Conor Pewarski was a 23-year-old aspiring film producer when he set that dream aside, packed up a U-Haul, and moved halfway across the country to help his girlfriend, Michelle Wu, through a family crisis.
Her mother was spiraling into mental illness, her father worked overseas, and her two younger sisters were floundering. The difficult family dynamics might have tested long-married couples but Pewarski signed up for them, giving up a job offer in Hollywood to move to Chicago with Wu. By the time she moved back east for Harvard Law School and became her 13-year-old sister’s guardian, Pewarski was part of the team, living with them in Cambridge. He was two years out of college and not yet engaged to Wu.
“What the heck is this kid doing?” his father, Glen Pewarski, recalled thinking when he learned about the decision to move to Chicago in 2008. “Who is this girl?”
“It was pretty remarkable,” said his roommate at Yale University, Alek Bierig. “He was just like, ‘No, I’m here now and I have to be there for Michelle. We’re there for each other and we have to see this through.’ “
Thirteen years and two children later, Pewarski is still by Wu’s side, her staunchest supporter. And since her inauguration last week as the mayor, he is now the first gentleman of Boston — a ceremonial title that he doesn’t think he needs but that greatly amuses his friends. While it’s unclear what exactly the role will entail for him, it already means leaving his job temporarily to focus on the family. With young sons, 4 and 6, to help raise, Pewarski wants to step up to give his wife the “space and energy” she’ll need to launch an aggressive reform agenda.
“I don’t see myself as giving up my career altogether. But it’s hard to say that there’s a more important job than what my wife is doing,” Pewarski said. “So, really, my primary job right now is making her successful at that.”
If you haven’t heard of Conor Pewarski, he’s probably OK with that. He’s someone who actively avoids the spotlight, though his wife has been in the public eye for nearly a decade. His interview with the Globe last week was his first.
While Wu was dazzling crowds on her ascent to the mayor’s office, the economics and film studies major was pursuing a career far from the limelight, as a community lender for East Boston Savings Bank.
On Friday, he resigned from that job, saying his workplace is coincidentally facing a moment of transition. East Boston Savings Bank was just acquired by Rockland Trust Bank, and it seemed “a good point to take a break from banking to spend more time with my family,” Pewarski said.
To friends and relatives, such decisions speak to his abiding commitment to Wu as well as his easygoing temperament.
“He doesn’t need any personal accolades or things like that to feel important. He’s not that guy,” said his friend Ed Rich. “He’s really just egoless.”
An overachiever himself who, like Wu, received a perfect score on his SATs, Pewarski nonetheless jokes that it’s easy to take a step back, “when your wife’s smarter than you.”
“I just knew from really the first time I met Michelle that she was someone who was going to be able to do big things,” Pewarski said. “It just seemed natural to support her.”
Raised on Long Island, the 36-year-old Pewarski is the oldest of five highly educated siblings. His two sisters graduated from Harvard, while his brothers went to Amherst and Columbia. He grew up in Garden City, a town he describes as a fairly homogenous, upper-middle-class community steeped in Catholic traditions and obsessed with sports. Pewarski ran track and played football, basketball, and lacrosse, but points to his sisters as the star athletes in the family. His claim to fame, still commemorated on the last page of the Garden City Trojans’ football programs: He tied the school record for the most interceptions in a game, snagging three in the first game he started.
“I was a one-game wonder,” he joked.
His parents are Republicans but keen supporters of Wu, so much so that Glen Pewarski gushes about working the election polls for her in Roslindale. Glen Pewarski is a medical malpractice defense attorney of mostly Polish and Irish descent, while his Italian American wife, Annmarie, gave up her career as a Manhattan attorney after having her second child.
As a millennial working mother, Wu has taken a different tack, often showcasing her dual roles by bringing her children to events and even nursing a baby in the City Council chambers. Pewarski not only supports her political ambitions, she said; he also nudged her toward them, back when she was galvanized by government policy but, like him, wary of the limelight.
“He’s been the first to really push me,” Wu said. “The first to see the possibilities that I didn’t even see on my own.”
Other women standard-bearers credit supportive family members for helping them stay focused on their careers as they juggled the demands of children and their own exacting expectations. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband, Martin, famously championed her career above his own. Senator Elizabeth Warren often tells the story of how her fledgling law school teaching career was nearly dashed by child care problems until her “Aunt Bee” moved in with the family.
Perhaps every aspiring mayor could use a Conor in her corner.
“He’s so even-keeled, he never complains,” Rich said. “He just sort of accepts things as they come. It’s just the right temperament to have to be in his position.”
The supporting role of political spouse has traditionally been held by women, who only in recent years have begun to assert their independence. First lady Jill Biden is the first to continue working full time from the White House, as a community college writing professor. The nation’s first second gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, is also teaching, at Georgetown Law School, but stepped away from his work as an entertainment lawyer while his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, is in the White House.
But gender roles “are not changing as much as some of us might like to think,” said Tammy R. Vigil, an associate professor of communication at Boston University and the author of “Moms in Chief: The Rhetoric of Republican Motherhood and the Spouses of Presidential Nominees, 1992–2016.” She’s now studying Emhoff’s role and assessing how much more media attention he’s attracting for handling run-of-the-mill second-spouse duties because he is a man.
“Instead of saying he’s the vanguard of a new type of masculinity, instead he’s just looked at as the oddity,” she said. “The women who do that work, it’s just what they’re supposed to do.”
Pewarski will be able to craft his own persona, she said, and probably with less criticism than a woman would receive.
“He’s not expected to do it because it’s not an expected gender role,” she said. But he could gain plenty of positive attention by demonstrating his support in a public fashion. “Especially if you’re a man it’s considered so unusual that you get a whole lot more positive response for a whole lot less actual activity,” she said.
The gender dynamics will be especially tested in Wu’s tenure since the couple is raising young children and have no full-time child care provider. (Both Wu’s mother and brother live downstairs, though, and her sisters are nearby in Jamaica Plain.)
Not that the first gentleman will handle everything domestic. Though he mostly manages the boys’ morning routine now, Wu still lays out their clothes and reads to them at night, among other caregiving duties, he said.
“My wife always does more than her fair share. That’s just who she is,” Pewarski said. “If I get lazy on any one piece of it, then she’s going to immediately jump in.”
One thing he makes a priority, Pewarski said, is providing his wife a refuge from politics when she returns home to Roslindale, careful not to drag her back into “the political drama of the day.”
“It’s great to have a front-row seat with somebody who’s a player in this game of Boston politics, which is really intense,” he said. “But you have to always recognize that it’s very healthy for your partner to not have politics being an all-consuming thing that defines them as a person. That’s not what got you into the relationship in the first place.”
The couple met through mutual friends when Pewarski wound up at a party Wu was hosting after the Harvard-Yale game. Their long-distance romance continued while he finished college, a year after she graduated, and joined her in Chicago, a commitment she came to fully appreciate only after her family crisis was resolved.
“We met in college at a time when neither of us would have imagined our lives would end up this way,” Wu said. “But we’ve grown together and he’s been my rock for every twist and turn on this journey.”