Codfish's blog

In Appreciation Of Bob Mumford: Lessons In Speaking From The Heart

A journey one takes from the cradle to the grave

This blog post first appeared in Psychology Today.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “Life is no brief candle… It is a sort of splendid torch, which I’ve got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”

Bob Mumford burns bright today, a remarkable torch to family and friends, as the winds of life seek to douse his spark. I met Bob more than 30 years when we were young bucks on Cape Cod; I was a cub reporter, and Bob was a brilliant transportation expert on this fragile spit of land whose population in summer swells to the size of Boston. There’s only one way on and one way off this peninsula—a dead end, the shape of a blacksmith’s fist and forearm. It is a “wild and rank place,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the 1800s; “A man may stand there put all of America behind him.” The land here narrows to a seagull swoop; so one has to know their stuff to expound on traffic.

Bob still knows his stuff. Age has blessed him with great sagacity; he’s now putting all of America—life as he once knew it—behind him.

Weeks ago, walking on the lip of spring into the eclectic Chocolate Sparrow café on the Outer Cape in Orleans on a tempest of a March day, Bob at a distance looks the picture ofhealth. A handsome man in the fifth decade, his smile is engaging, his handshake strong, his body language poised.

Yet there is something different about him, He is wearing a tight blue ski cap, covering what appears to be tiny white suction cups attached to the head; he’s carrying a canvas satchel, the size of a small toaster, with a battery pack and chords that snake beneath the ski cap.

“Every day’s a blessing,” Bob declares, knowing I’m unaware of his denouement.

“How are you doing?” he asks openly regarding my diagnosis of Early Onset Alzheimer’s, a disease that stole my maternal grandfather, my mother, my paternal uncle and now is coming for me. 

“Every day’s a blessing,” I respond in kind.

I’m stunned as Bob takes off the cap. I fumble for a response, and can only find the words to say, “My God!” 

Bob’s head is shaved; it’s covered with electrodes that on cue, he explains, zaps what is left of a rare, terminal brain tumor. The process is called Novocure; it produces an electric field that disrupts and destroys the cancer cells as they are dividing.

A section of Bob’s tumor, as much as possible, was removed last summer at Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston, along with about 75 percent of his cranium, the part of the skull that encloses the brain. Called the “braincase,” the cranium, research tells me later, protects the brain and head, and supports facial structures such as the eyes and ears, holding them in place to collect sensory information most efficiently.

Hard to imagine losing a “braincase,” somewhat like an egg rolling off a table.

After the operation when Bob was handed his battery pack lifeline, he asked doctors how long he had to cart it around.

“From six months to forever,” he was told.

“How long is forever?” Bob asked.

It’s a question many of us ponder today.

The human brain is a fragile organ that inaugurates connectivity the first week in utero. It contains 100 billion neurons—16 billion times the number of people on Earth—with each neuron igniting more than 10,000 synaptic connections to other neurons, totaling more than a trillion connections that store memories. If your brain functioned like an old digital video recorder, it could hold more than three million hours of TV shows, enough video storage for 300 years. Not bad for a mass the size of an average head of cabbage, with the encoding, storage, and retrieval capacity to determine, on a good day, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Yet Bob, a champion of a man, is sanguine about his state of mind and dreadful memory loss, a mindset we both share today. It is dispiriting to lose a thought in a second, 86,400 seconds in a day, not knowing when the next lapse will occur; to stand exposed, and yet stand one’s ground, to begin to grasp in fundamental, naked terms, who one really is—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The ugly is haunting; the many things one would like to take back over the years, but cannot—feelings of failure and transgression.

As Baby Boomers, Bob and I are coming of age. Over coffee at a corner table, we reflect on the past. We always thought, until now, that better days lay ahead. That’s the way it is with unconquerable Boomers—sons and daughters of the Greatest Generation whose grandparents endured World War I, and whose parents then survived the Great Depression and World War II, perhaps the last world conflagration until Armageddon. These boomers, a record 76 million of us born between 1946 and 1964, first played by the rules, broke the rules, then made new rules.

Many of us grew up in the ‘50s, formative years when Einstein was still thinking, Hemingway was still writing, and Sinatra was still crooning. Our lives reflected history: the long, fading shadow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the dropping of hellish atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean War, the election of presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and all his heavy baggage; the apocalyptic Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, the birth of free love, and the death of innocence. It was a revolutionary time that spanned perhaps more cultural shifts than any other generation with writers, artists, and musicians and who still define this country’s political, secular, and artistic persona.

Now Bob and I must work to redefine ourselves, as the shadows of life creep in like a fog rolling toward the shoreline. Death by a thousand cuts? We don’t see it that way.

“Unfortunately, life is a fatal disease,” Bob opines.

I nod my head. “It is what it is,” I say.

Still we haven’t lost humor; Bob laughs at the Bugs Bunny riposte, “Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive!” 

Crazy wabbit!

Aren’t we all a bit crazy, swimming against the odds?

The father of two incredible children, Bob was diagnosed last July after his beautiful, caring wife Sarah and friends noticed something was deeply wrong. Bob was off his game, not remembering, losing at times his sense of self.

“You have a problem,” doctors told him after tests confirmed that he had a rare Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) brain tumor with only 8,000 known diagnosis, a survival rate of one percent, and the house betting against surviving an operation.

“I dodged a bullet,” Bob tells me in full gait, gratified to have survived the procedure and be able to “eat, think and talk,” the basics of life.

“I told my doctor, ‘Make sure I come out of this.’”

Bob speaks from the heart, a journey one takes from the cradle to the grave, accelerated by mind numbing disease.

A lesser man might have sought an easier way out. Not Bob. He defines “fight.” Look the word up in Webster’s you might find a synonym that says, “See also Bob Mumford.”

Bob is a role mode. Years ago, having witnessed firsthand the painful, terrifying slow demise of my grandfather, my mother and my uncle from Alzheimer’s, a death in slow motion, I sought an exit strategy and failed at it—learning, as Bob exemplifies today, that the real measure of an individual is not the stock portfolio, the business card, the material possessions, or good looks, but the fight in one to get up off the mat after getting knocked on your ass. Lying down is a position of defeat. Bob has reinforced this in me. He stands tall, swimming against the odds.

Such challenges are motivation to dig deeper into a cognitive reserve. The process of fighting off symptoms—whether cancer, Alzheimer’s, ALS, AIDS, Autism, heart disease or any number of vile illnesses—is exhausting, and yet exhilarating, when one succeeds in a forceful fight for clarity.

The conversation between us now moves to nature, as it often does in these parts, to herring and the olfactory phenomena displayed in Atlantic herring, alewives, as they make their annual migration at the strike of spring—just down the street through the ancient Brewster Herring Run, thousands of them fighting, like salmon, against a flush of water, as the alewives rush in gut instinct up the slick, steep water stone ladders of the run from Cape Cod Bay to the Upper Mill ponds to spawn in fresh water kettle ponds where they were born. The fish repeatedly are flushed back by cascading water, hitting fishheads on rocks, yet instinctively climbing the ladder again. Bob and I relate to that.

Cognitive reserve in primal nature! My late writing mentor John Hay, considered among the nation’s top nature writers, wrote about the Brewster marvel in his inspiring book, The Run, connecting dots to the survival instinct in all of us. “The fish kept moving up,” he observed. “I watched the swinging back and forth with the current, great-eyed, sinewy, probing, weaving, their dorsal fins cutting the surface, their ventral fins fanning, their tails flipping and sculling. In the thick, interbalanced crowd there would suddenly be a scattered dashing, coming up as quickly as cat’s-paws flicking the summer seas. They have moved by ‘reflex’ rather than conscious thought.”

