Metro

1959 photo of Fidel Castro in Westwood recalls dawn of an era

When George N. Lester took this photo of Fidel Castro at the train station in Westwood, the Cuban revolutionary had been prime minister of the island nation just four months.
George N. Lester
When George N. Lester took this photo of Fidel Castro at the train station in Westwood, the Cuban revolutionary had been prime minister of the island nation just four months.

Fifty-seven years ago, a young couple drove with their 13-month-old son to the Route 128 train station in Westwood. There, George N. Lester snapped a photo of a young Cuban revolutionary standing in a train, leaning forward against a gate with a confident smile and a cigar poking out of his mouth.

“I think Fidel Castro is going to be important this century,” his wife, Virginia Lester, now 85, recalled saying before their visit to the station. “We should go see him.”

The son, also named George N. Lester, is now 58. An immigration attorney, he commutes into Boston from that same station. And he has two sons of his own. The younger one, Jake, a 20-year-old junior at Colby College, just booked flights Saturday for a study abroad trip next semester — to Cuba.

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“We had no connection with Cuba or Castro,” recalled the elder George Lester, sitting in the dining room of his Westwood home Sunday afternoon.

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Castro died Friday after a long and controversial reign in Cuba, but when Lester took the photo, he had been prime minister for only four months.

Lester, 88, a hobbyist photographer whose son and grandson inherited his interest in the art form, brought his Contaflex camera to the station that day and took a single shot using Plus X film. He forgot about the photo until he came across it last year while using a scanner to digitize old pictures, he said.

The couple do not recall the date but said the photo was taken when Castro’s train, which appeared to have a private car for him at the rear, stopped in Westwood.

Castro had visited Boston on April 25, 1959, to give a speech at Harvard, which began with one of the deans apologizing for rejecting his application to the college 11 years earlier, according to an op-ed article by Harvard Kennedy School professor Graham Allison, published in the Globe earlier this year.

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The press covered Castro’s visit to Boston, which was part of his multicity US tour.

“There were more guns than guests in the Fortress Hilton yesterday afternoon as the leader of Cuban revolution arrived at the hotel for his overnight stay,” according to a Globe article from April 26, 1959.

The Lesters — George Jr., 58, Virginia, 85, George Sr., 88, and Jake, 20 — gathered to talk about George Sr.’s photograph of Fidel Castro, which he made in 1959 when the Cuban revolutionary’s train stopped in Westwood.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
The Lesters — George Jr., 58, Virginia, 85, George Sr., 88, and Jake, 20 — gathered to talk about George Sr.’s photograph of Castro, which he made in 1959 when the Cuban revolutionary’s train stopped in Westwood.

An apparent attempt on Castro’s life a day earlier in New York City by a man from Boston had sparked the extra caution.

As Castro spoke in Central Park to a crowd of 35,000 on April 24, police arrested a 23-year-old Roslindale man, an Army veteran, who attempted to scale a barrier near the Cuban revolutionary with a homemade bomb, according to Globe reports at the time.

The news media reported that police, who said the bomb’s explosion could have extended 300 feet, had quoted the former Army sergeant as saying, “It was just for kicks. I didn’t intend to hurt people.”

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By the time Castro arrived a day later in Boston at the Statler Hilton — now the Boston Park Plaza — “Human walls of blue uniformed men surrounded the building,” with about 600 law enforcement officers to oversee his entrance, according to Globe reports.

From the sealed-off 13th floor where Castro was staying, “men patrolled alert and ready for any threat to the life of the bearded Cuban.”

The security was so intense that taxpayers became concerned about the cost.

But on that day at the Westwood train station, where according to Virginia Lester the weather was “cold but promising of spring,” there was no wall of law enforcement or crowds of curious foreigners, she recalled.

The Lesters lived in Hyde Park at the time but had gone to the suburban town to check the progress on a home they were building on Oak Street. They had heard about Castro’s visit, checked when he would be stopping at the Route 128 station, and decided to go see him.

The couple, who grew up in Georgia, came to Boston in the 1950s and still speak with a slight Southern twang. They met on a blind date and married in 1956. He worked as an electrical engineer, and she as a secretary.

Jake Lester said he has developed a sense of adventure through the photographs his grandfather took over the years, from Castro to Winston Churchill (when Lester was in England for a time), and gained an emphasis on understanding and appreciating other cultures, beyond the sightseeing.

Cuba, he said, was an obvious choice for his study abroad.

“I get to speak Spanish, I get to play music, and I get to learn about somewhere new that is shrouded in mystery for us Americans,” said Lester, who loves Latin percussion.

He plans to meet up with the Medfield High School jazz band during its trip to Cuba, which happens to coincide with his study abroad.

He spoke of how his grandfather’s photo of Castro smiling confidently from the train car at the Westwood Station reminded him of two photos by photojournalist Burt Glinn, showing the Cuban leader in fatigues and exhibiting the same self-assuredness.

“My generation used to go to see the sights,” said his grandmother. “This generation gets immersed in the culture itself, and that’s so much better.”

She then turned to her grandson. “I’m glad you’ll have all these adventures,” she said. “My adventures were to go over to the train station and see something new!”

George Lester Sr., with wife Virginia Lester. He photographed Castro in 1959.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
George Lester Sr., with wife Virginia Lester. He photographed Castro in 1959.

Lisa Tuite of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Nicole Fleming can be reached at nicole.fleming@globe.com.