Friday, November 07, 2014

In memoriam: John Winthrop Sears

John Sears died this week, appropriately, on Election Day.  Appropriately, because he was a great public servant who held elective office and ran for other positions during his life.  He defined himself as "an old-fashioned, center-fielding Republican," and that's a good summary.

I loved spending time with John.  He was as public-spirited as anybody, a great conversationalist, and one of the last of the old New England "Yankees" to serve in public office.

On February 23, 1996, I interviewed him for a paper I was working on about the Metropolitan District Commission, the first great regional government agency in America, which used to run the Boston metropolitan area water and sewer system as well as an assortment of parks, parkways, and recreational facilities like swimming pools and skating rinks.  He was Commissioner of the agency from 1970-1975.  I wanted to learn how it had fallen from its glory days to a patronage-ridden embarrassment.

We sat in his book and newspaper strewn apartment at 7 Acorn Street on Beacon Hill. His observations included the following:

The [former] MDC commissioners were fairly hefty folk.  Hultman -- I think Hultman and Greenough were the two greats of us -- and Hultman built the aqueducts and sort of finished Quabbin [Reservoir]; and Charles Greenough was the great park MDC commissioner -- more of a road builder, a parkway builder.  But I think the agency was seriously politicized. The Yankee legislatures who came up to about 1956, who tended to be Republican, were unimaginative, reluctant to spend, but they weren't successfully corrupt.  They were succeeded by this flow of colorful folk who were willing to spend, but also wanted to send you a schedule.*  We got an annual list from the Ways and Means Committee of people to hire.

Q. Not just positions, you mean people?

Not just positions, people, names.  Micromanaging in the most awful way.  I resisted that, and caused a lot of trouble.  I even fired some people, and it took me two years to work that out.  When we had put the two zoo societies together -- this is a good sort of parable of what went wrong at the MDC -- I told the brand new Boston Zoological Society that they could go and find a good zoo director, and I would hire him or her and put the new director on the MDC payroll.  Well, all hell broke loose.

First, there was a painter foreman who said that he had seniority.  I carried out my part.  But they really went down kicking and screaming.  There are scars all over me from trying to work down through the politicization at every level in the MDC.

The intrusions of Michael Paul Feeney.   He was the dean of the House.  A charming man. We had a good relationship, but if there was ever a spare dollar, suddenly it would have a use attached to it.  [As a result,] there were something like eight little playgrounds in Hyde Park. It took a certain sense of humor and a certain amount of mischief in order to work one's way through some of this.

The MDC, at that date, was quite like a big, helpless giant.  It was the Corps of Engineers on the Massachusetts scale. Every legislator felt they could send us their nephews and then send us instructions to build a park or a pumping station.  Joe DiCarlo put a pumping station in Beechmont, which is still there, which pumps against the Atlantic Ocean. That's an unequal match, if I may say so.

There was a political engineering firm named Maguire, C. E. Maguire, and anytime Maguire ran a little short of work, all of a sudden the wheels would spin and orders would come over to do some real majestic engineering thing.

Speaker McGee.  We hired a terrific young veterinarian for the zoo.  He  said, "None of your animals are going to breed eating this rancid horsemeat that you're feeding them out there." I said, "Well of course, doctor, tell us what we should buy and we'll buy it." The Speaker of the Massachusetts legislature called me up and said that if we did not go on buying my horsemeat from West Lynn Creamery that he would do a number on our budget.

I said, "Tom, you know I'm going to do what the good doctor tells me, and I don't care at all where we buy it from.  If your friends in West Lynn would franchise this food the doctor says is better, I'll buy it from them gladly." he said, "To hell with you" -- and that isn't all he said -- and he took the salary of a little lady who had been in the sewer division for about 30 years and ravaged it in the budget.  He knew that was how to hurt me.  We managed to save her and put her in the construction division.

[This kind of interference] took a lot of time and patience to cope with.

 * A "schedule" was the list of approved jobs included in the yearly appropriation bill.


nonlocal MD said...

As if this isn't going on in the U.S. Congress right this very second.

Bobby Franklin said...

It is so nice to read this and know there was at least one Massachusetts politician who wasn't on the take. This entire state has been for sale for years and this has gone on under leaders from both parties.
It is nice to see John Sears is getting his due respect from people all over the political spectrum. We need people with his decency in positions in government, but doubt that will ever see that happen because corruption is so entrenched here, and oddly, even though John was so highly respected, the citizens of Massachusetts seem comfortable with crooked politicians.
Let's all take the time to reflect on this goid man.
Rest in Peace John Sears.

Paul DeSimone said...

Paul Levy's narrative underscores that there are so many stories. I was with John, on an impromptu visit, October 14th. He was pleased, up-beat, focused on the up-coming election with complimentary remarks about everyone, and appreciation for Charlie Baker. He said that even Elizabeth Warren was admirable in her spunk.

John had been focusing much time and attention on the restoration of the Sears Chapel, in Brookline - where, he told me, he would be buried along with his forbears. David Sears, who built his magnificent home known for decades as the Somerset Club on Beacon Street, owned significant land area in what is now the Longwood section of Brookline where the church is located.

Many bits and pieces about John Winthrop Sears form a wonderful story of public service contributions, yankee Massachusetts and ancient lineage. His father's home at 431 Hale Street in Prides Crossing, was sold, he said, so that a new family could raise children in that fabulous setting overlooking the ocean. It is now part of the Landmark School.

About the MDC, John informed me that on his watch a lane was removed from the westbound side of Storrow Drive to widen the esplanade and create bicycle paths. There was unique engineering for its time at the Eliot Bridge to facilitate pedestrian traffic. He was loved for sponsoring the ice hockey rink, constructed in the North End. So many contributions.

Moreover there was a gentle charisma, a charm, an ability to listen well, and engage in many subjects in a sincere way. John loved people, he particularly loved young people, and aided many, from all walks of life. Decency, kindness, command, appreciation for legacy, great good humor, emphatic, practical, pragmatic. We all shall miss him. The best of what we learned from John, we should all carry forward in our lives. By public and private stature, a Sears Tower of a man, a Bostonian, and a capable leader. The City and State should honor John Winthrop Sears in a demonstrative way that shines light on his leadership accomplishments.

e-Patient Dave said...

1. The story of the change makes me sick to my stomach. I know it's everywhere, I know it goes in cycles, I hope a clean cycle is coming. Sick.

2. Meanwhile, my great-grandfather was John Sears McCulloh, and I can't help but wonder if we're related. (Not that that would amount to anything. Just curious.)

Anonymous said...

Ever thus... >:-(

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your lovely words.