It was the last day of summer camp in late August on Long Island in Boston Harbor when I last saw former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. He was standing well outside the limelight while watching the talent show at Camp Harbor View — the beautifully appointed camp for city kids ages 11 to 14 that he created with philanthropist Jack Connors Jr. back in 2007. Menino didn’t say much. He mostly just absorbed the scene. If not for this place — and this man — there would be a lot of missing childhoods in Boston.
Normally, children converged like crazy on Menino when he appeared at schools, community centers, or other kid venues. They’ve known him and seen him around for years. He’s like family. Even better, maybe. But on this afternoon, Menino stayed largely out of sight. None of the usual chucks under the children’s chins or queries about which schools they attended. He was contemplative, a word not usually associated with Menino’s full-speed-ahead persona.
About a year before he announced that he wouldn’t be running for a sixth term, Menino mentioned to me that he wanted to work with kids during the next stage of his life. He ended up at an institute at Boston University. So maybe college kids count. But it was the elementary and middle school set that connected most strongly with Menino. Some social scientists believe that kids are drawn to adults who look like their parents or possess classically attractive physical features. We can probably rule those out in Menino’s case. So what was it?
Menino’s recently-published memoir offers a hint. He wrote about the influences of his own father, Carl, who was a shop foreman in Hyde Park. Menino’s dad heard people out. He was a sharp dresser. He was good-natured — usually. Like father, like son. Essentially, these are all outward signs of respect for others. Menino respected children. And they could sense it.
Menino spent a life and career preparing fertile ground. His father planted for him. And Menino, in turn, planted for his children, grandchildren, and all the kids in Boston. He always planted a little something extra for disadvantaged kids, determined that more opportunities for them would bloom than wither.
Menino’s reticence on the last day of camp probably had something to do with the awareness that his own life was coming to a close. He shouldn’t have worried. Like kids, Menino’s accomplishments in Boston are open-ended.