Herb Gleason

^ aristocrat in Boston City hall : corporation counsel Herb Gleason, 1928-2013

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Herb Gleason of Beacon Hill died on December 9th. He was 85 years old and was, as Barney Frank recalls, “a man from the Boston aristocracy who deeply immersed himself in Boston politics in a wholly constructive way.” You should read the obituary that Bryan Marquard wrote for today’s Boston Globe and which features Frank’s quote. It tells Gleason ‘s life story and why — as Mayor Kevin White’s Corporations Counsel, most of all — he was important to the civic minded people of my generation.

My intention in this column is not to repeat that obit but to ruminate on Frank’s words and also on something that Gleason’s son David is quoted as saying of him : “He was very progressive in the real meaning of the word, the sense that government should benefit citizens.”

Today that “old Boston aristocracy” has almost disappeared. Those not yet born in its last glory days — the 1970s — probably have no idea what I’m talking about. No one uses the term “aristocracy” any more. “Child of privilege” — the term pinned on Jonn Connolly by Marty Walsh’s notorious AFL-CIO fliers — comes closest; yet A “child of privilege” can have parents who were themselves born into no privilege at all. The “Boston aristocracy” propagated its values (and its privilege) for many, many generations, one after another committed to the idea that wealth and privilege can never be their own justification; that being an aristocrat requires a man or woman to dedicate to the common good. The best-known Boston example of that aristocratic commitment is Robert Gould Shaw, son of Beacon Hill Brahmins, who coloneled the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of African-Americans and gave his life leading them into battle. Shaw’s life and death, thanks to the movie “Glory,’ now belong to the ages; but he was hardly the only exemplar, even in his own family : Barney Frank himself won his first elective office, State Representative from aristocratic Ward 5, with sponsorship by such as Shaw’s collateral descendant (by marriage) Susan Shaw Lyman.

There was much to criticize in the ways of the Boston aristocracy as it became defiantly snobby during the 1870s-90s. It was often anti-Semitic and hostile to Boston’s Irish. It was cruel to its own. Boys who could not shape up became “black sheep,” rarely forgiven. Its women had to suffer the unfaithfulness of husbands; many turned to hard liquor and spent days in a drunk. There was much ceremony — tuxedos and ball gowns to be worn — for the invited few, balls to be staged. Just as staged was the aristocracy’s speech. You knew immediately a Boston aristocrat by his or her pronunciations — consciously imitative of titled Britons. There was a list, too, of the accepted. Boston aristocrats proudly kept a copy of the “blue book” — the Social Register — on their desks or coffee tables; in it were the names, addresses, and current life status of those who “belonged.” And there was boarding school for every child — the most aristocratic of these quite consciously toff — a tumble into discipline for discipline’s sake which propagated itself all the way to the 1960, by which date  men like Herb Gleason (and women too) had reached adulthood.

For the majority of us, who were not Social Register, “that government should benefit citizens” was okay enough. It moved men and women to fight for child labor laws, women’s rights, slum clearance, hospital care open to all (there would be precious few Boston hospitals had not its aristocracy donated millions to their founding and expansion), pro bono legal work, libraries and books, the ACLU, racial integration, a city-girding parks system, bequests to the City for public purposes (think the George Robert White Fund), and service on all manner of City Boards. Taking a paid job in Kevin White’s administration, Herb Gleason went further. But so did John Sears — an aristocrat of aristocrats who also ran for mayor in the year that Kevin White won — when he accepted the job of MDC Commissioner. Yet the jobs taken by Gleason and Sears were a kind of civic-minded donation; each could have earned far more money in private law practice than they did as civic administrators.

All of this civic dedication by people born to great wealth or position seems so foreign to how we view the world today. We see people of great wealth now mostly as greedy self-seekers, or as celebrities fronting selfies. We cannot imagine today’s wealthy or famous sitting on library trustee boards, for example, or cleaning up Boston Harbor, or gathering signatures to raise the minimum wage, or protesting vote suppression — as so many did in the 1960s, even. And when we do encounter a “child of privilege” such as John Connolly was dubbed actually taking an interest in reform — in his case, school transformation — we’re not sure what to think.

Today when we hear of “children of privilege” in politics or civic affairs we’re as likley as not to think them out to serve themselves; to “skew the system” in their favor; to disenable, not enable, those in need. Perhaps that is one reason why John Connolly fell short of victory on November 5th. As said the AFL-CIo flier that i have already mentioned : “He’s trying to fool us.” There were plenty of successful people like that back in the day : but in those days they fooled no one — and didn’t try to. Yet always, from the decades of America’s founding right through the 1970s, critical numbers of civic-minded reformers of wealth and standing confronted the self-seekers at all levels. Today, when such a person appears on the urban horizon, he or she should be welcomed.

Civic-minded, progressive reform was never easy even in its aristocratic salad days. Machine politicians and those who kept them going — saloon keepers, contractors, industrialists, stock manipulators, work padrones, even criminal gangs — always pushed back. Only occasionally was urban reform successful. It was spectacularly successful, often, in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and it was, finally, successful, after many failed attempts, in Kevin White’s Boston. Herb Gleason was a large part of that triumph, as were so many people from aristocratic Ward 5 — think Micho Spring,. Kathy Kane, Susan Lyman, Barney Frank, Stella Trafford, John Sears, David Morse, Joseph Lee, Parkman Shaw, Chris Lydon, Oliver Ames, and many many more. Is that spirit having a revival, with John Connolly as its vanguard ? I am hopeful that it will, and that Boston will advance once more, by the commitment to the City’s civic life of many more men and women like Herb Gleason. RIP, Sir.

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere


  1. This is really great writing.
    Since his death, I was wondering about Herb’s quite manner and how that was in its self a statement of his purpose, always dignified, an inspiration, a role model; you summed it up perfectly.


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