Bob and I today are moving by reflex, rather than conscious thought, with an accelerant of humor. 

Laughter can be a powerful antidote to dementia—the pain, conflict, and stress of it. A good laugh, doctors say, reduces tension and can leave muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes. Laughter boosts the immune system, decreases stress hormones, and triggers the release of endorphins—the natural drug of choice.

Siri, my droll personal assistant and the knowledge navigator for my indispensable iPhone 5, is getting into the act.

I often ask Siri, “Tell me a joke about Alzheimer’s?”

“I can’t,” she responds. “I forget the punch line.”

Bob laughs a grin that obscures the blue ski cap. It’s another victory for us. And so we live to fight another day…And so he did.

POSTSCRIPT: Bob Mumford died Sunday, May 31, after a valiant fight. His candle burns brightly in spirit.

Winds of Change

Ed. Note: I spoke these words at my daughter’s wedding reception Saturday, Aug. 2 at Ocean Edge Resort in Brewster on the outer Cape Cod; any father who has married off a daughter has felt the moment; it advances slowly, then pounces. Change, in the fabric of family, is a conflict of emotions; the “giving away” seems so anomalous, yet so natural, running a range of sentiments—joyful, cerebral, wrenching, all at once. I offer this reflection to all fathers who have stood on the terra firma of love, reflecting on imperfections of fatherhood in giving a daughter to a man who will replace you.

By Greg O’Brien

Words have sounds.
We hear words. Not just read them.

  • Run.
  • Breathe.
  • Reach.
  • Live
  • Celebrate.
  • Faith.
  • Forgive.

They all have meaning in sound, in the composition of the mind. Scholars call it onomatopoeia—formation of a word from a sound associated with it.

The word today swirling around my head is: Change.

It has a lumbering sound. It is the elephant in the room.

As a verb, Webster’s defines change as “to make or become different.” As a noun, change is defined as “the act or instance of becoming different.”

We are here today on the precipice of change, the making and the instance of it. Becoming different.

While my mind agrees with Webster’s definition, my heart says otherwise.

I’ve never done change well.

Sounds that I hear today when I think of change: the first cry of a beautiful little girl entering the world in the delivery room of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Colleen’s laughter at walking the flats on Cape Cod Bay as hermit crabs tickled her toes; her anticipation as she climbed alone for the first time those steep steps of the yellow school bus on her way to kindergarten; the cheers on the softball field as she turned a double play; the stench of the old Boston Garden as we watched Disney on Ice together; the swing of Sweet Caroline at Fenway Park; sitting in Tom Brady’s personal suite for a Pats game at Gillette Stadium; the rip of my heart as she left for Elon University, and I felt in change there was something terribly wrong; the first time she brought Matt Everett home with her, and I felt something was terribly right.

Change it has a sound to it. The Book of Revelations says it best: “Whoever has ears, let him hear.”

Winds of change are swirling. My mind today is an old school carousel of Kodachrome slides of my daughter’s life, all arranged in chronological order. I can hear the click as one slide advances the other.

I can’t stop these flashes and sounds of color. Nor do I want to. Any father who hasn’t felt this moment at the marriage of a daughter, please check your pulse.

We don’t want to have to pay for the dinner of a deceased.

Marriage, to me, is reaffirmation of God’s plan. We, as parents, are caregivers, caretakers in the nest for our children. They belong to God, our Father. Our job is to nurture, to love, to direct, to refine, to support—all in imperfect ways—then to let go, and let God. When love comes from the heart, not the head, it is perfect.

The letting go part, however, is difficult for all of us. But the spreading of wings results in beautiful, soaring flight.

So Colleen and Matt soar today, as you leave the nest, soar as high as you can. Fly side by side. Help, encourage and love each other endlessly in flight. A picture worthy of a gold frame.

You begin your family album today. The first click was the “I do.”

Now it’s “we do,” the first person plural. You have become one. That is a change. A good change; becoming different, but in remarkable ways. The winds of change have cleared the canvas. You paint your own picture now, a stunning picture in romance, in children, in challenges, in flight, and in words from the heart.

Words have sounds. We hear them.

I love you both with all my heart.

Daddy.

Defining Cape Cod Through Its People

By Greg O'Brien

William Shakespeare captured the essence of the late Sherill Smith of Orleans when he wrote in Hamlet, “He was a man. Take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again.”

We shall not look upon the like of Sherill Smith again. He was a dedicated Episcopalian priest, a poet who embraced the works of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, an eloquent, gifted writer, a mentor, a man who abundantly cherished Cape Cod, and who could paint word pictures in his columns in the Register, The Cape Codder, Barnstable Patriot and the Cape Cod Times as stunning and as illuminating as the Great Outer Beach in a January storm or a sunset on Blackfish Creek in July. Words can give light.

Sherill, who died recently after a courageous fight with health issues, was a man for all seasons on Cape Cod, reverend in his limitless love of life, and in his love of family and those around him. Observer Seth Rolbein had it right when he wrote recently of Sherill, “No matter which way he chose to wear his collar, he was holy.”

The holiness was cultivated early on at the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and later in the pulpit at Christ’s Church in Easton, Ct., St. James Episcopal Church in Glastonbury, Ct., St. David’s Episcopal Church in South Yarmouth, and St. Andrews-by-the-Sea in Hyannis Port. Mostly, he wore his collar quietly in other ways, as a lobsterman, harbormaster, sailor, extension agent for the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries, the Orleans representative to the Cape Cod National Seashore Advisory Commission, and assisting Senator Ted Kennedy in the drafting of the 200-mile fishing limit to protect our local fishery.

A place is defined as much by its people, as its landscape. That’s a tall order on Cape Cod, but Sherill Smith measured up, an enduring example of a man who saw God in the creation around him, was never reticent to embrace his faith, and ever in awe of the splendor of a salt marsh, the crash of a wave, the ripple of a kettle pond and the marvel of an osprey. He made no judgments, and once wrote in a column, “If we don’t go to a church that recites the creed in unison, the ‘I believe’ is still valid for a single believer who may be digging the soil for his vegetable garden on a Sunday morning.”

Sherill Smith didn’t see himself as a master of the world, but rather a caretaker of the garden, as Rev. Adam Linton of the Church of the Holy Spirit noted in his recent eulogy. He has great standing in Isaiah 6:8, Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”

Sherill was sent to us as a Renaissance man to inspire rebirth. He saw love, not hate; he saw promise, not failing; he saw redemption, not rebuke; he saw the light, not the darkness.

And he saw light most when the darkness surrounded him, so deeply, so painful, so penetrating, so troubling in his numbing battle with body and mind.

Sherill is a lamppost for me and for others. I had the blessing of visiting with him at his house not long ago. He was in his element, sitting in a sofa chair near the wood stove, talking about the art of writing. It was as if he had turned back time.

If only he could.

Today, Sherill Smith stands in the light.

Spread your wings, my friend…

You are an angel!

(Greg O’Brien is former editor and publisher of The Cape Codder and The Register, and a founding managing director of Community Newspaper Company)

At the office, on the golf course, Dick Connolly, one of the nation’s top producing stockbrokers, is always practicing

By Greg O' Brien, Boston Irish Reporter

At 16, Richard Francis Connolly Jr. had a vision for life. A golf prodigy at Woburn Country Club where his game was moving toward scratch, he queued up on a Friday night to a fully stocked buffet table that would have satisfied the most famished adolescent: steaming, lean roast beef, honey ham, sausage and pork, and a selection of thinly sliced deli meats that would delight a king. His buddies, all playing the following day in a junior tournament, put on the feedbags. To everyone’s surprise, Connolly wistfully walked away from the table empty-handed.

