BU Mourns Loss of Former Mayor Menino (Hon.’01)
Made Boston one of the world’s most inclusive cities
Thomas Menino (Hon.’01), director of BU’s Initiative on Cities, signs copies of his recent book, Mayor for a New America, during an event at the Castle October 16, 2014. Photo by Cydney Scott.
Thomas M. Menino 1942-2014: The Boston University community joins the city in mourning the loss of its beloved former mayor, Thomas M. Menino, who served from 1993 to 2014, the longest of any mayor in Boston history.
A long-time friend of the University, Menino died Thursday morning at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a week after announcing his decision to stop treatment for the cancer that he’d been battling for almost a year. His death at age 71 comes just nine months after the popular, pragmatic five-term mayor settled in at Boston University to codirect the newly established Initiative on Cities (IoC), a research center and think tank devoted to improving all aspects of urban government. On Menino’s brief watch, the IOC hosted seminars on issues ranging from architecture to climate change and released the first-ever academic survey of the nation’s mayors.
Menino (Hon.’01) was the “Cal Ripken of Boston politics: durable, consistent, respected,” says John Carroll, a College of Communication assistant professor of mass communication. “And like Ripken’s, Menino’s streak will never be duplicated.”
Whether it was leading the Caribbean Day parade along Blue Hill Avenue, welcoming a diverse and exuberant opera audience to “CAH-men on the Common” or struggling out of a wheelchair after leaving his hospital bed to address President and Mrs. Obama and 2,000 others at a memorial at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross on April 18, 2013, three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Menino was the people’s mayor, drawing gravitas from his steadfast insistence on being the regular guy from Hyde Park.
It didn’t take long for the former mayor to feel at home in his new BU office on Bay State Road. Photo by Cydney Scott.
He recalls the Holy Cross memorial service in the introduction to the book he cowrote with Jack Beatty, Mayor for a New America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), published in October. (The former mayor had just concluded the first leg of a book tour when he decided to cease all treatment and spend his last days with his wife, Angela, family, and friends.) “We are one Boston,” he told those assembled in the cathedral, less than a mile from the explosions that injured hundreds and killed three, one of them BU student Lu Lingzi (GRS’13). “No adversity, no challenge, nothing can tear down the resilience in the heart of this city and its people…I have never loved it…more than I do today.”
“Boston has lost one of its greats,” says Robert A. Brown, president of BU. “We were fortunate during Tom Menino’s long, transformative tenure as mayor to work closely with him and his team in City Hall on projects and initiatives vital to Boston University and that have contributed to Boston’s emergence as an exceptionally dynamic center of research and innovation. Because Tom Menino worked so hard to make Boston a welcoming, vibrant, safe place to live and work, Boston University—located in the heart of the city—has benefited immensely.”
Menino was a College of Arts & Sciences political science professor of the practice as well as co-directing the IoC. “We knew Tom was a great mayor during his time as mayor. We had the privilege—for all-too-brief a span of time—of having him as a member of our faculty,” Brown says. “During that time, he got to know students, staff, and faculty. So we were fortunate to get a big dose of his playful sense of humor, to learn from him at the conferences he hosted as codirector of our Initiative on Cities, and to see firsthand what was one of the key ingredients to his success: a preternatural capacity for hard work.
“Here’s a telling example: last January, I returned from a business trip about a week ahead of the date Tom was supposed to start at BU. I checked with my staff about arrangements we were making for him. ‘He’s already here,’ I was told. ‘He was itching to get started so we set him up in a temporary office.’ That was Tom Menino: a person of enormous energy, wisdom, and compassion.”
As BU’s vice president of government and community affairs, Robert Donahue worked closely with the late mayor for many years. “Tom Menino has been a friend for 43 years. The only thing larger than his many accomplishments was his heart. He fought the good fight each and every day of his life,” says Donahue. “He strove to make life better for his city and for its residents and succeeded greatly. In turn, Boston loved Menino. The bond between the city and the former mayor was unique. It wasn’t just 20 years’ tenure as mayor that made the difference—it was his determination, drive, and impatience to get the job done that people recognized and embraced. He never quit or called it in. He always gave it his all.”
