SURF CITY — If you don’t know Leonard T. Connors, you will after you shake his hand.
Connors’ large, rough hand and strong grip can envelop any hand. He shook the hands of thousands during his 50-year career as the mayor of Surf City.
“He has bear paws, and when he would fall asleep in his reclining chair in the living room when I was a child, I would just sit and stare at his hands,” said Chris Connors, who was a third-grader when his father became Surf City’s mayor.
This fall, Connors, 86, left City Hall after a half-century as mayor of this small city by the sea.
His name wasn’t on the ballot in November. Francis Hodgson — a former councilman — took over the seat after the general election.
Connors’ son, a Republican state senator representing Ocean, Burlington and Atlantic counties, said that as a child he marveled at the size of his father’s hands. Leonard Connors was a politician, but he also worked in construction and as a fisherman. His hands were not soft and manicured. They were the rough hands of a working man, his son said.
He was elected to Surf City Council in 1962, and four years later was elected mayor. Connors recalled Long Beach Island changing, the beaches getting smaller and the homes getting larger.
“But we kept on keeping on. This is still a beautiful place to be,” he said.
In a recent interview with The Press of Atlantic City, Connors said his biggest accomplishment as mayor was keeping the city financially stable, even as budgets increased in other towns on Long Beach Island.
“I left the budget intact and kept it low compared to the other towns around,” he said of the city’s $6.5 million budget.
Connors also was instrumental in implementing the sale of beach badges, which was a boon to city revenue.
While he served as mayor, Connors also was elected as an Ocean County freeholder in 1977 and served until 1982, when he was elected state senator and served for 26 years.
Unusually candid, comfortable and at times comedic with members of the media, he said reporters knew where they stood with him.
When interviewed about anything he didn’t agree with, his usual response was, “That’s baloney!”
“He once told a news reporter, he would give up his seat in the Senate before he’d give up being mayor,” said his wife, Lorraine.
“Surf City is his baby. It’s his town,” she said.
Relaxing at home with his wife and regular visits with his family are now the events that encompass his schedule. Still, there remains a longing for daily life of a public servant, he said.
“I do miss the aggravation and some of the smart talk and then my comebacks. But I am proud of how I left the city. I miss it all,” he said.
After a long career of public service, he is still laughing at age 86.
“Who said I’m not running again?” he joked.
But it wasn’t just politics for Connors. The former Air Force sergeant also made a career in the local construction business.
He has a love for fishing and reading, his son said. Very little would cross his desk that Leonard T. Connors wouldn’t pick up and read, whether it was about mechanical engineering or Wall Street, Chris Connors said.
“Before we were two mayors in two separate towns and then two senators, we were incredible fishing partners,” Chris Connors said.
Connors sighs when he speaks of his sons Chris, 59, and Thomas, 63, who is a police captain in Howell Township.
“I’m very proud of them. They did great,” Len Connors said.
Len and Chris Connors served in the state Legislature together for 18 years. The halls of the Statehouse have not been the same since the elder Connors gave up his Senate seat to his son in 2008, Chris Connors said.
Chris Connors is also a lawyer, and his father has a funny way of reminding him of his profession.
“He would always bust my chops and say, ‘You know how you lawyers are,’” he said and laughed.
He said his father is satisfied with the impact he has made on his constituents in Surf City and those in southern New Jersey. Len Connors means something to these people, his son said.
“If someone went up to him today and said, ‘Your time is up,’ I think he would be at peace with that,” he said.