April 19, 2018: Bill Skelley–All about community

April 19, 2018 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

In a way, this is a story about neighborhoods. It’s a story about how neighborhoods have a certain rhythm to them.  It’s a story of how residents of a neighborhood grow. How they change. How the residents can interact with each other and create something vibrant and fulfilling.  It’s a story about community. It’s a story about Bill Skelley.  Skelley, who passed away this month and who will be sorely missed by those who knew him, was all about community.

Bill Skelley lived on Warwick Road until his death.  Oh no, not that (!) Bill Skelley.  Did I forget to mention it?  The story begins before Bill Skelley the Selectman.  This was Big Bill, the one who was a firefighter in Cambridge.  Bill, along with his wife Edna, raised their children, including Belmont’s future selectman, on this small one-block long street off Common Street.  Bill and Edna began their tenure on Warwick Road as the young parents on the block.  Bill and Edna, however, remained in their home for decades.  Over time, they became the oldsters and other young families moved in around them.

As Bill and Edna aged, they became less and less able to do some of the necessary chores around their home. Living in New England, one of those chores, of course, was clearing the snow that seemed always to drift along the driveway running up the hill to the back of their home.  Particularly in those days, before the time of snowblowers and contractors who cleared driveways with a pick-up and a blade, clearing snow proved a challenge to the seniors of Warwick Road.

My neighbor, Mike Smith, and I took it upon ourselves to visit the Skelley home after each snowfall to clear their driveway.  We, and our wives, had become the youngsters on the block, displacing Bill and Edna from that status.  And, quite frankly, being younger, we had stronger backs and more ability to clear the Skelley driveway than Big Bill did.   It wasn’t an obligation. It was simply something neighbors did for neighbors.

That’s where “Little Bill” comes in. By now, Little Bill had completed his star sports career at Belmont High.  He had married and had his own kids.  He sharpened his own sense of community as he coached youth sports.  He pursued that sense of community through participation on a variety of town committees, ultimately being elected to Belmont’s Board of Selectmen.  He still regularly visited his parents, however, in their little white house with the long driveway on Warwick Road.  And he noticed that his parents’ driveway always seemed to be clear after snow storms.

After he was elected to the Board of Selectmen, Little Bill visited Mike and I one night after visiting his parents across the street.  He thanked us for helping his mom and dad.  However, he did more than that.  He talked about the needs of the larger community, of the town as a whole.  He talked about the need for the town to have participation in community affairs by residents young and old. And he talked about how shoveling the driveway of an aging couple wasn’t all that different in principle from serving on a town committee addressing town needs.  He asked Mike and I to think about what committees we might have an interest in.

Mike was appointed to the Historic District Commission.  I was appointed to the Fair Housing Committee.  All because we shoveled the driveway of a neighbor in need.

There are new residents now on Warwick Road, those who have come since the Skelleys, both “big” and “little,” lived there.  The people who are the young families are different.  The people who were young have now grown older and look to others for help with more frequency.  The rhythm of the neighborhood continues.  The cycle of change never ends.  But we are lucky to have known Bill Skelley. What lives on, as embodied in the life of Bill Skelley, is the sense that we’re all in this together. We are more than a group of families who happen to live next to each other. We are a community.

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April 5, 2018 — Election Reflections

April 5, 2018–Belmont Citizen-Herald

I pulled a wadded up piece of newsprint out of my pocket earlier this week and threw it in the trash. I gave it no further thought.  Not because it was unimportant. Quite the contrary. It‘s a piece of paper that contributed to the very essence of living in Belmont. That wadded up paper ball had served it function, as similar sheets of paper have done time and again over the years.

In Belmont, we are lucky to have an organization whose very reason for being is defined as to “make democracy work.”  The Belmont League of Women Voters is a group of men and women of all ages and backgrounds who proclaim their common interest as being to  “encourage active and informed participation in government through education and advocacy.”

It is a local organization focusing on local Belmont needs.  The national League of Women Voters was founded in 1920.  In April 1936, however, one hundred Belmont women left the Cambridge League to found the local Belmont organization.  Since then, the League has sought to educate the community on topics ranging from the needs of senior citizens, to the annual town budget, to each year’s town election.

