Brendan T. Byrne, 93, a crusading prosecutor and World War II bomber navigator who served two terms as New Jersey governor and enacted the state's first income tax, died Thursday at his home in Short Hills, N.J.
Mr. Byrne, a Democrat, had suffered an infection that went into his lungs, his son Brendan Jr., known as "Tom," told the Associated Press.
Mr. Byrne lived with his wife, Ruthi Zinn Byrne. "He rose to the top of every tree he ever climbed," she said.
"Gov. Byrne had an extraordinary career of public service, I considered Gov. Byrne a mentor and a friend," said Gov. Christie, a Republican who also served as a prosecutor.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) called Mr. Byrne "one of New Jersey's most politically courageous public leaders."
Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said Mr. Byrne "restored New Jersey's faith that good people do go into politics to do the right things for the right reasons."
In 1976, Mr. Byrne signed into law the income tax, to stave off a funding crisis for New Jersey's public schools. The deeply unpopular act earned him the nickname "one-term Byrne" after his middle name, but he went on to win re-election.
During his second term, he signed the Pinelands Preservation Act. In his 1982 farewell speech, Mr. Byrne called that his "most important accomplishment."
"There were times, particularly when he pushed through an income tax, when lynch parties were forming to march" on the governor's residence, an Inquirer editorial said as Mr. Byrne was about to leave office. "But the courage, foresight, and determination he demonstrated in directing the income tax through the Legislature shortly before running for a second term are characteristics that he showed throughout his eight-year administration."
Mr. Byrne won his first gubernatorial election in a landslide in 1973. It was his first run for public office.
His campaign was bolstered by an FBI surveillance tape on which an organized-crime figure stated that Byrne, who had been Essex County prosecutor in the 1960s, was a law-enforcement official "who couldn't be bought."
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey recalled Mr. Byrne as a "tremendous leader who represented the best virtues of a different era."
"I would always go and pay homage," McGreevey said. "It's all too Irish. He was the chief of the clan."
McGreevey praised Mr. Byrne for his "practical wisdom" and "understanding of all things New Jersey."
Mr. Byrne was born in West Orange, N.J., in 1924 and attended West Orange High School, where he served as senior class president and president of the debate club, according to his biography at the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University.
In 1943, he enlisted in the Army Air Force, and received a Distinguished Flying Medal and four Air Medals.
After the war, he graduated from Princeton University and received a law degree from Harvard University.
Mr. Byrne practiced law privately until 1956, when he was appointed as an aide to Gov. Robert B. Meyner, a Democrat. It was under Meyner that he became Essex County prosecutor.
In 1968, Mr. Byrne was appointed to Superior Court by Gov. William T. Cahill, a Republican.
Mr. Byrne stepped down in 1973 to run for governor.
As governor, Mr. Byrne oversaw the implementation of casino gambling in Atlantic City, which had been approved by a voter referendum.
He did raise eyebrows while in office when he seemed to promote the naming of a new arena at the Meadowlands after himself.
"He spent, perhaps, excessive time winging around the world to promote the state," the 1982 Inquirer editorial stated. "He was photographed more on tennis courts than in the Statehouse. But Gov. Byrne was determined to give New Jersey its own identity, not as a wasteland between Philadelphia and New York City. He largely succeeded."
Mr. Byrne had seven children with his first wife, Jean Featherly Byrne, who died in 2015.
He was known for his sense of humor. He once joked, "I want to be buried in Hudson County, so I can remain active in politics."
In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by children Nancy, Timothy, Mary Anne, Barbara, and William. A daughter, Susan, died earlier.
A funeral was scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, Jan. 8, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Dr., Millburn, N.J.
Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.