“You hungry, son?” a tournament director inquired. “Yeah, but I don’t eat meat on Fridays,” Connolly said.

Fully impressed with Connolly’s faith and discipline, the man replied, “You keep thinking like that, son, and you’ll be just fine throughout life. Always do what you think is right!”

Dick Connolly—today one of the country’s most successful stockbrokers, overseeing a team at Morgan Stanley that manages close to $4 billion in assets, a man whom Barron’s calls one of the nation’s top financial advisers, ranking him in the 99.96 percentile among some 300,000 brokers in the country — never forgot those words of counsel. His gut instincts have endured through all the birdies, bogeys, and mulligans of life. He’s fully comfortable in his own skin, and at 72, that’s something to say.

The pride of working-class Woburn, where he made his mark in this closely knit community and on the links of Woburn CC, caddying at the nine-hole municipal golf course from an early age and working there part-time through grad school at Babson, Connolly has remained faithful to his roots. He is a patron saint of caddies and individuals in need, with more contributions, affiliations, and honors to his credit than most anyone in Boston. In an edifying profile last year of Connolly’s accomplishments, the Boston Business Journal dubbed him the “Blue-Collar Broker.”

Connolly, who frequents the Osterville area, is all about the tick, tick—not so much the pulse of the stock market, but the spray from sprinkler heads that maintains verdant greens and fairways. You must water your resources, Connolly advises, to keep them green. Golf is life to Connolly, and he plays golf and life with verve. At home, work, and on the course where his handicap is still in the single digits, he lives the words of his idol, Arnold Palmer, who once said, “I never quit trying. I never felt that I didn’t have a chance to win.”

Connolly has never quit trying, even when it came to pursuing Palmer as a client. For 35 years, he has handled Palmer’s investments adroitly; they are close friends, to the point that Palmer gave the commencement address at Connolly’s oldest son Richard’s high school graduation. There are other celebrity friends and clients in Connolly’s loop, like hockey legend Bobby Orr, but he is equally comfortable on Horn Pond, a primary source of the Mystic River in proletarian Woburn. Perhaps that’s what endears them to him.

In the last census, the per capita income of Woburn was $26,207. When his father, Richard Francis Sr., worked in Watertown at BF Goodrich as a supervisor in the footwear section, “he never saw the north side of $12,000 in salary, but never owed anyone a penny,” says Connolly, who was raised with the admonition, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re handsome, rich or smart, if people can’t trust you, if they don’t think you’re a good person, then all is wasted.” Connolly is speaking in his Morgan Stanley office on High Street on Boston’s Financial District.

That admonishment had roots in Mayo and Galway, where his grandparents were born. Work ethic in the Connolly household was as much a staple as Sunday Mass and then pot roast for dinner

“My dad was strict in his own way, but easy going so long as you toed the line,” says Connolly in noting that his father also was a Woburn alderman for close to 20 years. “He could have been mayor, but my mother wasn’t going to have any part of that.”

The elder Connolly was a star athlete at Woburn High School, one of the best in the history of the town. He played football and baseball, but never went to college. Instead, he paid the bills.

Connolly’s mother Ruth May (Doherty), second oldest of ten children, nine of them boys, seven of whom played scratch golf or close to it, “was the prettiest woman in Woburn; she had the whole package,” he says. “She never went to college, she never had a driver’s license, she never flew in a plane, and yet she was the single most impressive individual that I’ve ever known with her work ethic, concern for people, the way she dealt with adversity and serious illness in life. She was an amazing woman. I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of big people in life, and she was the biggest. She was that great.”

She was tough, too, never putting up with flak from Connolly or his sibling. “If my mother ever heard me sass someone, oh, my God, she’d tattoo me quick!”

In all ways, Connolly is the fine work-in- progress of his parents and his caddying days, which continue to propel him on Wall Street. “You see the best and worst in people on the course,” says this student of the links whose parents encouraged the study of the yin-yang of human nature.

“When you have great parents, you can’t have a better start than that. They don’t make parents the way they used to. I was never afraid of my folks, but desperately didn’t want to disappoint them. That kept me in line. It would break my heart to disappoint them.”

Yesterday and today.

No worries, his folks smile broadly at the Lord’s side today, as their son continues his pursuit of excellence into his eighth decade. There are no signs of retreat from this man with a leprechaun’s smile.

A jock at heart, Connolly’s 130-pound frame as a youth dictated his sport; it also helped that his uncles had game in their genes. So he turned to golf, becoming captain of the Malden Catholic High School team, then captain again at Holy Cross where early on he had visions of becoming a dentist before deciding thaty he didn’t want to spend his life “looking into people’s mouths all day.” So he majored in history, then turned to finance, earning an MBA in business at Babson.

His educational pedigree is not that simple; it buttresses his parents’ core Catholic values. With great promise, Connolly was offered a golf scholarship to Wake Forest University, which at the time boasted one of the finest golf programs in the nation. But since the university was founded as a mainstream Protestant school, no dice. His parents, with little financial resource, wanted their son to have a Jesuit education, and insisted upon it. The heavens opened, and Connolly was awarded a scholarship from the Francis Ouimet Caddie Scholarship Fund. In time, he reciprocated many times over, becoming a driving force behind the fund; he is its leading benefactor. He establishing the Ouimet Fund’s annual banquet and welcomed Palmer as its first honoree. That event is now the largest annual golf banquet in America. Over the years, the Fund has honored the likes of President George H.W. Bush, Jack Nicholas, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Curtis Strange, Ben Crenshaw, Nancy Lopez, and others, raising millions in scholarship dollars for young men and women.

From the very start, mentoring has been the foundation stone of Connolly’s legacy. When he was 11 years old, he caddied for a successful businessman named Jim Powers who treated him like a son and instructed him on the need for practice, whether on the golf course or the board room. “If you’re going to be successful at anything, if you want to be as good as you can be,” Powers told him, “you’re going to have to spend a lot of lonely hours practicing. Practice. Practice. Practice.”

Connolly is still practicing, and quick to give praise to those on his team, an investment group at Morgan Stanley that includes talented brokers and staff, some of whom have been with him for as long as 27 years.

He points to his loving family as the prime motivation for success, particularly to his partner Ann Marie (Reilly) from Providence, who also attended Holy Cross. The couple is still joined at the hip to the college at Worcester, and Connolly often jokes about nemesis Boston College, “Are they accredited yet?” Connolly’s three sons also give him needed ballast: Richard, who teaches English and coaches soccer, hockey, and baseball at St. Sebastian School in Needham; Ryan, who works with his father after coming off five years on the New York Morgan Stanley trading desk; and Kevin, a regional marketing associate at Putnam Investments.

After graduating from Babson, Connolly began his business career at Ford Motor Company in its executive training program, then joined Merrill Lynch in 1968 where he was recognized as Merrill’s most successful “rookie” broker. But this was no rookie. In the early 70s, he was hired by Blythe, Eastman to run its Fixed Income Desk where he successfully managed accounts for local institutions. After PaineWebber acquired Blythe, then UBS, Connolly enjoyed a successful 34-year career at the expanded firm as a 30-year member of the elite Chairman’s Club and UBS’s top producing broker for more than 20 years. Maneuvering the often-serpentine pathways of finance with aplomb, Connolly joined Morgan Stanley in 2007, reaching Chairman’s Club status in only 10 months, something of a Wall Street record.