“Mayor Menino was more than a boss; he was a mentor and friend,” says Katharine Lusk, executive director of the Initiative on Cities and a former policy advisor to Menino as Boston’s mayor. “His warmth, determination and passion for helping people will always be an inspiration. We will work hard to live up to his legacy.”
Menino was a distinctly un-prodigal son of Hyde Park, the boy who never left home. The city’s southernmost section, where he was born in 1942 and lived until his death, and which he represented on the Boston City Council, was the basis of his vision of the ideal neighborhood as he guided Boston’s redevelopment while mayor. He was the son of a factory foreman for Westinghouse, who aspired for his son to get a college degree. But after taking night classes at Boston College while selling insurance, Menino dropped out, informing his dad that the man he idolized, Harry Truman, didn’t go to college, either. A generation later, he outdid his hero. While representing Hyde Park on the city council, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston. He received an honorary degree from BU in 2001, and at the 2013 Commencement ceremony was awarded the Boston University Medallion for his service to the community.
“Mayor Menino always prioritized providing opportunities for the youth of the city, and renaming the scholarship in his honor was an appropriate tribute to his legacy,” says Alyssa Sarkis (SED’14), a former Menino Scholar. “Now as an teacher in the Boston Public Schools, not only have I benefited from Mayor Menino’s partnership with Boston University, but I also get to see my students benefit from the Menino Scholarship as well.”
Representing Hyde Park, Menino won a seat on the Boston City Council in 1983 and worked for his district on the council for nine years. Nicknamed affectionately “Mumbles Menino,” in Mayor for a New America he writes, “I’m a bad talker, but a good listener. I won 10 elections. Maybe a politician who stops talking long enough to listen is a breath of fresh air to voters.” It was a fortuitous twist of events that remade Menino’s life and secured his place in Boston history: in 1993, newly inaugurated President Bill Clinton appointed Raymond Flynn, then Boston mayor, ambassador to the Vatican. As city council president, Menino became mayor.
Brown and Menino at a November 2013 press conference announcing that the mayor was joining BU to help lead the new Initiative on Cities. Photo by Cydney Scott.
The next November, he won a four-year term in his own right. Boston’s longest serving mayor, he would be reelected comfortably four times and serve 20 years.
In his memoir, Menino recalls that the 5,000 friends and supporters attending his first inaugural party at the Hynes Convention Center were entertained by what he calls “the representatives of the New America”—multiracial, multicultural, LBGT-friendly—“rising in the old city.” Among the entertainers were a Roma band, gay two-steppers, a Spanish theater group, and a Chinese lion dance. “I missed a Frank Sinatra karaoke,” he writes, “but nobody asked me.” He was committed, as he put it, “to lifting the cloud of racism over the city” that had hovered in the wake of Boston’s painful busing crisis of the 1970s. Celtics legend Bill Russell (Hon.’02) remarked in 2004 that under Menino’s leadership, “we see a Boston that is making every effort to be one of our country’s most inclusive and progressive cities.”
The former mayor will also be remembered for expanding and invigorating the city’s many parks and green spaces. When he took office, New England was clawing its way back from recession; Boston was bereft of construction, and its stores of sales. Then the new mayor caught a break: the Big Dig highway project was a budget nightmare, but it rained money on the Boston economy, left lovely parks where the rerouted Central Artery had been, and lured stores and development back. Menino encouraged development and continued to push new construction projects along into his final months at City Hall.
Guiding the makeover of Boston’s face, he made sure that its significant beauty marks weren’t obliterated by championing historic building preservation. His efforts led Roslindale Village to become the first area revitalized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street program. When developers lobbied for a new football stadium near the South Boston waterfront, Menino said no—sparing the city “the empty parking lots it would have brought to a waterfront district that is blossoming,” one admiring columnist wrote.
