This year, the Globe Magazine names 12 remarkable people as Bostonians of the Year honorable mentions. Our list includes a novelist, a funeral director, a judge, and more, all folks whose actions in 2013 are worthy of attention.
The parents on a mission
Malcolm Astley and Mary Dunne
Across cultures and religions, it’s a point of near universal agreement for parents: There is no fate crueler than losing a child. So when vibrant 18-year-old Lauren Dunne Astley was murdered a month after her graduation from Wayland High School in 2011, her parents could have been forgiven for turning inward in bitterness. Anyone who glimpsed Malcolm Astley and Mary Dunne sitting through this year’s murder trial of Lauren’s ex-boyfriend could sense just how devastated they continue to be by the theft of their only child’s life. Yet after the jury returned its guilty verdict in March, Astley walked to the killer’s parents and hugged them. They’d lost a child, too.
Astley and Dunne somehow continue to find the grace to wring good out of tragedy. Dunne, a 57-year-old pre-kindergarten teacher in Brookline, and Astley, a 68-year-old retired school principal and developmental psychologist, had divorced several years before Lauren’s death. But they’ve worked together closely in building the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund, through which they educate schools, community groups, and lawmakers to promote healthy relationships among young people and prevent “breakup violence.” Dunne has also shared the subtle signs she wished she had noticed in Lauren’s ex-boyfriend: how difficult it was for her to engage him, how Lauren’s friends didn’t seem to like him, how he repeatedly tried to renegotiate Lauren’s efforts to break things off.
Astley says that despite their crushing sadness, they draw inspiration from the memory of their daughter, a sparkling stage performer and dedicated volunteer who had traveled several times to Louisiana to help Katrina victims. “ ‘We can fix this’ was the way Lauren approached the world,” he says.
Linda Dorcena Forry
If there’s one word state Senator Linda Dorcena Forry hates, it’s “minority.”
Yes, it is a term that’s widely used when talking about racial and ethnic groups. But the word also marginalizes people — and that is the antithesis of Dorcena Forry’s approach to life.
People are responsible for one another and must care for their neighbors the way they want to be cared for, says the 40-year-old wife and mother of four. Principles of reciprocity, access, opportunity, inclusion, and collaboration are what Dorcena Forry, a Haitian American from Dorchester, stood on when first entering politics as a state representative. They are the beliefs on which she still stands as she occupies a state Senate seat long held by Irish-American men from South Boston. (Of the 40 men and women in the state Senate, she is the only black person.)
In fact, her June victory in the race for what many referred to as the “Southie Seat” (though it actually includes much of Dorchester, Mattapan, and a piece of Hyde Park) was a political milestone shattering barriers of gender, race, culture, and geography.
She will be the first non-Irish-American host of the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, a storied political roast. The duty has long belonged to the sitting senator in the First Suffolk Senate District, but Dorcena Forry had to battle to retain the privilege when some balked at the idea of a host who is not from South Boston.
The significance and symbolism of her position is not lost on Dorcena Forry, who says history, no matter how marred, must be acknowledged as you move into the future.
The turnaround architect
It’s your second year running the company. Your first year was a disaster. You took charge of an organization you grew up idolizing in New Hampshire but that was reeling from an ugly scandal. With the stench of that mess still festering, you hired an outsider, a new leader who talked a good game but merely proceeded to turn the smell of horse manure into the smell of boiled cabbage. Desperate, you got rid of three stars who were grumpy and overpaid, and you fired the new manager after just one year. By now the fans who used to love this company, who used to cheer it through the summer and pay it more attention than they paid their own children, hate it. And they’re vowing to boycott it. Your job is on the line.
So what do you do? You hire a group of less talented but hungrier and cheaper workers who promise to do whatever you want. You put your faith in team players, and you trust your proven performers to lead the way. And you hire another new manager, but this time one who used to work at the company back when times were good and whom everybody liked. Then you sit back and watch the magic unfold. For Ben Cherington — graduate of Amherst College and UMass Amherst, 39-year-old Boston resident, and Boston Red Sox general manager — 2013 was a year of redemption beyond his wildest boyhood dreams.
The truth-telling novelist
In April, best-selling novelist and Cambridge resident Claire Messud, 47, lit a little fire on the Internet. In response to a question from Publisher’s Weeklyabout the likability of Nora Eldridge, the protagonist of her just-published, fierce, feminist page turner, The Woman Upstairs, Messud responded with heat: “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? . . . Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? . . . If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”
Commentary lit up the Web: “PW” was derided as sexist and Messud heralded for speaking her mind. Jennifer Weiner countered with an article in “Slate” entitled “I Like Likable Characters.” There was a “New York Times Book Review” podcast and a forum on likability at “The New Yorker” online. Messud’s comments ignited a debate that framed the discussion about female writers, female characters, and their readers that drifted through the whole year.
