Lessons from a Long-Lived Mayor

My mayor died this week. The longest serving mayor in the history of Boston, he held office for twenty years. Until he declined last year to run for a sixth term, all of my children, even those in their early twenties, had known no other leader at the helm of their city.

The irony is that his retirement was so short-lived. Nine months. Rarely did someone deserve a rest as much as Thomas Menino, who routinely worked 18-hour days, often attending five functions in an evening. But it was denied him as he succumbed to a virulent cancer that took his life suddenly this week. Boston is mourning.

I am writing in my car at one of the highest points of the city, a wide open space for recreation that looks out over miles of treetops, level with the top of the tallest skyscrapers as they reflect the setting sun. My son is playing his last soccer game of the season in a space which a decade ago was a giant landfill that the mayor ordered capped and made open to the public for soccer and walking.

The mayor's life and influence is woven through the warp and woof of my whole experience of this city. Our family story treasure chest would be much diminished if he was excluded. Marty Walsh, Menino’s replacement, stated, “To all that knew him, it’s no surprise that more than half of Boston has met Mayor Menino. I can tell you about the last conversation I had with him. He was laying in the hospital bed and we were talking, and he said, ‘You’re going to be a great mayor as long as you take care of the people of Boston.’ His last concern was of the people of Boston.”

Out of around 645,000 residents, he had personally met over 300,000, most multiple times. We all felt that we knew him and the eulogies are flowing and the stories are being told all over the city this week.

Lessons Learned

However, he was the most unlikely candidate for such success. He was a humble man with a speech impairment that lent itself to incomprehensibility at times and extraordinary and frequent gaffes at others.

Unlikely

As a sketchbooker, you may feel as inarticulate in terms of lines as the mayor was with words. Yet, like him, if you care and you show up, you can make a difference. You can give it your all and it will matter. You may predict a short lived enthusiasm for keeping a sketchbook. But you never know. Twenty years from now you may be looking back on a pile of sketchbooks that no one predicted you'd complete.

Local

Something that moves me is the simplicity of his story. Menino never aspired to higher office. The position was not a stepping stone to greater greatness. It was all he ever wanted. Because of that he was fully engaged and focused on the task at hand. He was devoted to the city and gave it his every waking moment. And we knew it. 

Similarly, I have all I need right where I am. There is enough drawing material right here in my house to keep me occupied for a lifetime. My neighborhood is a world of colors, seasons, fauna, flora and people. My car has angles and views. The clouds of Suffolk occupied English artist John Constable for years as he pursued his never ending cloud studies.

Cloud Study, John Constable [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cloud Study, John Constable [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cloud Study, John Constable [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When you see someone sketch the exotic perhaps it is their local. People probably travel thousands of miles to see what you have access to daily. Record what You see.

Afflicted

The Mayor was afflicted with cancer three times, broken bones, mystery ailments. An allergic reaction to peanuts at a Red Sox game once famously landed him in hospital for a few days. He was always rather ungainly, yet advocating health and exercise.

When the bombs blew up at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, the mayor was a few blocks away at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recovering from surgery on his leg. He quickly discharged himself, procured a wheelchair and was back at the helm of the city in a moment. Four days after the bombing, his appearance at the memorial service for the victims entered the stuff of city legend. He insisted on dragging himself up to the podium and standing to deliver his message, standing as he did with everyone who ached and was traumatized or injured across the city. I was driving downtown listening avidly to the service on the radio, bleary-eyed with tears through the crazy winding city streets.

I heard someone say this week that a mayor is not called upon to be the scholar-in-chief but the one with the biggest heart, there to listen and respond to the needs of the city’s people. And that sums up Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

When we show up for life, despite what brings us down, we encourage and inspire. Everyone has an excuse. Everyone has a better day on which to start. Whatever that thing is that you've been meaning to do, today is a good day to show up.

Thank you

Thank you Mr. imperfect, afflicted, mumbling Mayor Menino, who showed up, served faithfully, encouraged many and did so without apparent ease. You have changed a city and many hearts miss you. 

(Boston Globe) Mayor Menino gives a speech at Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston days after the Marathon bombing. Pool video