As the economy soared, crime rates plunged during the Menino years, as they did in other cities. He became an outspoken supporter of gun control, teaming with Michael Bloomberg, then mayor of New York, in 2006 to launch a coalition of American mayors devoted to purging illegal firearms from their streets.
While popular with voters, he sparred with some constituencies, notably the press (“thin-skinned, petty, and prone to holding grudges,” wrote one pundit, who actually admired the mayor’s achievements) and school reformers. Menino pushed for “pilot schools” to model best practices in education. He made education a priority in the mid ’90s after what he describes in his memoir as a personal embarrassment and a “blow to the pride of the city”—a Boston public school was the first in Massachusetts to lose its accreditation, and six other schools were put on notice.
Brown, assisted by BU trustee Alan Leventhal (Hon.’09) (left), presents Menino with the Boston University Medallion for his service to the community at BU’s 2013 Commencement. Photo by Chitose Suzuki.
Hardin Coleman, dean of the School of Education and a Boston School Committee member, credits Menino’s decision to create an appointed rather than an elected school committee with taking “politics out of the running of the schools.” He supported superintendents, leaned on the business community to support schools, and promoted the revamping of the school assignment lottery, Coleman says. As a result, Boston has “become the highest performing school district in the country, and African American boys in Boston have the highest level of performance in the country.”
Critics claimed that Menino caved too much to an often reform-averse Boston Teachers Union, notably in a 2012 contract agreement that failed to add additional instruction time—which reformers call essential—to traditional public schools in Boston.
Menino was one of the first elected officials in the country to endorse gay marriage. “The political wise guys said I was taking a big chance: Boston is a heavily Catholic city,” he writes in his memoir. “So I conducted a focus group with Frankie, a neighbor who runs a garage.” Menino asked Frankie what he thought of gay marriage. Frankie’s reply: “If they want to be miserable, let ’em do it.” “I knew I was safe after that,” writes Menino, who had signaled his support for gay rights in his first term, boycotting Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade when it refused to let gay marchers in.
As he viewed the 2013 Gay Pride parade from his wheelchair on the sidelines, a gay woman approached him, teared up, and told him she’d moved to Boston years before after her parents disowned her. She thanked him for making her feel that her new city welcomed her. Menino would write in his memoir, “As I battle cancer, her words bring me contentment.” During his tenure as mayor, he lobbied for the passage of a bill extending health benefits to partners of gay city employees, and when his endorsement of gay adoption led to Boston’s cardinal boycotting a Catholic Charities dinner honoring him, Menino had his staff print up cards inscribed with the corporal works of mercy and placed on every plate. “Consider number seven,” he would later write. “By adopting kids who would otherwise grow up in foster homes, weren’t gay couples ‘harboring the harborless’?”
Menino had a long, friendly association with Boston University. He liked to tell the story of when he and his good friend the late US Senator Edward Kennedy (Hon.’70) (“I loved the guy,” Menino writes) were scheduled to speak at the opening of BU’s Photonics Center. “What’s photonics?” Kennedy asked him. “How would I know?” replied Menino. “You got the grant.”
Menino liked to describe himself as “mayor of all the people”—as he enumerates in his book, “that included Boston’s newest residents, the immigrants from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America who, with so much else, have changed the tastes of a city where London broil was once considered an exotic import.” All the people included Boston’s women, of course: Menino appointed Boston’s first woman police commissioner, its first woman mayoral campaign manager, and its first woman mayoral chief of staff.
Survivors include his wife and trusted advisor, Angela, their two children, Susan and Thomas, Jr., and six grandchildren.
Mayor Menino will lie in state at Faneuil Hall on Sunday, November 2, beginning at 10 a.m. The event is open to the public.