Was PW’s question rooted in sexism, or was it just standard, tepid interview fare? Messud, the author of five books, believes it represents something larger, what she calls “a change in the relationship between readers and books.” People who demand shining moral examples limit both the experience of readers and the ability of writers to create a story. “To have no room as a reader for characters who fail in any way is simply to say I do not want to read any realistic book,” says Messud. “The artist’s obligation is to human truth.”
The good citizen
Bespectacled, soft-spoken Glen James had been homeless in Boston for years, living in a shelter at night and making do on food stamps and whatever spare change passersby would give him. But in September, while he sat outside amid the sprawling mix of big-box stores, bustling shoppers, and darting automobiles that is Dorchester’s South Bay Center, his life took a detour. For the better, too, after the fiftysomething James set an example for the rest of us.
That day, James spied a backpack that had been left by a stranger near an overturned shopping cart. He opened it and discovered $42,000 in cash and traveler’s checks inside. Despite his circumstances, James said later that he never entertained the thought of pocketing any of this treasure: He alerted police, who returned the money to its owner, a visiting Chinese student.
The student apparently did not give James a cent in thanks, but the homeless man’s unselfishness did not go unrewarded. Ethan Whittington, a young Virginian who had never met James or even been to Boston, set up an online fund that has collected more than $159,000 in donations, large and small, by similarly impressed people. Whittington reports that James now lives in transitional housing in Cambridge, aided by a support staff that helps him manage his money and medical needs.
Through it all, James did not ask for anything. But his simple and extraordinary act sent heartwarming ripples across the city and the nation, reminding us all of the power of a good deed.
The victims’ voice
When James “Whitey” Bulger succeeded in getting rid of a judge who had a conflict of interest in hearing his case, it was a Pyrrhic victory. US District Court Judge Denise Casper was the replacement. Bulger, besides being an FBI-protected serial killer, is a racist and misogynist. So it was more than ironic that his trial was presided over by the first black woman to sit as a federal judge in Massachusetts.
The 45-year-old Casper made it clear that neither the defense nor the prosecution ran the courtroom. She did. Casper earned Bulger’s enmity by refusing to let him raise his defense: that he had been given a license to kill by a conveniently dead prosecutor. When she offered him the opportunity to take the stand, Bulger declined, pronouncing his trial a sham. That obviously stuck in her craw, because in November, as she sentenced him to two life sentences, the judge fired back: “You can call it what you want, but in my humble estimation, you received the fair and full trial that every defendant in this country is entitled to.” A study of equanimity during the trial, Casper allowed her humanity to reveal itself during a nearly hourlong dressing-down of Bulger. She told him his crimes and depravity were almost unfathomable, and she couldn’t resist laying into Bulger’s oversize ego. “You and others may be deluded into thinking that you represent this city,” Casper said, “but you, sir, do not represent this city.” Afterward, Patricia Donahue, widow of a man murdered by Bulger, paid the judge the ultimate compliment: “It was like she was speaking for all of the victims. I love her.”
The fact checker
Over the last few years, deficit hawks determined to slash government spending needed to look no further for justification than Growth in a Time of Debt, a 2010 study by star Harvard professors Ken Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart. In Congress, Paul Ryan cited the paper — which maintained that economies shrink once debt crosses a certain percentage of gross domestic product — in his plan to gut federal support for food stamps and other social programs, while European Union officials harnessed it in defense of draconian austerity policies. The paper’s core finding became a new economic commandment: Thou Shalt Not Let Debt Surpass 90 Percent of GDP.
Problem was, as UMass Amherst doctoral student Thomas Herndon discovered in April, the commandment was flat wrong. Because the argument in the paper “seemed so implausible,” says the 28-year-old Northampton resident, he set out to replicate its results for his Econ 753 class. After cajoling data from the Harvard professors, Herndon quickly realized they’d made a rookie mistake: They had failed to select several rows in their Excel spreadsheet, throwing off a key calculation. When Herndon fixed that issue and others, he found that economies in debt beyond that supposed 90 percent red line did not in fact fall 0.1 percent a year. They grew 2.2 percent.
