Children playing basketball at the municipal complex, children sipping drinks at Dunkin’ Donuts, children riding bicycles across Route 130, children eating a picnic lunch with their mother.
April 19, 2016 was the kind of day superintendent Steve Mayer loved—a great day to be outside, sunny and warm with a stiff breeze, spring in the air. It was the kind of day he would implore people to appreciate.
“Go, enjoy the good weather,” he’d say. “Spend time with your family.”
Yet, despite all appearances, April 19 was not a great day. Not in Robbinsville.
It was a day that reduced Mayor Dave Fried—always polished—to tears. A day that made school board president Matt O’Grady drop his phone to the floor of New York Penn Station and wander out into Manhattan in a daze. A day that turned Foxmoor Community Park into a memorial, overflowing with flowers and mourners and news vans. It was a day the children of Robbinsville should have been in school, not playing basketball or sipping drinks or riding bicycles or eating picnic lunches.
It was the day Robbinsville changed forever. It was the day Robbinsville lost Steve Mayer.
* * *
Mayer started April 19 as he would many school days. He woke up early. He put the family’s yellow Labrador retriever, Gertie, on a leash. He cued up a sermon to listen to while he exercised. He left his family’s home on Brookshire Drive, and he began to jog.
Mayer loved to be active, but at 52, his body had started to rebel. Some issues with his knees had prevented him from running as much as he would have liked. He had just started getting back to jogging.
He wound up on Robbinsville-Edinburg Road, which he usually avoided. A winding, country road with narrow shoulders, a high speed limit and few sidewalks, Robbinsville-Edinburg Road wasn’t made with pedestrians in mind. Mayer would occasionally take the street for a change of scenery when his other jogging routes became too routine.
That same morning, a 17-year-old Robbinsville High School student was driving north on Robbinsville-Edinburg Road, toward Robbinsville High School. Nothing official has been released about the details—the student’s speed, the direction Mayer had been traveling, the specifics of what either of them may have been doing. The only thing we know for sure is that, at 6:12 a.m., the student struck and killed Mayer and Gertie. Realizing she had hit something—someone—the student continued to the parking lot at Pond Road Middle School, where she called police.
At 6:30, Fried learned there was an accident near the high school. He immediately texted Mayer, “What do we do?” He didn’t get a reply.
The accident closed Robbinsville-Edinburg Road and the township schools. Word started to spread that something bad had happened, through social media and word of mouth. But what?
At 7:25, Ewing Public Schools superintendent Michael Nitti left his Robbinsville home to bring his daughter, Katherine, to the bus stop, when a neighbor told them school had been cancelled. Moments later, Katherine received a message from a friend saying that Mayer had been in an accident. Nitti was a friend of Mayer’s, and thought, “That can’t be. Well, maybe he’ll be OK.”
At 7:28, the school district sent a robocall to the home of every student announcing schools were closed due to “unforeseen circumstances.” Nitti didn’t even hear the wording of the call at first; he only noticed that it wasn’t Mayer’s voice on the recording. It was always Mayer’s voice. He went on Twitter to find more information. There, he found his worst fears had come true.
By 8:30, the Robbinsville Board of Education had confirmed Mayer’s death. Two hours later, the township announced a candlelight vigil would be held at 7 that evening in memory of Mayer at Foxmoor Community Park on Washington Boulevard, and that all flowers should be left by the gazebo there.
By noon, a pair of bouquets had been left at the park. By 1 p.m., nine bouquets. By 2 p.m., the parking lot of Foxmoor Community Park had filled with TV news vans and was barricaded. A mother with two young children had come to drop some flowers off and declined to be interviewed.
“We’re all a little shaken up right now,” she said. “We need to take a walk.”
Five hours later, thousands of people filled the tiny park. Hundreds of bouquets had been stacked upon one another. As the week went on, the pile continued to grow, and the people of Robbinsville had come to realize that park, that spot would never be the same again.