My paper ball flows from those efforts.  I cannot remember the last time I went into a voting booth without having torn out the Precinct 6 pages from the League’s annual “Voter Guide” and checked off the Town Meeting Members I intended to vote for.  In the Voter Guide, the League publishes the results of its survey not only of candidates for townwide office, but of all Town Meeting candidates as well.  The “survey” asks simply that each candidate respond to a request to “discuss an issue or two which you consider important to the future of the town, presenting your ideas for managing them effectively.”  The responses are published verbatim and mailed to each household in Belmont.

Wow. Step back and consider for a moment the work that goes into that.  With eight precincts and twelve Town Meeting slots open in each precinct, sometimes with more candidates than slots available, someone with the Belmont League is identifying the candidates, mailing each candidate the survey, compiling the responses, formatting those responses, and arranging the printing and mailing so that the responses can be delivered to every household in Belmont.  That’s not just a “few hours” of work. And they have been providing that service for years.  The League published its first Voter Guide in 1986 and has been doing it since.

It’s not just the Voter Guide, of course.  The Belmont League also sponsors the annual Candidate’s Night, where every candidate is invited to attend and be available to any community member who might wish to come advocate a position or ask a question.  Speaking of direct one-on-one democracy!

This year’s League efforts went off without a hitch. The Voter Guide was printed and delivered. Candidate’s Night was held.  And, therein lies my concern. Why is smooth sailing a problem?  My fear is that when things run so well, for so long, they become, in a way, invisible to the public.  And when things become invisible, the people who make it all happen, and the effort involved, become unnoticed. The services are “expected” rather than “appreciated.”  For example, though I use the League’s Voter Guide every year, I can’t remember even once having said to a member of Belmont’s League of Women Voters “thank you. That Guide you mail to me? It helps.”

So, let me rectify that wrong.  That publication you mail to me plays an essential role in one of the most important tasks I do each spring: deciding who to vote for in Town elections. To the leaders who steer the League; to the workers who prepare the Guide; to the supporters who help pay for it; thank you.  Please rest assured that Belmont is better off for your efforts.

November 16, 2017: The “gift of presence” for hospice veterans

Belmont Citizen-Herald — November 16, 2017

It was cold that day. The day before Christmas in the Midwest usually is. The black hearse wound its way down the narrow lane to the grave site. A veteran was gone, to be buried with full military honors in a national cemetery in rural Iowa.

The bugler raised his instrument. Taps echoed through the trees and rolled over row upon row of headstones. The 15-member military Honor Guard from Fort Leavenworth (Kansas) fired its 21-gun salute. The head of the Honor Guard solemnly took the flag, having been removed from the casket and properly folded. He delivered it to. . .

No-one.  Nobody was there.  No family. No friend.  No neighbor or colleague or former roommate.

And the head of the Honor Guard that day, Belmont High graduate Bill McEvoy, realized right then and there that this was not the way the world should be.

The image from that lonely rural cemetery remained seared in McEvoy’s mind over the years. When he retired, McEvoy decided it was time for him to pull out that memory and finally act on it.  He began to volunteer at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Bedford (MA).  He quickly became involved with the No Veteran Dies Alone program.  He’s volunteered there ever since, more than eight years now.

The program is directed toward veterans in hospice care at Bedford’s VA hospital. (No Veteran Dies Alone is a national program through many VA hospitals.)  Some veterans are in the hospice care beds at the Bedford hospital.  Others are admitted for hospice care, but remain in the general population. The vast majority of veterans McEvoy has worked with are Vietnam veterans or older.

The No Veteran Dies Alone program, McEvoy says, has two components to it.  The first component involves “socialization visits.”  Through this part of the program, a volunteer sits with the veteran. Sometimes they talk; other times they listen to music.  As a volunteer, he may read poetry or do nothing at all other than to hold the person’s hand.  The point, he says, is simply to “be there. To get to know them.” What you provide, McEvoy says, is the “gift of presence.”

The second program component is directed toward veterans determined by the VA medical team to be “actively dying.”  Sometimes these veterans don’t have anyone. Sometimes, it has been a long process and the family simply needs the ability to take a break. Sometimes geographic distance makes a family’s presence impossible. McEvoy’s role through No Veteran Dies Alone, he says, is to “stand in the place for those who aren’t there.”