Along the way, Connolly has served on numerous cultural, non-profit, and charitable boards, including the Ouimet Fund, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Society of Jesus, Worcester Polytechnical Institute, and the Children’s Medical Research Foundation in Ireland where a wing at Dublin’s Our Lady’s Hospital was recently named in his honor. His awards are equally impressive: an honorary degree at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkhill, New York; honors from Bridge Over Trouble Waters (BOTW), a high-risk youth counseling and education program; and the Laboure Medal from Boston’s Laboure College, awarded to a member of the business community who embodies the spirit of St. Catherine Laboure in generosity, humanity, and kindness. He also is among the leading annual contributors to more than 15 organizations and philanthropies. Among them: Catholic Charities, Inner City Catholic Schools, Boston Children’s Hospital, Wareham’s Tobey Hospital, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Colby College, Davidson College, College of the Holy Cross, the Joey Fund benefiting Cystic Fibrosis Research, and The Pine Street Inn.


“I truly understand how lucky I am,” Connolly says. “I work very hard, but a lot of people work hard. I know it’s not all about me. The best lessons I ever got in life were from just basic people. I couldn’t have grown up at a better time.”

As to his financial acumen, he is quick to retort “I’m not saving lives.

Dick, your parents and Jim Powers, your mentor, would call you out on that. You are saving lives. Keep practicing!

(Greg O’Brien is president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications strategy firm based on Cape Cod. A regular Boston Irish Reporter contributor, he is the author/editor of several books and writes for regional and national publications.)

Waiting for the Good Guys: Newtown Haunts Us!

Why?

By Greg O’Brien

 Providence Journal  

Newtown, Ct.—That frightful question "why" has reared its horrific head again.

 Just days before Christmas, 20 little angels at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., were waiting for Santa, then Satan arrived.

 Why?

 The answer perhaps lies far below the classrooms and closets where Sandy Hook students and their courageous teachers huddled in terror, trying to shield themselves, 26 of them in vain, from a semi-automatic, rapid-fire Bushmaster .223 assault rifle and two other handguns, some used at close range inflicting multiple wounds.

 Imagine the horror in these young, innocent hearts, as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, a remote, troubled and mentally ill individual, reloaded his weapons of mass destruction, part of the cache his mother, Nancy, a survivalist, had hoarded for a perceived economic collapse. She reportedly was part of the "Prepper" movement (www.prepper.org), disciples for stashing guns and supplies in anticipation of collective social chaos.

 With networks across the country and branches in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, the Prepper movement seeks to provide "links and information to anyone who wants to prepare for and survive the hard times we are facing." 



 While Nancy Lanza may have prepped for an envisioned economic sundown, she miscalculated the Angel of Darkness. Sure you can call the Newtown tragedy a consequence of deeply seeded mental illness, an abject failure of gun control, the pathetic overreaction of a mother who died at the hands of what she had hoped would protect her, and you would be right on all counts. But that's just touching the surface.

 Look below it.

 I was in Newtown and surrounding areas the night before the shooting. It was a stunning silent night, a holy night--thousands of glimmering Christmas lights, scores of crèches, and a covering of innocence in this most New England of towns where a childhood friend of mine and his family lives. Everything that night was perfect, just perfect, and yet something was wrong, terribly wrong beneath this pastoral veneer -- "an unconscionable evil," as President Obama would later describe in an emotional address at Newtown High School.

 We've seen such unconscionable evil in recent years: on 9/11; at Virginia Tech where 32 senselessly were shot dead; in Aurora, Colo., where 12 were massacred in a movie theater; at Columbine and beyond. Since 1995, there have been 70 incidences of mass student shootings. 

"We can't tolerate this anymore," said Obama. "No single law...can eliminate evil from the world...but that can't be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this."

 To that extent, the president has announced a gun-violence task force and has vowed to send to Congress broad proposals in January for tightening gun control laws and curbing violence. It's an affirmative step, but one first needs to grasp the malevolent nature of this war against evil, whether in school shootings, terrorist bombings, a limited nuclear device, or at the hands of chemical or biological warfare. Wholly unhelpful was National Rifle Association executive vice president Wayne LaPierre prescribed fix. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he states, proposing an armed guard in every school to curb student shootings, as if schools were akin to airline cockpits.

 Clearly, we're not getting it. As Albert Einstein once observed, "Just as darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of God."

 The finest mental-health programs in the nation, the locking up all guns in America, if you put everyone on double doses of Prozac, it would not defeat evil. There has been evil in this world since Cain killed Abel, and there will be evil in the world until Armageddon. If good people can be filled with goodness, and bad individuals with wickedness, can't those who are malleable in their own weaknesses--whether it be fanaticism, addictions or mental illness--be filled in the void with evil.


 Think about it.

 Evil is not confronted with legislation, as helpful as it can be at times; it is confronted in the heart. The seasons of Christmas and Hannukah provide motivation to search the heart. Courageous teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School did so in reassuring their students to "wait for the good guys, they're coming; show me your smile."

 Many fear we are powerless against evil, that there is nothing we can do. Yes, we can, and that's a statement to which moderates, Republicans and Democrats can all say amen! Collectively and individually, we can stand against evil -- Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and others of faith, straight and gay, black and white, Asian and Hispanic, men and women. We can stand firm against those who purvey terrorism, murder, gangs, hate, abuse, violence, discrimination, the entertainment media that makes billions off movies and video games that blur for profit the thinning lines.

 It's a start. We can reach to the heavens, however you want to define the Almighty. A single candle can curse the darkness.

 We can push back, all of us, then wait for the good guys.

 Show me your smile.

In the fires of life, We Ask the Question: Why?

By Greg O'Brien

Codfish Press

One of the smallest, most powerful words in the dictionary is "why".

A fire allegedly caused by an arsonist raced through Brewster's Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church early on Nov. 30 with the intensity of the furnaces of Nebuchadnezzar, consuming all but some supporting walls and a large wooden cross a couple of days before the start of Advent.

The question "why,'' and all the confronting doubts along with it, swept up otherwise peaceful Route 6A with the force of a holy inquest. The supporting walls and cross were bulldozed at first light into a seething pile; firefighters kept the cross standing for as long as possible. The scene was captured in Boston and Providence television reports and in newspapers across America.
 
No one had an answer. Not Pastor Myron Heckman, not his faithful congregation, not Brewster Police Chief Dick Koch or Town Administrator Charlie Sumner, not other pastors, monsignors or rabbis, not the stunned, caring parents of 29-year-old Adam Finnegan, accused of setting the fire, and probably not the young man himself as he wrestles demons within and a long history of mental illness.Why? One might as well ponder how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We don't know the answer. We're not God, just vessels of the Almighty when the spirit moves.
 
At this time of Christmas, Hanukkah and some other religious observances, collectively we are far more attuned to an all-loving superior being. My place here is not to define that Divine Being but to point to a collective, persevering will when darkness casts its longest shadow. Faith, as the Old Testament and New Testament proclaim, is believing in what one cannot see. Is that folly or is that wisdom?
 
Why?
Just look to the 350-member congregation of Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church and all those of unshaken faith who support the church. "I really have to practice what I preach now," Pastor Heckman told the media candidly. Indeed he does, along with his congregation, which has reached out in unconditional mercy despite the loss of their sanctuary, a lifetime of memories, and a connection of spirit that we all so fundamentally seek in our lives.
 
At the makeshift service Dec. 2 at the Stony Brook Elementary School cafeteria--sans stained- glass windows, wooden pews and carpets -- the Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church rose from the ashes in a word picture that would have made Michelangelo proud.
 