People from outside Robbinsville didn’t understand. All this? For a superintendent?
But to call Steve Mayer “just a superintendent” is to miss the point of who Mayer was.
Mayer connected with hundreds of people on a daily basis, thousands during his time in Robbinsville as a father, husband, educator, coach, friend. Every person Mayer came across believed they knew the man, and came away feeling good about themselves, like they had gained a place in his heart.
The funny thing is, they had.
* * *
It was almost as if every step Steve Mayer took, every piece of his personality had been made with the Robbinsville superintendent job in mind.
He started as a middle school teacher, first in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then in Howell. He took his first job as an administrator in 1993, as the assistant to the principal at Applegarth Middle School in Monroe. Then up the ranks he shot—principal, assistant superintendent and then, finally, superintendent. He came to Robbinsville in 2009 from the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district, where he had been the founding principal of Grover Middle School and then assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum and instruction.
He took particular pride in his job at Grover Middle School. The chance to create a school’s culture from scratch had energized him. He saw Robbinsville Schools as the chance to once again mold an educational entity, but this time on a larger scale with higher stakes. Robbinsville was his town. His wife, Donna, taught in the district, at Sharon Elementary School. His three sons—Ryan, Shaun and Kyle—attended schools here. He wanted the job as much for personal satisfaction as professional ambition.
“It wasn’t just a job,” said Thomas Smith, superintendent of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District and a friend of Mayer’s. “And it was more than a career. It was a life. This is what he wanted. He wanted to be that person for this community.”
This drive came through to the Robbinsville Board of Education during its superintendent search. The board was well aware its choice would be the person to shepherd the district through its growing pains as it evolved into a mature entity and strove to compete with the best districts in New Jersey. It knew it needed someone special. And it knew it had one from the first time Mayer presented to its members.
Above all, Mayer charmed the board with his energy, O’Grady said. Its members could hear his passion for education and for Robbinsville. He cared. He wanted to have the responsibility of growing this district, and he didn’t mind that he’d never have a break, not even at the supermarket or his children’s sporting events.
The board had several finalists who went on to become superintendents in other districts. But it decided to roll the dice with Mayer, the hometown guy.
“I joked with him when he got the job because Robbinsville was doing a nationwide search for its next superintendent,” Nitti said. “I said, ‘Steve, you live across the street. They could have put a Help Wanted sign outside the school and found you.’”
O’Grady nicknamed Mayer “Always On,” and for good reason. He couldn’t hide in Robbinsville, and he didn’t see the need in hiding. He could handle disagreement and conflict with a smile. He rarely got down on himself or his job. When staff members or even other superintendents grumbled, they’d be met with a challenge from Mayer to stay positive, to do better.
He didn’t need to say anything, though, because Mayer held himself to that high standard, too, and those around him naturally wanted to be like him. When Smith found out that Mayer rose at 5 in the morning to read journals of academic research, he suddenly found in himself the urge to do the same.
“He just had this passion for it,” Smith said. “You wanted to equal that. You wanted to be in his presence because he was a dynamic person.”
He rubbed off on the students of Robbinsville, too. Robbinsville High School graduated 98 percent of the Class of 2015. Months earlier, in January 2015, Robbinsville was named the sixth best “school district for your buck” in New Jersey by NerdWallet, a financial website. Mayer was proud of the designation, and had it placed prominently on the district’s homepage.
Mayer also hated to close school, and the other superintendents in Mercer County developed a rule of thumb on days it snowed: “Do the opposite of what Steve does.” His 4:30 a.m. conference calls with the bosses of other school districts became the stuff of legend. All the superintendents would want to be consistent, but they rarely had success swaying Mayer to cancel school. Not that everyone minded.
“I would love it when Robbinsville had school and we were off,” Nitti said. “I put my kids on the bus, and I’d walk back in and say, ‘This is a great day. Thanks, Steve, for having school when everybody else is off.’”