News of Herndon’s corrections rocketed around the world, getting him interviewed everywhere from “Der Spiegel” to “The Colbert Report,” but not all the feedback was positive. Some academics accused him and his coauthor professors of issuing a liberal hit piece, even though it was all politically neutral math. “My father said he could only read 10 percent of our paper,” Herndon says. “It was all charts and numbers.” And numbers don’t lie — assuming, that is, you don’t mess them up in Excel.
The lonely American
A wide-chested man whose pipe is rarely absent from his left hand, funeral director Peter Stefan, 66, endured the international spotlight in May after he agreed to arrange the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev — prompting vocal protests in front of his Graham Putnam & Mahoney Funeral Parlors in Worcester.
Finding a final resting place for one of the alleged Marathon bombers was a task no one wanted. Governor Deval Patrick declined to intervene, saying it was a family issue. Boston and Cambridge refused to let Tsarnaev’s remains be buried within their borders. Senate candidate Ed Markey opposed burial in Massachusetts, while his challenger, Gabriel Gomez, suggested the body be disposed of at sea like Osama bin Laden’s. All the while, crowds picketed outside the doors of Stefan’s funeral home, yelling to feed Tsarnaev to the sharks and chanting “USA! USA!”
Stefan has often borne the cost of burying the indigent, and in the early 1980s he prepared the bodies of AIDS victims for funerals when few would touch them. He spent days calling cemetery after cemetery to find a place for Tsarnaev’s body. “Somebody has to do it,” he said at the time. “In this country we bury our dead regardless of the circumstances.” After a week of protests and refusals, including in Connecticut and New Jersey, a Virginia woman arranged for Tsarnaev’s burial near Richmond.
“A body is a body,” Stefan says today, with the same defiance and resolve he demonstrated throughout the ordeal. “I’d bury him again, in a heartbeat.”
The youth seekers
Amy Wagers and Richard Lee
Can you really reverse the effects of aging? Stem-cell researchers Amy Wagers and Dr. Richard Lee have for years been examining the question — specifically, if something in the blood could rejuvenate heart tissue — but were doubtful they’d succeed.
The pair from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute used a technique called parabiosis to join the circulatory systems of two mice, one young and one old (mouse hearts, like human hearts, grow thicker and bigger with age). The results of Wagers and Lee’s experiment were dramatic: The young blood appeared to reverse the effects of aging, and the old heart returned to the size and thickness of the young heart. “Pretty much anybody looking at it could see it,” says the 40-year-old Wagers, who lives in Cambridge.
In May, Wagers and Lee announced they’d finally isolated the factor likely responsible for the miraculous transformation. It’s a protein called GDF11, and, yes, humans have it, too. GDF11 is not going to put Botox out of business any time soon, but the scientists are optimistic about the potential.
“Generally we’re very careful about saying that it’s not the fountain of youth,” Lee, who is also a cardiologist and lives in Weston, says with a laugh. He and Wagers are also careful to emphasize how much they relied on each other during their research. “When we demonstrate parabiosis,” the 55-year-old Lee says, “I play the older mouse, and Amy plays the younger mouse.” Then he laughs again, proving with or without GDF11, it’s always possible to stay young at heart.
The Tony winner
In the five years since he took over as the Huntington Theatre Company’s artistic director, Peter DuBois hasn’t changed his focus. He’s built on the company’s rich history both by nurturing a slate of local playwrights and recruiting high-profile projects from out of town. He’s done it while staying connected to New York City without getting lost in the neon lights.
“We have a deep commitment to the city that we’re part of,” DuBois told the Globe earlier this year. “But then we feel we’re part of a global community and part of a very vibrant theater scene.” That’s not just lip service. While the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge under artistic director Diane Paulus has become a kind of farm league for Broadway, the Huntington’s epicenter remains firmly in Boston.
Credit DuBois, 43, the Connecticut native who now calls the South End home. He’s brought in Ryan Landry and championed Melinda Lopez — she became the Huntington’s first playwright-in-residence. He landed and co-produced “The Jungle Book,” a musical adaptation of Disney’s 1967 film and Rudyard Kipling’s stories that ranks as the highest-grossing production in the company’s 31-year history. He’s also found time for off-Broadway projects, from freelance directing gigs to exporting Lydia Diamond’s “Stick Fly,” now being adapted into an hourlong drama for HBO.
All that activity hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2013, DuBois got to break out his tux to accept the Huntington’s latest honor: the 2013 Regional Theatre Tony Award. That’s no small feat. The last local to score that Tony was the American Repertory Theater in 1986.
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