Deborah Bye Kean, beloved wife of former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, died on the evening of April 23 at home. She was 76.
“Throughout Governor Kean’s administration, she remained a strong presence. Ever mindful of the inherent challenges of a sitting governor, First Lady Kean supported her husband and ensured he also focused on his most lasting legacy of personal family,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement Friday afternoon. “We are keeping Governor Kean, a dear friend and mentor, in our family’s prayers at this time, as well as Tom, Jr., Alexandra, and Reed, and their families.”
Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1943, the only child of the late Elizabeth Griffenberg Bye and Robert Bye, a corporate executive, Deborah Kean was a graduate of the Tower Hill School in Wilmington and Bennett College in Millbrook, New York. She married Thomas H. Kean on June 3, 1967.
As first lady, she renovated the governor’s mansion at Drumthwacket in Princeton. When Kean was elected, New Jersey did not have a governor’s mansion. The previous site, Morven, had been given to the New Jersey Historical Society to use as their headquarters. The new site, Drumthwacket, was filled with old furniture. Kean said New Jersey deserved as good of a governor’s mansion as any other state, so she formed a foundation, encouraged donations, and bought antique furniture that is still in use at the governor’s mansion today.
Her family says that whenever she saw a wrong, she tried to right it. She discovered that many state employees at the time were struggling because of a lack of daycare options for their children. She lobbied various people until she received money to establish daycare centers for the children of state employees. The largest one still bears her name, the Deborah B. Kean Childcare Center.
Kean was known to family and friends for her warm disposition and quick wit. An avid reader, she was a lifetime enthusiast of the performing and visual arts, a passion she shared with her husband.
In addition to her husband, she is survived by her sons, New Jersey State Senator Thomas H. Kean, Jr. of Westfield and business executive Reed Kean of Chatham; daughter Alexandra Kean Strong, an educator in Duxbury, Massachusetts; and seven grandchildren.
Her family says above all she loved her children and seven grandchildren and was deeply loved in return.