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Donald M. Payne, 1934 – 2012

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Born to service. That’s the phrase that comes quickly to mind when recalling the particulars of the career of Representative Donald M. Payne, D-N.J., who died yesterday morning at the age of 77.

Donald Payne

That is what he preached. That is what he practiced, first, on the streets and in the neighborhoods of his birthplace of Newark, New Jersey, where he taught for a time as a public school history teacher and then managed a storefront YMCA branch. That began a lifelong involvement with the organization: in 1970 he became the first black president of the National Council of YMCAs and remained a board member of the Newark chapter all his life.

Payne’s rootedness in his home community is important to remember not simply because of the practical and symbolic good he did for Newark’s and New Jersey’s residents as the state’s first black member of Congress. It’s important to remember because he applied that same passion – providing the wherewithal to help individuals and communities improve themselves – to national and international affairs. He played central roles in making financial aid for college students here in America more available and less onerous to pay back, and he was a tireless advocate for humanitarian relief and for the expansion of democracy in Africa.

Donald M. Payne’s personality was often said to be “low-key,” by which was meant he didn’t seek the public spotlight in ways usually associated with political officeholders. But the quality of his leadership – as a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, as a longtime member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, and as a public servant in the best sense of the phrase – was decidedly not low-key. It was, as President Obama said in a brief statement of tribute, a powerful and lasting expression of “a full and meaningful life.”