In his sermon, "Beauty For Ashes," Pastor Heckman preached on Isaiah 61:3, a passage with faith relevance in times of desperate need: "To all who mourn... the Lord will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair."
Counseled Heckman, "The Lord builds out of a test of fire." That includes forgiveness. The Cape Cod Bible Alliance Church has forgiven the man charged with horrifying arson, and has reached out to his parents in love. The Greeks call it Agape.
 
Pastor Heckman concluded his Sunday sermon with a reference to the Book of Daniel, a passage about Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, around 600 B.C., who ordered three godly men, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, into a "fiery furnace,'' stoked seven times, for failing to worship the king's idol. As the passage recounts, four men walked freely and unharmed inside the furnace as Nebuchadnezzar watched in astonishment. The fourth man, the Old Testament tells us, was the Son of God.
 
"The Lord is in the smoldering ruins of our lives," comforted Heckman.
Several hours earlier, after standing by helplessly as flames consumed his church, Pastor Heckman had called the Brewster Fire Station to provide names and phone numbers of the church leadership for follow-up outreach.
 
"You the pastor?" asked a firefighter who answered the phone.
 
"Yes," Heckman responded. "It's a total, devastating loss."
 
The firefighter paused, then offered in reassuring faith, "God is good!"
 
Amen. No matter what your personal values, beliefs or eschatology, in this season of reflection, there is light on a hill off Route 6A in Brewster. Let it shine.
Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah!
 

Could Wellfleet's Ira Wood Be The Luckiest Man On The Face Of The Earth?

By Greg O’Brien

Codfish Press

Life is better than fiction, even for novelists.

Ira Wood.

Consider the story line: a lucky man, talented writer but with challenges in the craft, marries a beautiful, erudite woman, who by his own admission is far smarter and more disciplined than him.

She becomes a New York Times bestselling novelist and poet. He writes a play, some successful books, then a screenplay, in between a drug habit, self professed adultery and a long tenure on the whacky Wellfleet Board of Selectmen.

The book.

It’s a marriage made in Heaven, and the perfect setting for Ira Wood’s newest critically acclaimed work, published by Leapfrog Press: You’re Married To Her?

We all learned early on in school that magnets with opposite polarity attract. In this case, they’ve connected to create an extraordinary, must-read story. Clearly, the first impression was lasting many years ago in a Cambridge apartment when Wood met his wife to be, novelist/poet Marge Piercy. The ironic New York Jew was on his game.

“I contrived to meet Marge when my upstairs neighbor announced that a notorious writer friend was coming to visit,” Wood recalls in a wide-ranging interview at Wellfleet’s Lighthouse Restaurant. “Marge’s latest book, Woman on the Edge of Time, had just been released, and she was a star of the New Left. It was the afternoon before the first Passover Seder, and Marge walked in looking like a French movie star. Because I couldn’t imagine what I might say upon being introduced, I interrupted the conversation with an impromptu performance piece, attempting to whip a bowl of egg whites with a wire whisk. Nine of ten successful women would have written me off as an incompetent schmuck trying to make macaroons; Marge saw a singles ad: 26-year-old Jewish man, curly hair, likes to cook.”

Marge Piercy.

So you’re married to her?

“It was a question I often asked myself,” said Wood. “Why would a woman at the pinnacle of her career put up with a guy like me?”  

By Greg O'Brien
Codfish Press

 “Thus having had another crack with the old man, he standing bareheaded under the eaves, he directed us “a-thwart the fields,” and we took to the beach again for another day, it being now late in the morning.”—Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, The Wellfleet Oysterman.

 Ever since Thoreau found comfort in the Wellfleet Oysterman’s home beyond the bluff and drew up to a large, old fashioned fireplace, generations have followed in his footsteps to this pastoral sliver of sand by the sea, framed by the Great Outer Beach and Cape Cod Bay and filled with spring fed, fresh water kettle ponds carved 17,000 years ago in the retreat of the last great Ice Age. 

Late in the morning, as Thoreau set out, is a good time to take to the beach. The view from Wellfleet Harbor captures the town’s splendor in a single frame—its cobalt blue water, untainted air, wide beaches, lush marshlands, rich history and its array of people, perhaps as great a resource as its largesse of natural and secluded beauty.

Sailing into the harbor to the port at low tide is a shallow mudflat, testimony to Billingsgate Island and to Wellfleet’s fate. Once the site of 30 homes, a brick lighthouse, a fishing fleet and even a summer baseball team, the island was divided in half by a pounding storm 157 years ago, and erosion over time carted the rest of it away.

Beyond Billingsgate shoal, is the tip of pristine Great Island. Hard to imagine in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that a naughty little drinking hole named Samuel Smith Tavern graced its shores, a remote place for whalers, sailors and privates, likely “Black Sam” Bellamy of Whydah fame among them, to duck strict Calvinist rule.

Turning to the starboard, just past the jetty and with verdant Herring River Marsh in the distance, as green as the ring of Kerry, graceful Mayo Beach and Indian Neck frame the inner harbor like gates to Eden. The marina is a blend of the old and new, like Wellfleet itself. Here ancient fishing draggers queue up with pleasure craft. They seem simpatico.

A lot has changed since Thoreau broke bread with the oysterman; much has remained the same. And so Wellfleet, near the end of a dead end street called Cape Cod, has attracted a cornucopia of year-rounders and summer people from all paths of life, still does, more so than any other Cape town in its range, all sharing the same primal instinct that the land beneath them is sacred and shapes their reason for being. Artists and fishermen, lawyers and doctors, shrinks and shop owners, the corporate elite and the working class, they all share the same vision—that Wellfleet’s horizon extends far beyond its shoreline, or the South Wellfleet site where Guglielmo Marconi in 1903 sent the fire wireless transatlantic radio transmission, or even the lure of the Wellfleet Oyster, whose cold, plankton-rich local waters slow the shellfish’s metabolism, making for a sweeter taste and international approbation.

The cultural horizons here are as assorted as the calendar, with summer always bringing on fresh blossom of creature foliage.  As notable as the local color are the washashores. Square inch by square inch, you can arguably find in Wellfleet more intelligence, art, culture, theater, musical brilliance, overall creativity, gut street smarts and nurturing than any place on the planet. Always has been that way.  

“Wellfleet is the town of ‘Yes,’ says playwright and actor Stephen Russell, an actor and writer, who has lived in Wellfleet since 1981. “It’s not a town of ‘No,’ or ‘Maybe,’ it’s a town of ‘Yes!”

The essence community,Wellfleet is a place for summer people and year-rounders to play out a fantasy, scratch an itch, tap a hidden talent or advance an art form—a kinship of people celebrating their gifts and the offerings of other, not inhibiting them.

“It’s a place where one is supported for pursuing a dream, instead of people looking at you as if you were crazy,” says Ira Wood, the author of four novels, including the newly released: You’re Married to HER?, a talk show host on WOMR, a Wellfleet selectman for a dozen hears, and co-founder of Leapfrog Press with his wife Marge Percy, the renowned poet, novelist and social activist. 

“Wellfleet is a town where you can ply your trade or work your craft in full confidence and support. Nobody looks at you in the middle of the day as if to say: you ought to be out there working a corporate job.”

“It’s a place of eclectic charm,” adds Bill Galvin, longtime managing editor of The Cape Cod Chronicle, who began summering in Wellfleet in 1948 and his lived in the town for decades, his family for generations. “It is a community that has great beauty, genius and wealth, but doesn’t display it publicly.”