That’s not to say he’s present whenever someone passes.  He eventually learned, however, that “it is not so important to be there at the end of the journey, as it is important to walk with them along the way.”

“Be sure to emphasize,” McEvoy urged me when we sat down together, “that the story is not about me. It is only about the veterans.” In fact, he says, there are no limits on who can be a No Veteran Dies Alone volunteer.  “Every volunteer has their own reasons for being there. Anyone can do it. All you need is a good heart, a capacity for understanding, and the ability to be a good listener.”

One need not stand in a cold Iowa cemetery on the day before Christmas to appreciate the importance of the No Veteran Dies Alone program.  Persons who might want to volunteer for No Veteran Dies Alone should call Laurel Holland, 781-687-3074.  Persons who know a veteran they would like to receive hospice care through the VA hospital should call Karen Budnick, 781-983-9170.

August 2, 2017: Purple Heart Day–Remembering the fallen

August 2, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

On Monday, August 7, Belmont will observe Purple Heart Day.  The day commemorates those men and women who have received the Purple Heart in service to our country.

First created in 1782 by General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, the award was then known as the Badge of Military Merit.  The Badge fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War until being resurrected in World War I.  According to one history of the medal, the Purple Heart is awarded to any member of the Armed Forces who, while serving after April 5, 1917, has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded.  (The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917.)  Since then, while the Pentagon does not track the exact number, current estimates are that roughly 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded. The categories of Purple Heart recipients have been expanded in recent years.

Purple Heart Day is not a “holiday.” Neither government offices nor businesses are closed.  No parades are held.  No fireworks are set off. It is a day of introspection, a day to say “thank you” to all those who have served through the military. Residents would be well-served by grabbing the kids and attending the Purple Heart Day morning ceremony at the Belmont Public Library.

I do have one “worry” about Purple Heart Day.  It is the same concern I have with donating to local food drives only at Thanksgiving; or embracing diversity only on Martin Luther King Day.  Appreciation of, and respect for, our veterans should not be something that is taken out and dusted off for a Purple Heart Day ceremony, only then to be returned to the back shelves of our minds to await next year’s ceremonies.

(That’s not to say that such appreciation implies an unqualified buy-in to all military policies. What our men and women serve to protect is the right to think as we wish.  That includes the right to dissent.)

Devoting a special day to acknowledge those sacrifices not only of the men and women who have fallen in service, but those also of the families of the men and women who have fallen, is the right thing to do.  Consider just one type of sacrifice: experiencing a disability.  The numbers are staggering. Of the nearly 1,000 veterans living in Belmont, nearly one-quarter now have at least one disability. (That disability rate is more than three times higher than the disability rate in Belmont’s total adult population). Part of that, of course, is because many of our veterans are aging.  Nearly 40% of Belmont’s veterans are age 75 or older, while more than two-thirds are age 65 or older. This, however, may be a situation where the numbers may get in the way of the story.  The “story” is one of service, and of sacrifice, men and women, generation upon generation.

For those who perhaps want to do more than simply attend a ceremony on Purple Heart Day, learning about Belmont’s Veterans Memorial Committee (www.BelmontVets.com) is worth your time.  That Committee is “dedicated to establishing and preserving Belmont’s memorials to its veterans and those who died in service.” For example, the Veteran’s Committee was the driving force behind restoration of the monument to those who served in WWI.  It is also spearheading the effort to renovate and expand the memorial at Clay Pit Pond acknowledging Belmont residents who have served in all conflicts since the Civil War.

Let us never forget to appreciate those who have fallen in service.  But, let us also not “remember to remember” only on those days that are specially set aside for doing so.

June 29, 2017: So much more than a book

June 29, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

When I was growing up, the “book mobile” visited our neighborhood each week.  Every Tuesday night, an over-sized bus lined floor-to-ceiling with books would park in the lot of our local ice cream parlor. It opened its doors and the neighborhood kids streamed in.  The librarian/driver not only knew each and every child, but also knew what they liked to read.  Stacks of books came and went.  Our family’s weekly outing to the book mobile was as much a part of the rhythm of life as attending Sunday morning church service was.

