The news that former Boston Mayor Tom Menino died felt like a sucker punch. I was shocked by how deeply, deeply sad I was. You know that cheesy saying about “a light going out in the world?” One did.
Mayor Menino loved Boston. Everyone says it. But to know him, to work with him, was to discover layers upon layers of his love for the job, the city and its people.
He loved being mayor, and he took his responsibilities as a guardian of the city’s interests seriously. If he thought you were wrong, he’d give you hell. Out of love for the job.
I first got to know the mayor when I became president of Catholic Charities in 2007. To be honest, he intimidated me then. We met in his office so he could size me up, and his ease with his position and power, combined with his reputation for being quick to anger and passionate about issues, made quite an impression. Before I left, he gave me his direct line in case I ever needed to reach him. I didn’t think I’d ever use it. I guess I didn’t really think he meant it.
Several months later, I made a decision to close a program. My team and advisors told me, “You have to tell Mayor Menino first. The mayor doesn’t like surprises.” I dialed the direct line he gave me, never imagining he’d actually answer himself. He did. I gave him the news, and he was angry. But he also listened, and I heard his genuine concern for what such a closing would take away from the city.
That was the first layer of love: He loved being mayor, and he took his responsibilities as a guardian of the city’s interests seriously. If he thought you were wrong, he’d give you hell. Out of love for the job.
The second layer of love was for children. That man loved kids. At the opening of the Pope John Paul II Academy, the new network of Catholic primary schools in Boston, you would have thought Santa Clause had shown up. Kids were drawn to him. He, in turn, was as close to purring as I ever would see him – happy in their presence, happy in his belief in their potential.
I recognized the third layer of love over time. It was his love of the city itself. Mayor Menino had a well-deserved reputation for being everywhere. It seemed as if he must have clones. Gun violence march in Roxbury? The mayor was there. Gala that same night? The mayor was there. Meeting for city officials and nonprofit leaders on summer jobs? The mayor wasn’t just there, he hosted it.
He could have kept winning, could have been an effective mayor, doing 50 percent of what he did. He did the other 50 percent because he loved the city, and wanted to be in every part of it, every day.
Ultimately, though, what the mayor loved most were people, all people. It was his most remarkable trait. That realization really hit home for me on January 13, 2010, the morning after the disastrous earthquake in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. A coalition of city officials, clergy and nonprofit leaders had gathered at his summons to discuss the response.
Gun violence march in Roxbury? The mayor was there. Gala that same night? The mayor was there. Meeting for city officials and nonprofit leaders on summer jobs? The mayor wasn’t just there, he hosted it.
He asked one of his staffers how long it would take to get some element of the response ready. She replied that it would take roughly two days. The mayor was furious. His hands hit the table, and his face turned red. “People are hurting today! They need us today! I don’t want to talk about two days from now! I want to know what we’re doing to help them today!”
Maybe it was the ferocity of his passion. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of all the other times I’d seen him care. Whatever it was, in that moment, I understood the true depth and breadth of his love – for everything and everyone, even beyond Boston. In that moment, I truly understood what an extraordinary leader he was.
A light went out in the world this morning. It’s up to the rest of us now to warm Boston with the layers of love Tom Menino gave it for so many years.