Here all elements of natural elegance and intellect blend in. The elegance has always attracted the intellect and creative forte in its residents and visitors, many of whom come here to stay for periods of time or forever. Individuals over the years like: writers John Dos Passos, Annie Dillard, Stanley Kunitz, Maya Angelou, and James Carroll; cellist Bernard Greenhouse, a member of the Beaux Arts Trio of musicians; Arthur Schlessinger, Jr, historian, social critic and Pulitzer Prize winner; Edmund Wilson, the famous literary critic who cultivated appreciation for novelists Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald; historian, playwright and activist Howard Zinn, who wrote about the struggle for civil rights and once described himself as “something of an anarchist, something of a socialist, maybe a democratic socialist”; and distinguished psychiatrist, author and Holocaust research Robert J. Lifton.

In the 1960s, Lifton, with mentor Erik Erickson and MIT Bruce Mazlish, formed a research group to apply psychology and psychoanalysis to the study of history. They met at Lipton’s Wellfleet home overlooking the Atlantic. The group, the Wellfleet Psychohistory Group, concentrated on psychological motivations for war, genocide and terrorism, and in 1965 was awarded sponsorship from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish psychohistory as a separate field of study. The group’s collected works, Explorations in Psychohistory: The Wellfleet Papers, was published in 1975.

“The joke used to be that you couldn’t get a shrink in New York in August because they were all vacationing in Wellfleet,” says Janet Lesniak, executive director of Wellfleet Preservation Hall (wellfleetpreservationhall.org), an exceptional blend of Wellfleet past and present at the site of Our Lady of Lourdes. The mission of Wellfleet Preservation Hall is to offer space for the intersection of art, culture and community. At it’s opening in May 2011, former selectman Wood said Wellfleet Preservation Hall stood “as a testament to the spirit and potential of Wellfleet.”

Preservation Hall is the embodiment of Wellfleet, a project born out of need whose fruition came into play when an adjacent bank proposed a drive through on the site. Not in my backyard, preservationists—Wellfleet’s literary, cultural and artistic elite among them—said!

And that’s the way it’s been in the town since anyone can remember.“

Wellfleet is not a pass-through town; it’s a place where people come for a reason, a season and stay,” says Mort Inger, a retired writer and editor of research papers at Teachers College at Columbia University, who vacationed here with his family in the 1960s and moved here permanently many years ago. “They become a fabric of the town.”

The fabric of Wellfleet is a tapestry of abundant hues.

“Here you meet a wide variety of people in different social classes and different work and life experiences; that’s much better for a writer, and it attracts creative types,” says poet and novelist, a New York Times bestselling author Marge Piercy. “Our society today becoming increasingly age stratified. If you go to a party in Wellfleet, there might be someone who is 20 and someone who is 85. There is a lot more mixing here. Wellfleet is a town where people accept each other in ways that other places don’t.”

Perhaps that’s why they call it the “boondocks,” she muses.

Former Wellfleet Police Chief Rosenthal, an author himself of several books, once a New York City police homicide, armed robbery and narcotics detective, came to the boondocks of Wellfleet more than 20 years ago, a prototype of sorts of Men In Black’s Agent K, who relocated for a respite to the Truro Post Office. Rosenthal has seen more comings and going in Wellfleet than the tides. “People come here to get lost in the Wellfleet woods,” he says.

Decades ago Wellfleet was far more remote, and Alec Wilkinson, a writer for The New Yorker since 1980 and the author of 10 books, including the acclaimed “Midnights, A Year With The Wellfleet Police. Wilkinson’s parents began summering in Wellfleet in the 1940s, bought a summer home here in 1952. The family home was sold two years ago and now the author is a summer person. “I’ve lost my off-season footprint here,” he laments.

But he hasn’t lost his feel for old Wellfleet, the simpler times and its archetype characters.

“When I was a child you could stand on the shore of Gull Pond and look 20 or 30 feet offshore and ten to 15 feet down and see fish,” he says. “Wellfleet is still incredibly beautiful, but I get indignant about the way the woods have been carved up with overuse and undistinguished homes.”

But still hidden deep in the Wellfleet woods near the verge of pristine kettle ponds on the Wellfleet-Truro border, not far from the Great Outer Beach, is one of Cape Cod’s best kept secrets—remnants of a summer colony that once housed some of the world’s most gifted artists, writers, architects, diplomats, brainiacs and critical thinkers from the 1930s to the 1970s in elegantly simple Modernist cottages, about 80 in all, that redefined the genre.

 These summer homes, some on stilts—designed by the brightest and inventive Modernist architects in Europe and America—were functional, yet radical, “sort of a floating boxes, oriented to capture views and breezes, perching lightly on the land with flat roofs that often rise to gradual pitches,” notes Wellfleet designer Peter McMahon, who is working diligently to preserve these historic structures through the Cape Cod Modern House Trust. In architectural terms, the cottages—scores of them now in disrepair, an endangered species likely to be sold as teardowns given the increasing value of the land—are as significant to the region’s built environment as an original antique Cape or saltbox. 

That was part of the allure in the design and construction—isolation in the woods, intense privacy for creative inspiration, and low impact—buildings that were “green” before there was even such an environmental color.

Inside the Cape Cod National Seashore boundaries that shape two thirds of Wellfleet is a curious mix of mid 20th century European Modernist, avant-garde traditions taught at the Bauhous, the major German university of Modernism in art, architecture, graphic art and interior design, founded by Walter Gropius who later led Harvard’s Graduate School of Design that attracted many of the architects who designed here. Modernism has European roots in art nouveau, or Jugendstil, art deco and American modernism that was practiced in the late 19th century by Frank Lloyd Wright, who influenced many Europeans.

The serene woods attracted leading international architects like Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, and Olav Hammarstrom, and top American architects such as Charles Zehnder, Jack Hall and Nathaniel Saltonstall, and more than a dozen others.

Far beyond the intellect, artistic prowess and unparalleled raw nature of Wellfleet is its heart. Nobody knows that better than Sharyn Lindsay, a longtime Wellfleet resident whose oldest son Caleb Potter suffered a massive brain injury in a skateboarding accident in town on July 4, 2007. He is still recovering, as profiled in the March issue of Cape Cod Magazine. The town has reached out its large collective hands to comfort and to help.

 “Caring is the soul of this community,” she says. “It is not contained within the boundaries of a resume or one life’s accomplishment. Caring here is from the heart. When tragedy strikes, you don’t want to be any other place than Wellfleet.”

A Fight For All Seasons: Brockton Enters 12th Round Against Brockton Power

By Greg O’Brien

News Analysis, Codfish Press

(Part of an on-going series on energy and environmental issues from Cape Cod to California)

Rocky Marciano has returned in triumph to Brockton, the City of Champions with the unveiling recently of a 22-foot, larger-than-life statue to be installed in Champions Park at Brockton High School, his alma mater. At 49-0, with 43 knockouts, the Brockton Blockbuster—the only person to hold the heavyweight title untied and undefeated—got right to the punch.  

A community of about 95,000 with an average per capita income of $20,000, is facing extraordinary challengesHis arrival is not a minute to soon. Brockton could use a champion.  

The city, a community of about 95,000 with an average per capita income of $20,000, is facing extraordinary challenges of high unemployment, rising crime, and a large minority population, many of whom do not speak English. 

And Brockton today is engaged in its own heavyweight fight, symbolic of Marciano’s grit and resolve to go the rounds, often at long odds. City officials are rope-a-dope in the 12-round bruiser with fossil fuel power plant called Brockton Power, its heavyweight sponsors Advanced Power and the Seimins Corp., and consultants—former Brockton Mayor Jack Yunits and Epsilon Associates, manned with former state Department of Environmental Protection engineers, who knew the inside baseball of power plant permitting.

