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.


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 15, 2017: Growing a daughter at the ballpark

June 15, 2007–Belmont Citizen-Herald

Born into it. A Red Sox fan for life.  She never really had a choice. Our daughter, Allison, attended her first Red Sox game at the ripe old age of six months. For the next 18 years, until she left home to go to college in Iowa, Allison and I, dad and daughter, had a standing Friday night “date.” If the Red Sox were in town on a Friday, we headed to our seats at Fenway Park.

At first, it was simply an opportunity to give Mom a one night break from having a baby in the house. Over time, however, the trips grew into an entire set of personalized routines and rituals.  Home run celebrations. The Seventh Inning Stretch. Sweet Caroline. Dad and daughter. Game after game. Year after year. Even our friendship with the parking attendant. The attendant knew us; he looked for us. He noticed the first time Allison was the driver (rather than in the passenger seat) when we arrived one night.

It always felt like being a dad/daughter twosome at the ball park was noticed more than had we been a father/son duo.  And we played to that.  I wore my “Who” jersey (#1) to games while Allison wore her “What” jersey (#2). (Think “Who’s on First” for those familiar with Abbott and Costello comedy routines.)

Raising a daughter at the ballpark presented difficult decisions for a dad.  At what age was she old enough to go get ice cream on her own (about 7; older than she thought necessary). How long is she gone before you start worrying (about 30 seconds). When she was a toddler, decisions involved when to head home. By the time she was 8, however, she was deemed old enough to stay late to watch extra innings.  When Allison was 11, one playoff game moved past midnight as the extra innings piled up. At what point, I wondered, did giving her the chance to watch history become parental irresponsibility?  (We left at 1:00.)

Opening Day 2008. The Sox were to receive their championship rings for winning the World Series the previous fall. But it was a day game. Allison was 16 and in high school. The question inevitable. “Dad, can I skip school to go with you?” The game, however, ended up scheduled for 4:00, rendering the issue moot.  We were both disappointed.

Conflicts did arise. The deciding game of the 2013 World Series was to be at Fenway. On a Thursday night. Allison’s away at college. “Dad, can I fly home to see the last game of the World Series.” The answer was firm: “no, you cannot skip three days of college just to see a ballgame. There will always be another World Series.” She retorted, as only a baseball fan could, “did you learn nothing from 1918?”

Allison was back in Boston last summer for a few days and we went to Fenway Park together for the first time in two years. Dad and daughter. She, no longer a child, but an adult. I asked her whether it was still exciting to walk up the ramp and catch her first glimpse of the Green Monster.  “No,” she said, “it’s more like coming home, a place of comfort and refuge.”

Baseball. It’s not just a game. It’s not just about Nomar, Varitek and Papi. It’s not just about watching Ellsbury patrol Center Field, or watching Pedro strike out the side.

Dads, daughters and baseball. Traditions, memories and special bonds. A place of comfort and refuge. Gee, back at the age of six months, I thought we were just going to a ballgame.

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.

February 5, 2015: Story telling as local history

February 5, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

Several things happened this past week that were strangely related. The blizzard came through. The town released the list of projects for which it recommends Community Preservation Act (“CPA”) funding next year. And my friend Tim’s aged mother, a lifelong resident of Belmont, unexpectedly passed-away. The three events in such close proximity got me to thinking about the lost art of story-telling.

Rudyard Kipling once observed “if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Belmont loses part of its rich history every day.

The blizzard of 2015 made me wonder what folks did that day. On our street, neighbors came together to collectively clear the sidewalks, using more snowblowers than shovels. I wonder, however, who might have regaled us with stories not merely about the Blizzard of 1978, but about the Blizzard of 1958, or what came to be known as the Great White Hurricane of 1888?

Not just the adults, nor just public officials, of course. What kids found the biggest, fastest, sledding hill on that March day of 1958? And how did they get there (and with whom)? Who made the best storm-day corn chowder or baked the best storm-day bread?

The blizzard last week brought back to me how much I miss Jo and Connie Venuti, the sisters who ran the little market in Waverley Square (to whom I turned to stock up on pre-storm supplies). Jo and Connie would tell stories about Belmont that could hold my attention for hours.

But this year’s blizzard also created new stories. Standing in the middle of our street, I listened to Steven talk about how he (with his puppy Kelvin) took advantage of snow-clogged roads to tour a car-free, bike-free Belmont, a sight rarely seen today.

I wonder what stories Tim’s mom could have told (weather-related or not) about life in Belmont, not only when she was growing up, but as she watched her children (and then her grandchildren) grow up. Did she (and her childhood friends) swipe apples from Belmont’s prodigious orchards (as my brothers and I used to swipe the occasional strawberry in Iowa)?

“From the dawn of community,” says Barbara Ganley, founder and director of Community Expressions, “wisdom has lived in stories.” Ganley says stories reveal “the rhythms of a place.”

One allowable use of CPA funds involves historic preservation. This year, Town Meeting will be asked for funds to help restore the historic Homer House and to renovate the Wellington Station.

Belmont devotes considerable time to caring for its historic buildings. Belmont renovated both the Homer municipal building and Town Hall. The Benton Library, historically significant buildings at McLean Hospital, and the Waverley Square, Harvard Lawn and Belmont Center fire stations have all been preserved.

The contemporaneous experiences of a community, however, are also worth preserving. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Federal Writers Project (“FWP”) recorded thousands of life histories. The purpose of the FWP, an agency of the New Deal, was to document the ways in which ordinary people were coping with the Great Depression. More recent work, says the American Social History Project of George Mason University, has helped “realize oral history’s potential for restoring to the record the voices of the historiographically silent.”

Efforts might well be justified to preserve our community’s spoken memories. Whether located in our Municipal Library, at the Belmont Historical Society, Belmont High School, the Belmont Media Center, on YouTube, or elsewhere, whether and how to create an ongoing oral history project to capture and preserve the lives of ordinary Belmont residents, young and old, merits a public conversation.