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Remembering Mayor Menino: Boston’s First Italian American Mayor

By Stephen Puleo

Boston’s first Italian American mayor, Thomas M. Menino, addresses a crowd at Faneuil Hall. (Courtesy of Pam Donnaruma and the Post-Gazette)
Boston’s first Italian American mayor, Thomas M. Menino, addresses a crowd at Faneuil Hall.
(Courtesy of Pam Donnaruma and the Post-Gazette)

It was with great sadness that we received the news today of Mayor Tom Menino’s passing. An enormously popular public servant, Menino was not only Boston’s first Italian American mayor but would become its longest-serving mayor in history. To remember him, we’d like to present the following passage from The Boston Italians, Stephen Puleo’s tribute to the vibrant Italian American citizens of Boston who, like Menino, transformed the city around them. First published in 2007, some of Puleo’s facts might seem dated, even poignant in hindsight, but we think it captures the spirit of Mayor Menino, a man who ushered Boston from the troubles of the last century and into the promise of the new millenium.

An enormous mural in Mayor Tom Menino’s outer office virtually covers one wall and beckons visitors to study its details. Painted by Menino’s cousin, the scene depicts the mayor’s grandfather sitting in his Italian village, awaiting passage to America. Across a wide body of water that dominates the painting is the skyline of an American city, its shores a two-week voyage away in real life but just a few inches away on the canvas. The mayor describes the painting with pride; it is, he says, the beginning of the Menino story in the United States. Without Thomas Menino’s monumental decision to leave Grottaminarda, Avellino, and travel to a strange country, his grandson would never have had an opportunity to make his own special history in Boston. Thomas Menino settled in Boston’s Hyde Park section, at the far western corner of the city, a neighborhood his grandson still cherishes and lives in today, and from which he built the political base that has enabled him to lead the city for more than a dozen years.

When we met on a summer Friday at Boston City Hall, the then sixty-three-year-old Tom Menino was dressed in an open-collared, short-sleeved blue shirt and khaki slacks, and looked tan and fit. For nearly two hours he was articulate, expansive, and relaxed, qualities not often evident in the mayor’s public persona. There were none of the uncomfortable grimaces that frequently accompany his interactions with media members, none of the guarded hesitancy to share his personal life, none of the syntax struggles that punctuate his public speaking. Perhaps it was the familiar nature of the subject matter and the mayor’s comfort with it, or the fact that elected officials, in the rush of daily media pressures and the desire to avoid verbal missteps, are not often afforded the opportunity to step back and reflect on their own families and backgrounds. Whatever the reasons, Menino’s language brimmed with confidence and color as he described the depth of his pride in his Italian heritage and the manner in which it has shaped his life and his politics. “Every day, it affects me,” he said. “My Italian heritage taught me the importance of family, the importance of hard work, the obligation we have to help others, the strength to never give up. Every single one of those lessons affects the way I go about my job.”

Still, the mayor acknowledged that he is reserved about proclaiming his Italian heritage on the public stage. Why is this? In March of 2003 (before DiMasi was chosen as Speaker), political columnist and commentator Jon Keller wrote a piece for Boston magazine noting that “Italians are now as much in charge of this town as the Irish. Why are they so shy about it?” (In light of the discussion in the previous chapter, it is worthwhile to note that Boston entitled Keller’s piece “The Godfathers.”) Keller ran through a list of noted Boston Italian American luminaries in business, media, and public service, yet pointed out that Italians themselves had understated their political achievements. “Even successful Italian-Americans often find themselves deferring to the omnipresent Irish culture,” Keller wrote. “It’s sometimes said of Menino, a proud Italian-American who vacations in Ireland and leans on a predominately Irish-American inner circle, that he ‘thinks he’s Irish.’ ” Keller then suggested that “Tony Soprano may have something to do with it [Italians’ reticence to celebrate their heritage too publicly].” “Don’t laugh,” Keller said to readers, and then he quoted Rina Crugnale, regional vice president of the Italian American cultural and education organization Fieri: “As soon as you put the word ‘Italian’ out there, you’re immediately stereotyped as a Mafia person.” Boston city councilor Paul Scapicchio, of the North End, echoed Crugnale’s position in Keller’s article: “I am very guarded about whom I associate with and who I’m seen with in public. In one fell swoop someone can totally cast your career in a negative light.”

Menino, though, discounts Keller’s “shyness” label and the “goombah assumption” put forth by Crugnale and Scapicchio, insisting that his reluctance to inject his “Italian-ness” into his public life is simply an instance of the political practicality he has had to exercise since he first ran for office. “When I was a city councilor representing Hyde Park-Roslindale-Jamaica Plain, I represented a district that was 50 percent Irish, 20 percent Italian, 10 percent black, and a variety of other ethnic groups,” he said, rattling off the section’s demographic breakdown with the encyclopedic knowledge of all good Boston politicians. “Now I’m mayor of a city with a wide diversity of ethnic and racial groups. So, yes, I’m extremely proud of being Italian, but I don’t make it a big part of my politics because I represent people of so many different backgrounds. I feel I have to speak for them, too.” Menino said he never “dodged” his Italian background, but his “quiet pride” stems from the values he grew up with that emphasized “humility and hard work, not boastfulness.”