Not all children have that same access to books.  Belmont resident Kylia Garver is trying to help fix that for one small Boston school.  Having opened in 2014, the P.A. Shaw School serves predominantly low-income families, with 100% of the student population qualifying for the free school lunch program.  A high proportion of the student population has learning disabilities.  A high percentage of the kids are homeless.  Access to books is not a way of life for these kids.

With its expansion to fourth grade this coming fall, P.A. Shaw prepared to handle its students with a part-time librarian.  The problem was. . .the school library had zero books.  Garver describes the school as having a “huge library with lots of empty shelves.”  A school the size of P.A. Shaw, she says, should have at least 7,000 books.

She vowed to help.  You see, Garver also grew up in a reading family.  Her mother, Janet, was a teacher and a literacy specialist.  She was known in her community as the “book woman,” often going to local schools to read to the kids. Garver learned early that reading books helped kids engage their interests.  Whether it was sports, or science or history, reading helped children pursue those interests.  It also worked the other way. Kids not otherwise particularly interested in reading might pick up a book about baseball or a biography about Helen Keller.

Garver has been beating the bushes in Belmont to gain donations of books for P.A. Shaw. “Anything you might find in a library,” she says.  “Picture books, easy reading, science, biography, chapter books.”  She talks about how Belmont families may have aged past certain book “stages.”  Those unused books need not become clutter in your home, she says.  “P.A. Shaw can sure put those to good use.”

Garver tells friends and neighbors (and anyone else who will listen) that cleaning out and donating no-longer-used books is one small way to help the P.A. Shaw School. And Belmont has responded.  As of last week, Garver says, she had collected more than 2,300 books from Belmont residents, which she is organizing and preparing to take to P.A. Shaw. If you want to pass on some old family favorites, you should contact Garver by e-mail at kyliab@gmail.com.  She will arrange with you either to pick up, or to have you drop off, the books you wish to give.

Belmont residents should understand, Garver says, that what you might give is “so much more than a book.”  When the P.A. Shaw librarian shares new books with the school’s students, she explains to the kids that “people gave these books because they care about you. They want to help you learn, to grow.”  What the kids take away, she notes, is the knowledge, perhaps newly found, that the kids have worth and that they should believe in themselves just as others believe in them.

Kylia Garver.  Belmont’s own book woman.  The efforts spearheaded by Garver should not be simply a project of Belmont’s young parents. Garver’s efforts deserve the support and participation of the entire Belmont community.

June 8, 2017: Words matter–use them wisely

June 8, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald

Congratulations Belmont High Class of 2017.  As you cross the stage to accept your diploma, family, friends and community members all look on with justifiable pride.  You represent not only our today, but offer us our tomorrow.  And while it looks like our tomorrow is in pretty good hands, we need some help from you.

Today’s world poses some problems that I’d ask you to help us all work on as you move forward.  One of the biggest problems is that we frequently seem to forget today that words matter.  The old childhood rhyme is just plain wrong when it asserts that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Now I concede, as a person with training in both law and journalism, I pay particular attention to words. I won an Iowa supreme court case once because the state legislature used the word “that” where it should have instead used the word “this.” Nonetheless, for everyone, words do matter.

Some words get over-used today.  For example, I fear we may have become too casual with the word “hate.”   I, personally, often proclaim that I “hate” the Yankees, the Jets and the Jayhawks.  Hate, however, is a strong word, capturing a strong emotion.  We cheapen its meaning by making its use too casual. When we become desensitized to the word’s true meaning, it becomes too easy to overlook expressions of disapproval (or even simple discomfort) through proclaimed “hate” in language, or through practiced “hate” in behavior.  Be wary if you find the word “hate” popping up in your vocabulary too frequently.

The word “them” gets over-used as well.  “Them” (as in “not us”) connotes a focus on that which makes someone different.  One problem with its use today is that the word too frequently focuses exclusively on a single attribute of a person (or group of people).  A presentation last year here in Belmont, for example, concerned “Muslims in America.”  One speaker eloquently questioned how a person might become a “them” based solely on differences in religion, even though the commonalities arising from being a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a neighbor might be far more substantial. Finding yourself with lots of “thems” in your life may merit some reflection on whether you are allowing yourself to experience the entirety of individuals you meet.

