control” and was admitted. Seeing the same officer he showed him the book, again asking for an explanation. The officer took the book from his hand, and underlined the words, “birth Certificate,” and told him quite pointedly that that’s all that would be accepted.
Maybe it was because Joe has always been able to provide answers for his daughters. Maybe it was because of his stint in the Marine Corps when honor, dignity and perseverance were drilled into him. Maybe it was because he knew from daily experiences that that one last determined try is often what squelches that stubborn blaze. Whatever the reason, something in Joe Marathon said he had to have an answer before he left. So Joe asked the officer to see someone else, someone still higher in authority.
By his testimony court, the officer said Joe was instructed to sit in a specific seat by the window. The officer explained he selected that particular seat because “otherwise we could forget him; I think that’s poor business.”
Joe sat, but he dared to call out, “Do I have to wait another one and a half hours to get an answer?” The officer gave him three choices, “sit and wait, leave, or be arrested.” And Joe’s response according to the officer’s testimony, “or what?”
In municipal court the highway Patrol Officers told Judge Avin V. Klatsky that the mild mannered fire fighter was “defiant…irritating …and possibly threatening.’ The armed officer conceded, however, that Joe was “not abusive, ..was cooperative.”
But he grabbed Joe’s arm and led him out of the office and took him to police headquarters where he signed a complaint against him for “disturbing the normal order of business,.” According to court records. Joe was directed to appear in court one Thursday morning at 9 a.m.
And Joe was there, 15 minutes ahead of time, nattily attired, carefully prepared and nervous. It was his first experience with the criminal court. The Judge arrived on the bench at 9:30, a mild-mannered soft spoken and genial man. He explained the court’s proceedings; first guilty pleas would be heard, then matters involving attorneys “to free them for appearances in other courts..” then finally all other contested matters. That’s where Joe’s case came.
At 10:05, Judge Klatsky called Joe’s case, and asked him his plea. As he had advised the court clerk days earlier, Joe said he was pleading not guilty. The Judge then directed the Officer involved be summoned from the motor vehicle agency.
When the officer arrived, still in uniform and still wearing his gun in a holster, the court was in the midst of another proceeding involving attorneys who had come in late. It wasn’t until 12:08 that Joe Marathon’s case finally was called to be heard, after Joe had been sitting more than three hours in the court room.
The officer testified, responding to questions from the prosecutor. He related many of the details of the incident and explained he felt Joe had disrupted business by bursting through the “door control.” He said Joe sat in a wrong chair from the one he was directed. He said Joe got louder and talked in too loud a voice. He said he felt threatened by the family man.
When Joe told his side of the story, he explained he still did not get an answer as to what “etc.” meant. The judge courteously explained that wasn’t within the province of the court. The prosecutor asked that Joe Marathon be found guilty and said his actions were “understandable but not excusable.”
The Judge didn’t agree. He opined that perhaps Joe’s action caused “an inconvenience” and could have created a “physically dangerous situation.” But, the judge said, he had some doubts, and while unfortunately there are “some times we you have to wait,” he ruled Joe Marathon was not guilty of any wrongdoing.
Yet it didn’t quite end there. The officer asked to see Joe Marathon in the hall after court was adjourned. He told Joe he was “glad you were found not guilty,” and said, “we’ve got stuff to put up with all day long. I didn’t have time that day” to make the necessary explanations.
Joe had spent a total of six hours about two at the motor vehicle station, another four in the court room. He still had not received am answer from the agency on what “etc.” means. But he spoke up for every motorist in the area and was hauled into court for expressing what anybody who has waited in lines in Eatontown has said privately. “nobody seems to care how long you wait or how you’re treated.”.