The main event is winner-take-all in a five-year bout over construction of a 350-meggawatt gas-fired, water-cooled, multi-turbine plant. The site is located on industrial land near the lip of residential and business areas on the city’s south side where more than 30,000 Brockton residents would be impacted, not including abutting West Bridgewater and East Bridgewater. It’s within a half mile of six schools, four day care centers, two ten-story senior housing projects for the elderly and disabled, 200 units of low-income housing, a facility for brain injured children, a drug treatment center and four churches. Residents, institutions, businesses and city officials are concerned, among other fears, about toxic emissions and the fact that Brockton already has one of the highest asthma rates in Massachusetts, about twice the state average for children.  Brockton is the ninth most environmentally overburdened community in the Commonwealth, based on assessed environmental hazard points.

Not surprising for a “Gateway” community, one of 24 former Massachusetts mill cities that during the Industrial Revolution churned out enough toxins to impair the health of residents for generations to come. The city is an industrial Statue of Liberty: give us your tired, your poor, your hungry, and just about every foul project that no one else on the planet wants. Once the shoe capital of the world, the city is still prey to voracious developers attempting to walk over Brockton, which has already an exceedingly high concentration of Brownfield sites, hazardous waste dumps, landfill type facilities and environmentally hazardous facilities.

The city has 374
hazardous waste sites.
The city has 374 hazardous waste sites, compared to an average 84 waste sites in cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth, notes Kate Archard of Brockton, director of the writing program and a communications consultant at UMass/Boston. Citing a report from Daniel R. Farber, Director of the Northeastern University’s Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, she says that Brockton also has six landfill operations, garbage dumps, trash transfer sites and recycling sites. Brockton’s Thatcher Street Landfill, she notes, is known as the “mountain of Brockton” because its massive size, and that a former auto body shop on East Ashland Street was so contaminated with petroleum, asbestos and other harmful toxins that eight years ago the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seized the site. Then there is the wastewater treatment plant (AWRF) on Oak Hill Way “that not only discharges sewer effluent into the Salisbury River, but also disposes of the solid waster in the form of ‘sludge cakes’ by burning it in an incinerator and releasing it into the air,” she says.

So where’s the justice in all this?

Sorely missing, and that’s why Brockton Power opponents are leaning on the state’s Environmental Justice Policy and the federal Environmental Justice Act of 1997 for relief in what is expected to be a precedent-setting case in environmental justice, just as Rocky was a precedent-setting in the ring. Simply put, environmental justice “is fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” states the EPA. What it means for Brockton, power plant opponents say, is that residents here have a protected right to live in a clean, environmentally safe city without being burdened disproportionately with toxic pollutants.

The state—through an Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) decision in 2009— has signaled initial agreement with the principles of environmental justice, sanctioning the Brockton Power project, but only with the stipulation of local approvals. It was the first time in the agency’s history that it placed such conditions on a project.

In the face of EFSB stipulations and environmental justice, Brockton Power, under the mantle of Brockton Clean Energy, a joint venture between Advanced Power and Siemens Financial Services, has done what any self-respecting, profit driven corporation might do: muscle the city, and sue its derriere. Brockton officials are holding a collective breath over an menacing $68 million civil rights lawsuit filed against city officials by project proponents, Brockton Power LLC, alleging conspiracy to “reject, deny and starve” the project.

“We reluctantly took this action because of the city’s continued refusal to give the project the fair and full review to which it is entitled under state law and the city’s own ordinances,” stated Brockton Power

The suit, filed by the Boston firm Bingham McCutchen, accuses city officials of conspiring to “systematically deprive” Brockton Power of its “constitutional right to develop their land” and “be free from outrageous and unfair acts of discrimination, arbitrary and capricious action or inaction, and flagrant denial of procedural and substantive due process rights.”

What say Brockton officials and project opponents about this? Put up your dukes!

 “If (the lawsuit’s) primary intent is to threaten and scare the City of Brockton into a direction desired by the applicant, that won’t work,” City Solicitor Philip Nessralla has countered. 

Brockton Power has responded with the best and brightest of high-paid lawyers, winning some early preliminary rounds, filing appeals and when all else failed, suing the city for more than it’s worth—a legal maneuver that seems to summarize this long fierce battle, which redefines corporate community relations when big money is at stake.

“This indeed is a Rocky prizefight. It’s all about who can stay in the ring the longest,” says Ed Beyers, founder of the voluble Stop the Power opposition group (stopthepower.net) and owner of abutting Cindy’s Kitchen, an organic salad dressing company abutting the proposed site. “Brockton Power is the ten-million pound gorilla coming into a depressed city, trying to get us to cave. They never expected such a fight. But this is Brockton, the city of underdogs and champions, and my money now is on the mayor and the city council.”

“They thought we’d be an easy mark,” says Gini Jeppson, co-founder of Citizens for a Better Brockton, who has been fighting the project since 1997 when it was first proposed by other developers, initially approved, then withdrawn. “Brockton Power today is trying to wear us down with lawsuits against the city, deposing everyone in sight and antagonizing us. They want us to fold. That’s not happening. No one is giving up.”

Adds Loretta Murray, one of the group’s early organizers, “We’re not easy pickings. Some might think approval is a done deal, but the deal isn’t done, and we’re not going away.”

Former Mayor Yunits indeed hopes the opposition will fade. Brockton Power was proposed under his watch by a close friend and colleague, the late George Baldwin, a prominent Brockton businessman. The required zoning was then set in place. Now Yunits is a consultant to Brockton Power. Badda Bing. Badda boom.

City Hall today isn’t impressed with its contenders. Both Mayor Linda Balzotti, the city’s first female mayor, and ten of 11 city councilors, are steadfastly opposed to the project on grounds that it’s the wrong location, not needed, poses significant health hazards, would reduce property values, potentially cost the city more than it would gain from revenues, and would infringe on the rights of residents. “This power plant is the wrong project for Brockton,” Balzotti said emphatically in a May 10 open letter to Brockton residents. “The south side of the city already has a wastewater treatment plant and a landfill. The proposed power plant would add an additional and unacceptable environmental burden to our community.”

Adds Brockton Town Councilor Thomas Monahan of Ward 2, “It’s not the right project and not the right site for Brockton. The air quality and health of residents would be compromised.”

Monahan concedes from Brockton Power’s perspective that the site is financially viable on grounds of its close proximity to gas and transmission lines. But opponents view such a prized corporate location as the perfect storm for abutters and residents.

“If these types of projects were good for all communities, why don’t we see them in Brookline, Weston, Newton or Wellesley?” says Beyers’ Boston attorney Paul Glickman. “They came to Brockton because it’s poor and they assumed there was no will to fight. Brockton Power came in with a checkbook and an attitude that you should welcome us, and if you don’t it’s a civil rights violation. I think when the 14th Amendment was passed in 1886, its sponsors didn’t think Brockton Power one day would be one of one of the beneficiaries.”

It’s a stretch, by any measure, connecting 14th amendment (designed to protect poor blacks) with a powerful international conglomerate like Siemens and parcel property owners the Barry brothers, who purchased the land for a reported $700,000, just pennies on the dollar, and now stand to gain millions in a windfall if the project is approved.

Beyond doubt, environmental concerns regarding Brockton Power are the most daunting.

“The health issue is the biggest minus,” says Paul Studenski, the ward city councilor. “The folks here are scared. No doubt about it. They are simply opposed, and I’m going to support them.”

Balzotti references the fear in a recent open letter to residents. “Everyone has a right to environmental justice—to have a clean, healthy quality of life” regardless of a project’s purported benefits, she wrote. 

