If he had an epiphany, Joe Gallo said, it was the day he stopped to look at the Vendome Memorial by Ted Clausen and Peter White on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. The monument commemorates the nine firefighters who died in the Hotel Vendome blaze on June 17, 1972, with words on black granite and a firefighter’s helmet and turnout coat in bronze.
“It was just a very scary feeling, a very emotional feeling for how these people put their lives on the line, and yet it was coming from stone,’’ said Gallo, 62. “How do you emit a feeling like that from stone and bronze?’’
That was in 2006. Gallo had moved from the suburbs to a condo at Lincoln Wharf and started walking around Boston, which he found more beautiful than he’d ever seen it. Gallo is a history buff, an art lover, and an amateur photographer. As he walked, he found his attention and his lens drawn to the city’s statues and monuments.
He wanted to know more about the city’s public art, but he found only a few outdated books on the topic. Eventually he decided, “I’m an entrepreneur, I’ll do one myself.’’
The result is “Boston Bronze and Stone Speak to Us’’ by Joseph R. Gallo Jr., a handsome 254-page large-format paperback labor of love. The self-published book is full of color photographs, maps, and historical vignettes on more than 150 statues, busts, and plaques.
‘I had gone to Boston my whole life to see all the statues, but there were things I’d never even seen.’
The book covers monuments famous and obscure, and from the stirring Augustus Saint-Gaudens memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment on the Common to Nancy Schön’s “Make Way for Ducklings’’ sculpture in the Public Garden. Historical figures, women’s rights pioneers and star athletes get their due right alongside tortoise and hare.
Gallo said he hopes the book inspires people to look not only at the statues, but at the men and women behind them. Many, he said, are leaders whose examples we need in an era of Wall Street greed and personal irresponsibility.
“I was really concerned about where our country was going. When I was just having this printed, they were doing Occupy Boston. And it concerns me that this country is 1 percent and 99 percent,’’ he said. “When the Puritans came here, their ideal - that’s where we get the term commonwealth. The common wealth. Not the 1 percent and the 99 percent.’’
For an example of a businessman who did the right thing, he points to the bronze relief of Edward Filene on the Boston Common by sculptor George Aarons, which appears on page 16 of the book. “What he did is he gave back to the workers,’’ Gallo said, by establishing the first credit union and pioneering other benefits now taken for granted.
Gallo tends to get carried away with his enthusiasms. His sounding board on the book project was an old friend from Saugus High School, historian Louis Jordan, who is now director of rare books and special collections for the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame. When he came for an overnight visit a few years ago, Jordan realized how deeply Gallo was attached to the topic.
“He got me up at, oh gosh, it was like 5 a.m., we went out and started to go around looking at statues here and there,’’ Jordan says laughing. “I don’t think we stopped till the sun went down. We had something to eat now and then, but literally, we kept going and going and going. And we did that again more than once.’’
Jordan says Gallo’s enthusiasm translates into something valuable for Bostonians and visitors.
“I had gone to Boston my whole life to see all the statues, but there were things I’d never even seen,’’ said Jordan, who was drafted to check the text. “It’s no question that the passion he has is amazing and that’s the only way he was able to continue and go through the tremendous amount of research involved just to find these things.
“But what I really think is wonderful about this is that it’s written for a man on the street, by a man on the street,’’ Jordan said. “He doesn’t try to get into great depths of interpretation, but to give the kind of general interpretation where an individual who might have heard the name but doesn’t know much about it would get a good flavor of that person or time period.’’
Gallo’s connection to the city goes back to his maternal grandparents, who emigrated from Italy and lived in the North End. He grew up in Saugus, briefly taught high school biology, and founded Plantscape Designs Inc. The 20-employee firm, based in Stoneham, leases plants to businesses and cares for them.
Along the way Gallo married, had two kids, and got divorced. He’s now married to Jeannine, who works at his company. For many years they lived in Lynnfield. He bought a condo near the water on Cape Ann, planning to retire there.
When the Central Artery was coming down, he bought the Lincoln Wharf condo as an investment and rented it out. But when the Greenway replaced the Artery, Gallo liked what he saw. He sold the house in Lynnfield and moved to the Boston waterfront. And started going for lots of walks.
“Boston Bronze and Stone Speak to Us,’’ $30, is on sale at places like the Old North Church gift shop and the Freedom Trail visitor center, as well as Amazon.com.
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org