When I was in college, comedian George Carlin had a popular routine about “seven words you can never say on TV.” Carlin used humor to make the point that words are just words; they are harmless unto themselves. But words are rarely “just words.”  And they almost never stand unto themselves. Words almost always carry a context: expectations, judgments, emotions, history. Their use conveys that context. Please, be aware of the full context you are conveying in the words you use.

The world seems recently to have become a less civil society. Your conscientious use of words in the future can help reverse that trend. To do so, whether you move from high school to college, or to some other life pursuit, you should strive to be constantly self-aware of your day-to-day, person-to-person impact on the world.  One of those impacts is through your awareness that no matter the setting –work or play, on-line or in-person, public or private– what you say, and how you say it, makes a difference.

In short, as you move on after graduation, I ask that you consciously strive to use words wisely.  Words matter.

Class of 2017, as an entire community, we smile and feel a rush of pride upon your graduation.  Congratulations on your accomplishments. Godspeed on your life journey.

May 11, 2017–Belmont’s Chess Legacy: A win in 19 moves

May 11, 2017: Belmont Citizen-Herald

What do the Dan Scharfman Run, the municipal flag pole in Waverley Square, and the Reischauer Memorial House all have in common?  They each seek to preserve part of the human heritage that has found its home in Belmont over our community’s storied history. Scharfman was known informally as the “Mayor of Belmont” for his multiple civic leadership roles.  The Waverley Square flag has a small plaque commemorating the service of James (“Jimmy“) Castanino, long-time director of Belmont’s Highway Department.  The Reischauer House preserves the memory and work of Belmont resident Edwin Reischauer, former ambassador to Japan and noted East Asia scholar.

These three memorial efforts came to mind last week as Town Meeting voted to make substantial improvements to various Belmont open space and recreation areas.  New facilities are being planned and installed. New spaces are being created.  Whether at the Grove Street Park or around Clay Pit Pond, it would not only be “nice,” but it would seem also to be appropriate for town officials to take this opportunity to give a tangible, public, nod of acknowledgement to Belmont’s chess heritage.  More specifically, ongoing and future plans might reasonably easily incorporate a public “outdoor chess table” with a small plaque dedicated to Belmont resident Harold Dondis.

Dondis, of course, made local history back in March 1964 when he required just 19 moves to defeat future world chess champion Bobby Fischer in a tournament at the Wachusett Chess Club (Fitchburg).  Granted, Fischer, who was only 20 years old at the time, was participating in what is called by chess devotees a “simul exhibition match” (playing against multiple opponents at the same time). He was playing against 56 separate people at once, one of whom was Belmont’s Dondis.  If anyone could do that, however, it would be Bobby Fischer, considered by many to be the greatest to ever play the game.

The legacy of Dondis, however, extends well beyond his defeat of the future world chess champion.  Dondis was author of the Boston Globe’s chess column for nearly 50 years.  When the Globe once decided, as a cost-cutting measure, to cancel his column, the paper received so many protests that not only was the column reinstated, but the newspaper increased its publication from once to twice a week.

If Dondis were alive today, he would likely say that a public place devoted to allowing people to play chess need not be large enough to accommodate any type of crowd.  While Dondis was quoted in 2004 as saying that interest in chess was “exploding,” he nonetheless still did not view it as a spectator sport.  It’s a personal game, he believed, an intensely personal game focused on problem-solving.

A lot of conversation occurred on Town Meeting floor last week about “preservation.” The new sign by-law was offered to help preserve the character of the town. The Demolition Delay By-law was offered as a way to preserve architecturally and historically significant homes. The Pay as You Throw resolution was offered to preserve the environment.  Our human heritage merits preservation as well.

People tend to remember that Belmont once was the heart of orchards and greenhouse gardens. But, in addition to that historical role, for many years, in its own way, Belmont, in the person of Harold Dondis, was also the heart and soul of the Massachusetts chess world.  A public outdoor chess table and small plaque acknowledging his role in one of the Town’s ongoing projects would be appropriate. Dondis has been gone since December 2015.  Without some small action to memorialize his work, the memory of his contributions may soon be gone as well. That would be a shame.