Perhaps Mayer hated to close school because he loved to be in school. He drew his energy from his students. He’d make it a point to get out of his office in Robbinsville High School, and go sit in a classroom or participate in a discussion or give a student a high five. He had an open-door policy, and would regularly have a handful of kids in his office, chatting about classes or sports or life. He wanted to be around students, to see them thrive.
The Board of Education once floated the idea of relocating its offices and Mayer’s elsewhere to make room for more students in Robbinsville High. Mayer shut the idea down immediately.
“I have to be around the kids,” he said. “I cannot not be in the building.”
His focus would always be on his students, and those who knew him best said he’d probably dislike all the hubbub about him now. They said he’d be humbled by the support of the community, but dismayed he had taken attention away from education. School must go on.
And it does. Staff members at Robbinsville Schools have had the task of processing grief while trying to pull their students through it. They have had to proceed without the man who has been their compass for six years. But Mayer had such strong convictions about education and how a district should be run that his staff knows which way to go.
Smith spent the days immediately after the accident helping out at Robbinsville, and found the staff didn’t need him too often. All they had to ask is, “What would Steve do?” and they had an answer.
“They are still referring to his spirit,” Smith said. “The secretary said the other day, ‘He’s in your ear.’”
* * *
Steve Mayer was a man of faith. He spent time every day reading the Bible and filling notebooks with his thoughts.
He appreciated many verses in the Bible, but his favorite was Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Mayer devoted himself to his faith, serving on boards for Princeton Alliance Church, a Christian camp for boys called Deerfoot Lodge and Hope Unlimited, a mission organization for poor youth in Brazil. His work in Brazil brought him to slums, where he would work with street children. He considered them part of his family. He regularly preached at Princeton Alliance Church, and would challenge even the pastors to live their faith better by being more welcoming, more compassionate.
But Mayer never flaunted his beliefs, choosing to live life by Micah 6:8.
His family shared his fervor. He met Donna when they were undergraduates at Messiah College, which incorporates the concept of a strong Christian community in every aspect of student life. Their two eldest sons both attended Messiah, and Kyle will do the same this fall.
Mayer loved his family deeply, and cherished the opportunity to raise children. He never skipped a chance to engage them in conversations that would challenge them, including on issues of faith. He made a point to remind his boys daily, as they left for school, “Make someone’s day today.”
He was looking forward to the next few months. First, there was Robbinsville High School’s graduation in June, which was always like Christmas morning to him. He loved watching all his students reach the summit of what his district had to offer, to celebrate the gift of their education. But this year’s was to be extra special, with Kyle—the youngest Mayer—walking across the stage to receive his diploma. Then, in the fall, he would have the wedding of his oldest son, Ryan.
He viewed both events as part of his legacy, moments of pride when his and Donna’s boys took another step as men. But just because Mayer is gone doesn’t mean his legacy disappears, too.
Perhaps Donna put it best herself when, during Mayer’s April 22 memorial service, she said, “Steve’s legacy is going to live on in all of us.”
* * *
At the intersection of Mayer’s educational and religious beliefs, there was a strong conviction in the power of forgiveness.
He never gave up on a child. He realized, as an educator, his job was to take the mistakes students made and ensure they learned and grew from them. He knew that some children may try to take advantage of him, but his interest was in doing what was best for the student, not for himself.
He didn’t believe in being punitive or using punishment to correct behavior. He saw mistakes as an opportunity to guide kids, and would gravitate towards the students he thought were most at risk to stray.
“Steve saw a bright spot in every kid,” Smith said, “and would support them and do whatever he could to get the kid back on track and move him forward.”
Right now, in Robbinsville, there is a 17-year-old girl—a high school senior—at a crossroads. The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office and the Robbinsville Police are investigating how and why a vehicle she drove killed Mayer and Gertie April 19. No charges had been filed or motor vehicle citations had been issued, as of April 26, but the student’s life has changed irrevocably, regardless of what authorities on the case decide.
