The day after Boston’s first Italian-American mayor, Thomas M. Menino, passed away, the Boston Herald ran a full-page photo with the headline: “I know this city. I love this city.” The outpouring of love that Boston showed for Menino in the days after his death on Oct. 30 was equal to the love and devotion that the former mayor had for all of Boston.
Born and raised in the Readville area of Hyde Park, Menino grew up with strong values passed down from his parents, both of whom were children of Italian immigrants. His mother, Susan, was his strongest influence, he once told author Stephen Puleo for the book “Boston Italians.” A fluent Italian speaker, she would help Italian immigrant families fill out forms, get children into school and translate documents, while Menino’s father, Carl, worked at the nearby Westinghouse factory, where they built large ventilation fans for underground tunnels.
Menino’s Italian heritage was extremely important to him, but he always made sure to be the mayor of all of Boston. “I’m mayor of a city with a wide diversity of ethnic and racial groups,” he told Stephen Puleo. “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.”
He had his first taste of politics at age 13, when his father asked him to distribute cards for a friend running for state representative. “I was bitten by the bug,” he told WGBH television in a 1983 interview.
The video (above) is a fascinating snapshot of Menino’s first successful campaign for district city councilor in 1983, where he won by an overwhelming majority against his primary rival, Richard Kenney. In it, Menino is shown knocking on doors, meeting with voters and paying attention to all the little details — a trait that would eventually earn him the nickname “Mayor Mechanic.” The video also shows his wife, Angela, always by his side, supporting him and making sure to get the word out about the election.
A graduate of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Jamaica Plain, Menino opted not to pursue a college degree, going to work instead for an insurance agency. But politics and helping the people around him was his true calling, and he soon started working for various local and national campaigns.
In 1983, after a redistricting effort increased the number of city councilors to 13, Menino successfully ran his first personal campaign. The idea, initially, was to stay in office for a maximum of 10 years and then leave politics, according to Stephen Puleo’s “Boston Italians.” But in 1993, then-Mayor Ray Flynn was appointed ambassador to the Vatican, and Menino — who was city council president — stepped in as acting mayor.
“The evening I became acting mayor,” Menino wrote in his memoir, “Mayor for a New America,” “neighbors celebrated with a cookout, and Angela and I danced to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ playing on a loudspeaker set out on a front porch.” A few months later, he was elected mayor by a landslide.
Menino went on to win four more elections, becoming the longest-serving mayor of the city of Boston. His successor, Martin J. Walsh, paid tribute to Menino on Oct. 30, right in front of City Hall: “With sheer determination and unmatched work ethic, he put us on the world stage as a national leader in health care, education, innovation and the nitty-gritty of executing basic city services.”
Nowadays, Menino’s legacy can be seen and felt all over the city of Boston. From the booming Innovation District to safer neighborhoods, Menino’s attention to detail made it clear that he was always vigilant, and determined to solve any problem, no matter how small. “I want to help people, help one individual a day,” he said shortly after winning the 1993 election. “Just to make their life a little bit better.”
During his long tenure as mayor, Menino would often call in to report a pothole or a missing light while on his way to the office. “I didn’t learn anything sitting in this room,” he told the Boston Globe from his office in July 2013, when health issues forced him to slow his blistering pace. “I’d rather be out there, talking to the people. This job, my legacy, is about the people.” In an interview with the New York Times, Menino recalled going “to three or four coffee shops in the morning, just to find out what people are thinking. And I don’t drink coffee. I drink cranberry juice. But coffee shops are the best barometer of public opinion — not these poll numbers and that stuff.”
Wanting to be with and among people was certainly a byproduct of his Italian upbringing. In “Mayor for a New America,” written with Jack Beatty, Menino recalled growing up in a two-story house in Hyde Park’s “The Island” — the Italian enclave in a mostly Irish neighborhood.
Born Dec. 27, 1942, the oldest of three, Menino and his siblings lived with their parents on the first floor, while his paternal grandparents lived upstairs. At one point, his grandfather Thomas, who moved from the little town of Grottaminarda, Avellino, to Boston, bought a nearby six-decker for family members still in Italy. “Each group stayed a few years, working seven days a week and eating a diet of pasta to scrape together a down payment for a house,” he recalled in his memoir. “Then they moved out and a new group moved in.”
Immigrants’ struggles were well known to Menino, who paid them a special tribute in his 1994 inaugural address: “I am your mayor. If you have arrived in Boston, like my grandmother, speaking no English, I will make sure you get the help you need to learn the language.” He then promised to institute a full range of English-as-a-second-language programs throughout the city, and also established the Office of New Bostonians to help newcomers feel at home.
Like the best mayors, Menino never felt the urge to use City Hall as a launching pad for a bigger political career. Until the very last day in office, it was always a matter of love. “I am here with the people I love, to tell the city I love, that I will leave the job that I love,” an emotional Menino said during his 2013 announcement not to run for office for a sixth term. He has now left the city he loves, but the city will always love him for being its mayor.
Video interview (in Italian) by Stefano Salimbeni, for RAI Italia: