It was early in 1973 when I first met Tom Menino. Joe Timilty, at that time one of the bring young, Kennedyesque men of Boston politics, had decided to seek the State senate seat let vacant in Mattapan and Hyde park by the retirement of Sam Harmon. My roommate and I were precinct leaders in that campaign, in the Mattapan neighborhood that he lived in, and one evening we had gone to headquarters to pick up literature. Several campaign volunteers were there, talking stuff, as campaign people will do, and among them was a new guy : a stocky, grumbly fellow about as unpolitical as anyone i had ever met.
He was from “the Island,” they said, a hardscrabble part of Hyde Park filled with workers’ houses the size of thimbles, living in a three-decker within easy smell distance of Henry Kara’s tire store. He looked quite uninviting to talk to, and I didn’t.
Later on I learned the fellow’s name. It was Tom Menino.
He became quite a presence in that campaign, and when Timilty won the election, Menino, like all of us, became somebody the political community wanted to know. On several city and state campaigns thereafter, the Menino place on Hyde Park Avenue was a place to be for people you wanted — needed — to know.
Still, Menino’s gruff personality alienated many, and made enemies of some, even as he acquired several very significant friends, especially then young state Representative Angelo Scaccia, who lived with his mother in a modest home near the huge Westinghouse factory in the Readville part of Hyde Park. For several years Menino, with Timilty as his mentor, moved from one political job to another, but it was his friendship with Scaccia that proved crucial when, in 1983, Menino decided to seek the newly created City Council District Number 5.
Another friendship was almost as significant : I lived in that newly created District. As map advisor to City Councillor Terry McDermott, who was charged with holding the Council hearings that led to the map which set up the nine Council Districts devised by the City’;s new charter, I created a Roslindale and Hyde Park district very much with Tom Menino in mind. There was one other likely local candidate, but in my mind (and McDermott’s) he was far too conservative for our tastes. Thus it was Menino whom we hoped would run, and we mapped him a district as closely aligned with the Timilty state senate District as we could fairly shape.
Menino did run, and he did win. He quickly made the District his own. The fierce Hyde Park political rivalries that almost sidelined Scaccia a few times never endangered the dogged, grouchy, but somehow likeable Menino. You could trust Tom. What you saw was what you got. He never thanked me for what I (and McDermott) had done for him, but that was OK; he did the job. What more could I ask for ? He was my area’s councillor, and when we needed him to be there for us in Roslindale, was there, gruff and grouchy and more reliable than a wall clock.
So it was that when, in 1993, Mayor Flynn resigned to be our nation’s ambassador to the Vatican, I backed Tom Menino rather than State Representative Jim Brett his chief opponent, whom I also knew well and respected highly. Menino was our neighborhood’s man, ours had never had a Mayor from our area, and that was that, in an election that wasn’t about high policy, as they are today, but about the neighborhoods.
Because that year’s mayor election was about neighborhoods, it was no drawback to Menino that he talked like a neighborhood guy and walked the neighborhood walk. And it was he, not the much more eloquent and worldly Brett, who assembled a coalition of neighborhoods — the left out and the not so powerful mostly — big enough to defeat Brett by a huge margin.
Tom was now our Mayor. Our no frills, speech-challenged, lumpy Mayor. He was one of a kind. Most people liked that. Yes, there were those who didn’t, and more who didn’t like Tom one day but liked him the ent, and over the years he became irreplaceable because when you started thinking about potential rivals, they all lacked Tom’s dogged singularity. they were “pols.” Tom was never that.
The rest o the story, you all know. By the end of his second term, Tom was so well known, and so widely accepted, that there’s no secrets I can reveal, no special insight that many of you cannot duplicated. we all got to know the Tom that I had known in the neighborhood — well, not quite; because it was amazing, even to the end, to see Tom become a powerful voice for civil rights, to watch him go eyeball to eyeball with powers that be, to marvel at his readiness to go anywhere in his city, to anybody;s house, and to become a brother or an uncle : that close would he get when people needed him.
The Scaccia-Menino friendship lasted to the end; it was never, ever broken. But the same could be said of many Menino relationships, with all sorts of people in Boston powerful, middling, and powerless. It’s a cliche now to say that Tom “loved Boston”; what that really means is that Tom loved Boston’s people. There was no doubt of it. It mattered. Even as Tom oversaw the city’s reinvention,m its economic boom and its rebirth as a mecca of fashion, social life, and innovation, his gruff candor and all-in connection to everybody lifted our spirits and made us — who had been at each other’s throats during the racially troubled 1970s — feel all One City. That’s what we are today. It was Tom’s doing. Ours, too; but Tom’s achievement first.
Good-bye, old buddy ! May you grouch and gruff and love us from wherever you are now, till we meet again…
—- Mike Freedberg for Here and Sphere