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Barbara Ackermann, first woman to serve as Cambridge mayor, dies at 95

Mrs. Ackermann served on the Cambridge School Committee and City Council before being elected  mayor.
Mrs. Ackermann served on the Cambridge School Committee and City Council before being elected mayor.Berkshire Eagle

At the beginning of January 1972, Barbara Ackermann made history when the Cambridge City Council, in a 5-4 vote, elected her to be the first woman to serve as the city’s mayor.

“I don’t consider myself a radical,” she said that day. “I will say, though, the way to radicalize people is to do something they think is outrageous.”

Mrs. Ackermann, who was 95 when she died Saturday at her home in Kimball Farms Life Care in Lenox of complications from dementia, was elected mayor just a few days after the council repealed the city’s rent control law.

A supporter of rent control, she was a fierce advocate on behalf of Cambridge residents who were marginalized because of their race, income, or age.

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“I admired her tremendously,” said Barney Frank, a friend and former US representative.

“She was really kind of the model of the citizen who wanted to do right and got into politics because of that,” he added. “She had a dignity and an honesty that was really a good thing to see in politics.”

Mrs. Ackermann served two years as mayor under the so-called “weak mayor” system.

Cambridge’s city councilors elect the mayor from among their ranks. The mayor chairs the City Council and School Committee, while the city manager oversees municipal departments.

In 1978, Mrs. Ackermann sought the Democratic nomination for governor, finishing third in the primary behind the winner, Edward J. King, and incumbent Governor Michael S. Dukakis.

As mayor, she used the office’s visibility to call attention to many political issues, including some beyond the city’s borders.

After protests roiled Harvard Square in April 1972, a reporter asked what she thought contributed to the disturbance.

“It’s important to remember that the president of the United States is committing murder, arson, and armed robbery in Vietnam against the clear wishes of the American people,” Mrs. Ackermann told the Globe. “There are many factors in situations like this, but that is certainly one.”

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A couple of days later, she filed a motion — which the City Council defeated — that would have billed President Richard Nixon for the cost of paying Cambridge police officers who were called in during the Harvard Square demonstrations.

“She was protesting the Vietnam War long before other people were,” recalled her daughter, the writer Joan Ackermann of Mill River.

Mrs. Ackermann also had pushed for a kind of single-payer health care system that was a forerunner to today’s Medicare for all proposals.

“My mother championed the poor and the disadvantaged,” Joan said. “She worked hard for housing for the elderly. She was very passionate about her causes and about justice.”

Mrs. Ackermann, she added, “didn’t have a mean bone in her body and she was very honorable. She always told the truth. She had a very strong moral compass and she always held to it. She never compromised her values.”

Born in Stockholm on March 1, 1925, Barbara Hulley was the daughter of Benjamin Hulley, a consul in the US Foreign Service, and Joan Carrington, who had been born in England and grew up in New Zealand.

The second of four siblings, Mrs. Ackermann grew up in Ireland and France before finishing high school in the United States as World War II began in Europe.

A classics major at Smith College, she studied Greek and Latin and graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

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While working as a copy editor and at other jobs in New York City during college summers, she went to a concert and met Paul Kurt Ackermann, a German immigrant who was doing graduate work at Columbia University.

They married in 1946 and later relocated to Greater Boston, where he graduated with a doctorate from Harvard University and went on to teach German literature at Boston University. He died in 2011.

While in her 20s, Mrs. Ackermann sold a short story to the Atlantic Monthly.

“I was a writer before I was in politics,” she told the Globe in 1989 after publishing a memoir, " ‘You the Mayor?’ The Education of a City Politician.”

Before seeking elective office, Mrs. Ackermann wrote, edited, and did proofreading.

“I had never dreamed of getting into politics until I did it, but I took to it like a duck to water,” she told the Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, in 1978. “There was a zoning case in my neighborhood and I was trying to be a writer. It was the first time I realized that words could have an effect.”

Initially volunteering with the PTA, she was elected to three Cambridge School Committee terms in the 1960s. She was elected to the City Council in 1967 and served for 10 years before losing a reelection bid in 1977.

Along with her efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged and marginalized, she also opposed the Inner Belt — a proposed highway that would have cut through parts of Boston, Cambridge, and other communities. The project eventually was canceled, in large part due to activists’ efforts.

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While serving in government, Mrs. Ackermann was raising her two children.

“More and more women are realizing that they can do both,” she told the Crimson in 1978. “It is really difficult for an intellectual woman, a doer, to stay home.”

Work followed her home, anyway. Constituents called at all hours, particularly when she was mayor, often with requests that only the city manager had the authority to address.

“This book is about what I learned along the way: about how, if you do, you get the snow picked up, the riots quelled,” Mrs. Ackermann wrote in her memoir, adding: “The book raises far more questions than it answers. So did the job.”

Never completely comfortable with the trappings of power, such as the city’s big mayor’s car that was equipped with a siren, she often rode a bike through Cambridge, including to work, and started a biking program.

“She was a wonderful mother,” said Joan, who added that “people were attracted to my mother’s kind nature, her terrific smile, and her gifted generosity of spirit.”

Joan recalled that on vacations to Europe, her mother “was a real adventurer” — hiking and swimming, even in inclement weather.

“Whenever there was a body of water — ocean, river, lake — my mother always went in, no matter how cold it was,” Joan said.

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Back home, Mrs. Ackermann served on panels such as Cambridge’s health policy board after her elected official days had ended. Some residents, meanwhile, treated her as if she had never left office.

“Even in her 80s, when I’d take her to Star Market, people would stop her and say, ‘Hello, mayor,’ " Joan said. “She was a hero.”

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Ackermann leaves a son, Rick of Portland, Maine; a brother, Stephen Hulley of Orcas Island, Wash.; and a grandchild.

Mrs. Ackermann was a Quaker and her family invites everyone to reflect on her life, from their own homes, during an hour-long Quaker Meeting that will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday.

In her memoir, she recalled that during an intermission of a frustrating City Council meeting, a friend asked her why she didn’t simply quit.

“If I didn’t believe that somehow our government does contain the power to bring about change, I would indeed quit,” Mrs. Ackermann wrote, and added: “I’m an optimist.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.