Fried, the Robbinsville mayor, knows the girl and the family. He has spoken with them. They are “broken,” he said.
So, what would Steve Mayer do with a student in crisis?
“I know Steve well enough to know he would be the first person to forgive that student,” O’Grady said. “The point being, he’s gone already. She’s going to carry this the rest of her life. If that were my kid, I would want to find peace for her. I don’t know if that’s possible, but she’s got a life ahead of her, and I think it’s incredibly unfair to allow 15 seconds to define a life.”
* * *
A group of students lingered outside Robbinsville High School the afternoon of April 22, as a stream of grim-faced adults dressed in dark colors walked from the school’s parking lot to its rear doors. The teenagers welcomed one student, then another, to their ranks with faint smiles and hugs that lasted just a beat longer than normal.
Inside the school commons, soft music played. Giant pictures of Steve Mayer stood on easels on either side of the room. Greeters handed out a program with photos of Mayer reading a book to schoolchildren, Mayer with Gertie, Mayer with Donna, Mayer with his children—he had the same wide, toothy smile in each photo. The program’s cover read, “Remembering our friend Steve Mayer.”
Gradually, those gathered made their way to the school’s auditorium until nearly every one of the room’s 1,000 seats had been filled. A slideshow of photos played on a large projection screen at the front of the room until, at 2 p.m., a live video feed of Princeton Alliance Church in Plainsboro flickered to life. Mourners had packed Princeton Alliance Church, too, as they did live feed locations at St. David The King Catholic Church in West Windsor and Queenship of Mary Catholic Church in Plainsboro. Thousands of people had made time in the middle of a Friday afternoon to say goodbye to Steve Mayer.
After a welcome prayer, a worship song and a scripture reading, Donna, Ryan, Shaun and Kyle made their way to the lectern. The crowd gasped.
Donna composed herself, tissues in hand, and spoke.
“If you could just give me a minute,” she said. “I just want to look at you all.”
She couldn’t see the crowd of people at Robbinsville High School, at St. David the King, at Queenship of Mary—but they became still, too.
Donna began to recall a conversation Mayer had with Kyle and a group of friends about what would happen should they get in a fight with an animal. Mayer, at the time, revealed he had formulated a way to escape a shark attack: “Punch him in the gill, you poke his eye, you punch him in the gill, poke his eye.” He called it “Steve’s Shark Plan.”
“The God that our family knows ordains our days,” she said. “He knows when we come, and He knows when we go. So, it wasn’t a shark for Steve because we all know Steve would’ve gotten out of that.”
Then, she asked all of Mayer’s students to stand—most of the crowd at Robbinsville High rose—and she issued a challenge. Take your gifts, she said, and make the world a better place by loving people, being kind, forgiving people and asking for forgiveness. She asked for their help moving forward. She had lost the “absolute love” of her life, but maybe her pain could be dulled if they each carried a piece of Mayer.
Mayer had been a light everywhere he went, she said, and she pictured little lights flickering all around the world, her husband spread to the wind but still alive, still making the world brighter.
After Donna finished speaking, she ceded the microphone to Ryan then to Kyle then to Shaun, each of them sharing the piece of Mayer they carry with them. Then they stepped down, and the screen went blank.
Suddenly, Mayer sprung back to life before those gathered, on screen. He was energetic and smiling, delivering a sermon on Dec. 21, 2014.
He was excited because it was the shortest day of the year—Mayer had a gift of finding something positive about everything. But then his point surfaced. This was it, the worst it was going to get.
“Today, the darkest day, inch by inch, becomes lighter and lighter as we move from here,” he said.
A half hour later, the service ended, and the mourners walked silently, steadily to their cars. They made a slow, solemn procession down the winding access road that runs along Robbinsville High School, past the turf field where Mayer watched so many games, past Pond Road Middle School. The clouds grew dark, and it began to rain softly.
This was Robbinsville’s darkest day. But, as Steve Mayer knew, inch by inch, life would become brighter again.