Was Menino so immersed in becoming mayor of “all the people” that he was unaware during the 1993 campaign that, if elected, he would become the first Italian American mayor in Boston history? “Oh, no,” he said, and winked. “I knew it all the time. I was very proud of it and my family was, too. I just never broadcast it.” Menino acknowledged that he has “known anti-Italian prejudice” but never on any sort of widespread basis, and never in a way that has made him feel different from anyone else. “In the old days, it was more prevalent,” he said. “I had people tell me when I ran for mayor, ‘an Italian will never be elected mayor of this city.’ Things are different today. It [prejudice] still exists, but not nearly the way it was. Everyone has experienced it in some manner, and that’s a shame,” he said. “But we don’t live in a perfect society.”

Menino took an unlikely route to the mayor’s office, an acknowledged “shy kid” who became hooked on politics at age thirteen while distributing campaign flyers for a Hyde Park candidate. When Boston redistricted and went to a thirteen-member city council (nine district councilors and four at large) in 1983, Menino ran for the district seat from Hyde Park, despite skepticism from his father. “My dad said, ‘You have two kids and a wife. What happens if you lose?’ I told him: ‘Dad, don’t worry. I’m not going to lose.’ ” Menino won easily and was reelected four more times to the city council, eventually becoming president of the body. Initially, his plan was to serve for ten years and then leave politics. But while he was city council president, at the nine-and-a-half-year mark of his council career, then mayor Ray Flynn was appointed ambassador to the Vatican, and Menino became acting mayor. He won in his own right in the 1993 city election and, assuming he serves out his entire current term, will become the longest-serving mayor in Boston history when it concludes in 2009. “I’m proud of that,” he said. “I never had the ambition to become mayor and I didn’t think I’d ever be in politics because I’m not handsome and I’m not articulate. I’ve always had confidence, though, and I’ve always had a desire to help people.”

Menino believes his Italian heritage, his family-oriented background, and the closeness of the Italian enclave in which he grew up have made him a better mayor by enabling him to understand the importance of bridging the gap between Boston’s neighborhoods and the downtown business community. “You have to balance interests for the benefit of the entire city,” he said. “Any city that is going to be great has to have strong neighborhoods, so you have to emphasize them, make them viable, strong, make sure people want to live there. I think I have great credibility in the neighborhoods because of who I am and where I came from. But you also have to have jobs in a city. You need to work with the business community to create them, and work on the issues they’re concerned about. Without jobs, you have neglect and abandonment of downtown areas and you have a phantom city. So you have to focus on both [neighborhoods and downtown] to make a great city. That’s what I’ve tried to do in my administration.”

Menino said the influence of his working-class Italian parents helps him better understand the struggles faced by Boston residents, including new immigrants, every day. He remembers the role his mother—who was born in America but spoke fluent Italian—played in his Hyde Park neighborhood, helping Italian immigrants fill out job applications, get their children into schools, or translate the bills they received in the mail. “She always taught me to work hard and do whatever you could to ease the struggles of others,” he said. “She was probably my strongest influence.” Menino’s father, who worked at Westinghouse in Hyde Park, instilled in him a “set of high standards and a respect for others, no matter where they fell on the pecking order” that Menino said he tries to remember every day. “Little things, like he told me to always be on time, because if you’re late, that shows disrespect for other people’s time,” Menino recalled. The mayor’s greatest political hero is President Harry Truman. “Tell the truth, be a plain talker, get the job done, and don’t whine,” Menino said. “It’s why I like and respect Truman. I try to conduct myself the same way he did.”

Menino has battled and overcome cancer and other health issues but retains a palpable vigor for life and for his work as mayor. He cherishes his family, and his old friends are still his best friends. On Christmas Eve morning, he and “the guys from the old neighborhood” still go out at 5 a.m. and buy the shrimp, smelts, and baccala that will form the heart of the “seven fishes” feast that evening. He enjoys visits to North End restaurants with friends, including La Summa, his “favorite,” and frequents Parziale’s Bakery to buy his scala bread and chat with patrons. Hyde Park is his home, but there is a soft spot in his heart for the North End, where his uncle and other relatives lived many years ago, a neighborhood in which Menino has always felt welcomed and one he has supported personally and politically. (When he was a city councilor, Menino convinced his colleagues to pass a fifty-five-foot maximum height restriction in the North End so the neighborhood “wouldn’t become Manhattan-ized.”)

Now in his sixties, Menino said he reflects on his heritage frequently, and admires and appreciates deeply the accomplishments of his parents and grandparents. “You don’t even think about your heritage, or I didn’t, until you hit age thirty-five or forty, and then you say, ‘Wow, those people had it tough and look at what they did.’ That feeling grows as you get older.” The mayor continues to use those ancestral accomplishments as inspiration. “I’m never happy professionally,” he said. “You can’t be happy because then you’ll get too satisfied. I don’t want that. I want to continue to bring this city to new heights and provide more opportunity for her citizens. If you’re satisfied, then why are you here?

“When I’m finally satisfied, then I’ll leave,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d be bored. Like the old Italians, I try to challenge myself every day to make Boston a better place.”


Author photo courtesy Patricia DoyleStephen Puleo is the author of the Boston Globe best seller The Boston Italians and of the critically acclaimed Boston-area best seller Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. A former award-winning newspaper reporter and contributor to American History magazine, he holds a master’s degree in history and teaches at Suffolk University. He and his wife, Kate, live in the Boston area.