Project benefits, as proposed by Brockton Power, include: $1 million in annual tax revenues to the city, as well as revenue from agreements to purchase water that would be needed for the plant and expand treatment capacity. In laymen’s terms, it’s a discounted $1 million dollars a year in commercial property taxes in lieu of fully taxed assessments that would net Brockton $4 million annually. The project, proponents say, also would create 250 construction jobs during peak construction and 20 full time jobs for plant operation. These, however, are highly skilled job, and likely beyond the qualifications of most Brockton residents.

Clouding the fray further are ongoing critical concerns about an evacuation plan. The city, according Police Chief Emanuel Gomes, has no acceptable plan for proper evacuation. It’s a public safety concern, and the chief has noted so right from the start.  

Why such a fuss over public safety?

One only has to look south to Middletown, Ct, where a similar type Siemens combined cycle gas-and-oil fired power plant exploded in February 2008, killing six and injuring at least 50. The explosion, believed to be the result of an operating test during construction, was felt as far as five miles away. Parts of the walls of this massive structure were seen flapping in the wind.

This is certainly not a model of best practices for Siemens, the German industrial giant. Nor is it much of a resume enhancer, as the Washington Post reported last year that federal investigators “had charged six former executives of Siemens, AG, including a board member, with conspiring to spend $100 million bribing Argentine officials in an effort to secure a $1 billion contract for the global engineering giant.”

The paper quoted Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who oversees the Justice Department criminal division, as saying, “The allegations in this indictment reflect a stunning level of deception and corruption.”  The Post reported that “the charges came more than a decade after the alleged conspiracy began and three years after Siemens paid $1.6 billion to settle accusations in the United States and Germany that the company engaged in a systematic effort to win business by paying bribes in various countries.”

End of story.

Not quite. While Brockton Power indeed is big money—from the bottom up— city officials say it’s not worth the purported benefits. Brockton just isn’t for sale when it comes to the siting of a 350-meggawatt gas-fired plant. Adding an exclamation point, the city, to date, has refused to sell Brockton Power the millions of gallons of water needed for the plant—a denial now tied up in court. This a show-stopper for Brockton Power; no water, no plant. That simple.

But by most counts, this bout will last another 18 months. Heading now into this 12th round, one might recall a bruised and haggard Rocky Marciano lunging into the final round against Jersey Joe Walcott on September 23, 1952. Appearing outmatched and on the verge of defeat, Marciano sprung out of his chair, danced with Walcott, trading punches, then backed him into a corner, and without a hint of what was to come, dropped Walcott to the mat with two power punches to the head.

It’s never over in this city of champions.

Brockton and state officials could learn something from Marciano. “Why waltz with a guy for 10 rounds if you can knock him out in one,” the champ once said.

Welcome home, Rocky!

Kline offers new compromise: The Value of Negotiation for Truro

Kline offers new compromise

The Kline house overlooking Cape Cod Bay and is several hundred yards from other Truro houses including the "Hopper House." - Cape Cod TODAY file photo.

The Value of Negotiation for Truro

By Greg O’Brien, Codfish Press

“Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can,” Abraham Lincoln once advised. Observed novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson, “Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer.”

Yet compromise seems anathema to the Town of Truro over resolving the fate of the Kline house overlooking a Cape Cod Bay bluff, not far from where celebrated artist Edward Hopper, the prominent American realist, summered and painted.

The town's legal bills are
now pushing $100,000.
Town officials—claiming a directive to demolish the contemporary home despite the fact that complaining parties who had filed suit settled with the court more than a year ago—have run up town legal bills that are now pushing $100,000, the annual salary of two teachers or two Truro police officers. The Kline house has 5,755 square feet of habitable space and 1,750 square feet of unfinished space, according to the Truro Building Inspector’s office.

Town Counsel Jamie Veara, the recipient of these fees, has called the legal costs “unfortunate, but not excessive…My intention is to stay the course whatever it takes.”  

Perhaps he never read Lincoln.

The Kline “controversy” has polarized Truro and
demonized the Klines.
The Kline “controversy,” as covered in the media locally, regionally and nationally, has polarized Truro and demonized the Klines. To summarize key facts of the serpentine case: In 2008, the Town of Truro issued a building permit to Don and Andrea Kline, longtime Outer Cape summer residents who had contributed generously to cultural and community causes, to construct what they had envisioned as their dream home on a 9.3 acre parcel on Stephens Way, a dirt roadway that had served the so-called Cobb House, located on the property for more than a century.

Two abutters then appealed the permit, and the state Land Court and Appeals Court ruled that the permit should not have been issued because the width of Stephens Way did not meet the Truro zoning code’s definition of “street,” a provision numerous homes in Truro constructed over the last 20 years have violated.

The Kline house, the court said, was at variance with the town’s definition of “alternation” to the property, and the case was remanded to the Truro’s Zoning Board of Appeals with instructions that Building Commissioner Tom Wingard “take appropriate action.” The Zoning Board then ruled 4-1 to direct Wingard to revoke the permit. Appealing abutters, meanwhile, reached an amicable out-of-court settlement with Mrs. Kline (whose husband has passed away), and have advised the court and the Zoning Board of Appeals of the settlement and the fact they are no longer aggrieved.

The Kline house is consistent with scores of modernistic summer homes built in Truro in the mid 20th century.While the adequacy of the road appears to have been the focus of the court case, the real gripe of Stephens Way residents not involved in the litigation but now urging demolition of the new home, appears to be the home’s size and architecture.

Though it has stirred controversy, the architectural design of the  Kline house is consistent with scores of modernistic summer homes built in the Truro and Wellfleet woods from 1930 to 1970 by some of the world’s most famous architects—homes that are now being preserved for their contribution to the built environment of the Cape.

These homes are an eclectic blend of mid 20th century European Modernist, avant-garde traditions taught at the Bauhaus, the major German university of Modernism in art, architecture, graphic art, founded by Walter Gropius who later led Harvard’s Graduate School of Design that attracted many of the architects who designed here. The serene woods attracted leading international architects like Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, and Olav Hammarstrom, and top American architects such as Charles Zehnder, Jack Hall and Nathaniel Saltonstall.

These homes are an eclectic blend of mid 20th century European Modernist, avant-garde traditions taught at the Bauhaus.Mrs. Kline, who has been harshly criticized for the design, apparently has Lincoln’s works in her library. In addition to earlier compromises that included the perpetual preservation of more than eight acres of land, she now has offered to eliminate all three bedrooms in the Cobb House, whose historic exterior would be preserved, and to demolish an existing guesthouse, leaving the number of bedrooms on the entire 9.3 acre property at four—the same number prior to the construction. With these bedrooms removed, the potential for increase in use or traffic on Stephens Way has been eliminated.   

“We respectfully ask…that the building and occupancy permits revoked for the new residence may be reinstated in this light,” Mrs. Kline’s attorney, Diane Tillotson, wrote in a letter last week to Town Building Commissioner Thomas Wingard.

Is compromise in the wind
in Truro?
Is compromise in the wind in Truro? This is a prudent means to end a no-win legal dispute and is a win for everyone.  It resolves a conflict that has more to do with opinion on size and design than it does salient legal points. Hopper himself never painted the landscape, nor do we preserve the sites of word pictures etched by Thoreau in his classic work, Cape Cod.

The Boston Globe wrote months ago in an editorial, “Truro may well need to update its laws to reconcile them with longstanding practice. But the Kline family should be left to enjoy their home in peace.”

And wouldn’t those mounting legal fees be better used in the classroom?

Pages