Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has grown accustomed to the storyline about his resilient spirit: the working-class kid from Dorchester who bravely battled cancer at age seven, overcame alcoholism as a young adult, and then set his sights on the city’s highest office.
What that narrative misses is the crucial role that community played in his recovery, Walsh told the graduates of the BU School of Public Health in his convocation address Saturday.
“I’m proud of how I persevered, but the truth is, the story is about strong communities, and it’s a story about public health,” said Walsh, who was elected Boston mayor last November. “Looking back, the real resilience lay in my parents and in the community they had built. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a good strong neighborhood, church…and my father had benefits” through a laborers union. “And we lived close to great hospitals.”
Walsh captivated SPH’s largest-ever graduating class with his poignant personal story of beating the odds and becoming the city’s first new leader in more than two decades, following the decision by Boston’s longest-serving mayor, Thomas Menino (Hon.’01), not to seek reelection. He credited both professionals in the health care and addiction-recovery fields and neighbors and friends in the community with helping him to come back from illness and realize his childhood dream of serving as the city’s mayor.
The former Democratic state representative urged the graduates to use their skills to bridge the divide between clinicians and the community and to emulate public health leaders such as Paul Farmer, who founded the humanitarian health organization Partners in Health, and Howard Koh (SPH’95), currently the US Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for health.
“You can use the tools of public health to change the world,” Walsh said, looking out at the sea of red robes in Agganis Arena. “I felt that power of change at a deep level, and it saved my life twice.”
He appealed to the students—some who worked on public health issues in Boston during their BU studies—to view his administration as a “willing partner” in tackling problems such as addiction, trauma, and violence. “We need you to help solve the greatest challenges that confront us,” he said. “We need your energy, we need your expertise, and we need your leadership.”
In April, a Public Health Working Group Transition Team appointed by Walsh and cochaired by David Rosenbloom, an SPH professor and chair ad interim of the health policy and management department and a former Boston commissioner of health and hospitals, released a report recommending “immediate attention” to the two most pressing threats to the public health of city residents: addiction and violence. The mayor recently announced the creation of the new Office of Recovery Services, under the oversight of the Boston Public Health Commission, which will work to improve existing addiction and recovery services.
“As public health professionals,” Walsh told the 2014 graduates, “you will be uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between the medical and the recovery community. And I ask you for help in doing so.”
He recounted the two defining struggles in his life: being diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma as a child, and quitting alcohol at age 30. Although he was touted for being brave as he underwent four years of chemotherapy, he said, his personal resolve was eclipsed by support from his family, the wider community, and medical professionals.
“In hundreds of different ways, the community let us know that we weren’t going through this alone,” he said. His recovery “took research, surgery, diagnosis, and technology. It took caring doctors and nurses at Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute…and my family having access to those treatments.”
He added a stark reminder: “The same cancer I survived in the ’70s is killing thousands of African children every year, simply because they don’t have access to chemotherapy.”
Walsh said his battle with alcoholism started when he dropped out of Suffolk University after one semester because he wasn’t motivated to pursue his studies. He recounted drinking so heavily that “I lost myself inside.” In 1995, he went into detox and began the recovery process, aided by professionals and recovery groups. “Recovery stories in the media often describe the heroic journeys of individuals,” he said. “But once again, it took a community.”
A year and a half after getting sober, Walsh ran for state representative. For the next 16 years, he made his mark in the legislature by working on issues such as addiction, education, and workers’ rights. Sober for 19 years, he still attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Looking back now, he said, he never could have envisioned that his story would play out as it has. “It wasn’t a smooth path, it wasn’t a straight path—there were obstacles and surprises, twists and turns. It was filled with challenges. There were even times when I gave up hope. At any number of moments, if you had told someone who knew me that one day I’d be the mayor of the city of Boston, they probably would have laughed. I might have laughed, too, at certain moments.”
Walsh said he hoped his experiences would inspire the graduates to hold firm to their goals, even if missteps or misfortunes derail them. “My story is about doing more than you thought was possible with your life,” he said. “We need you to aim high and set ambitious goals.”
This year, 590 SPH students graduated in 12 different degree programs. The convocation ceremony included a short tribute to SPH Dean Robert Meenan (MED’72, GSM’89), who is stepping down this year, after 22 years as dean, to become a special assistant to President Robert A. Brown.
Two faculty members were honored at the convocation for their teaching and scholarship. Sophie Godley (SPH’15), a clinical assistant professor of community health sciences, received the Norman A. Scotch Award for Excellence in Teaching, and Alan M. Jette, a professor of health policy and management, was given the Faculty Career Award in Research and Scholarship.