He calls him Tommy. Tommy calls him Mr. O’Brien or, for reasons not entirely known, Grumpy.
It’s pretty much been that way since the beginning: When Bill O’Brien was coaching his son in hockey and Tommy was a state senator’s staffer. When O’Brien was one of five guys hunkered in Tommy’s Hyde Park basement plotting his first run for office. When Tommy was a city councilor and quietly slipped away from Saturday morning games at the George Wright Golf Course to attend a neighborhood meeting and often another at night. When Tommy shouted hello to O’Brien from behind a wall of people wanting a word with the mayor as he breakfasted at the Westbury Restaurant after church on Sundays.
“He was a big shot, but he never acted that way,” said O’Brien a 76-year-old retired traffic investigator for the city.
O’Brien is among the hundreds, even thousands, of fiercely loyal supporters of Thomas M. Menino, a cadre that has made for an astoundingly powerful political machine, the sort that could be called up to create record-
making wins for Menino or help send Menino’s allies into office, most recently, US Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Yesterday, O’Brien had to breathe deeply before he talked about his friend’s decision to step down after two decades as mayor. The news left him reeling, nursing an ache deep down where loss and remembrance reside.
“I understand why he’s doing it. I do,” he said. “But I feel real sad.”
Worse, he said, was how he imagined his friend feeling. “I know it’s got to be killing him because he loves this job.”
O’Brien, an Irish immigrant who moved to Boston when he was 17 and settled in Roslindale after marrying, met Menino when he was working as a salesman and repairman at a Honeywell plant. From the beginning, O’Brien recalled Menino as a blur of activity.
“When he started to run for City Council, but even before that, he never let up. He was always calling people, organizing things,” O’Brien called. “People couldn’t believe how he could be in so many places.”
To wit: In the midst of helping to run state Senator Joseph Timilty’s mayoral campaign, Menino was setting up tournaments for Hyde Park Youth Hockey. “Tommy was always around and willing to help out.”
In 1983, when Menino saw a political opportunity for himself, O’Brien was quick to sign on.
“People used to say, ‘What are you doing helping an Italian? You’re Irish,’” he said “But I just felt he was a good person, a decent person. A real good guy.”
Menino’s impact on Roslindale was soon measurable after he won a City Council seat, O’Brien said. “He did an awful lot for Roslindale. He brought the Main Streets program to Roslindale,”
So impressed was O’Brien that he went on to work on every Menino campaign thereafter, making signs, holding signs, working the phones. He and his wife have attended every one of Menino’s annual neighborhood breakfasts, some 30 by his count.
O’Brien, like so many others, was a beneficiary of Menino’s. When he lost his job in the 1990s, Menino helped him land a city job as a parking enforecment officer. When he and his wife planned a trip to Washington for their 50th anniversary, Menino arranged a White House tour and saw to it that Senator John Kerry secured the American flag that had flown over the Capitol on a day shortly before their wedding anniversary. “I am forever grateful for what he did,” O’Brien said.
Which isn’t to say that he was a sycophant.
“I used to joke with him when he’d say, ‘I’m going to work.’ I’d say, ‘I wish I had a job like that, riding around the city all day with a driver.’”
On Thursday, when the two old friends were talking by phone shortly before Menino’s scheduled address, O’Brien gingerly asked, “Are you all through?”
“Yes,” came the response.
O’Brien reassured his friend, saying, “I feel bad about it, but I understand.” Menino responded, “Ah well, It’s been 20 years. It’s time. We’ll talk about it. We’ll sit on a park bench and talk about it.”
And with that, the old friends agreed to reconvene the conversation, when the mayor was at rest.