Greg Torres died much as he lived, purposefully and unostentatiously. He had fought cancer bravely, but the time had come to let go, he decided. That was Greg, who passed away this week at 73.
It’s hard to think of a nonpolitician who had a larger effect on public policy in Massachusetts over the past four decades than Torres, whether from positions in state agencies or as an instrumental legislative staffer or as CEO of a human services company or as leader of MassINC, this state’s essential civic nonprofit.
He cared deeply about a range of complex public policy issues, a practical idealist who dedicated his working life to making things better for those struggling with life’s challenges. Yet he had been happy to play a behind-the-scenes role, neither seeking nor wanting credit beyond the satisfaction of seeing life improve for people born or raised in tough circumstances or trying to set their lives right. His father’s journey from an impoverished family in rural El Salvador to a scholarship at Notre Dame to a middle-class existence in New York and New Jersey gave him a particular sympathy for immigrants seeking a better way of life in America.
I first met Torres back in 1985, when he became chief of staff for Patricia McGovern, the first woman to serve as Ways and Means chair in the Massachusetts Senate. I last saw him in late June. Although gaunt and ailing, he was the same warm and convivial guy, his face assuming the sly grin that always preceded a witty gibe at a longtime acquaintance.
In many ways, Greg found not just his calling but his life in one of his first jobs upon moving to Massachusetts after graduating from St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa. He began working with incarcerated teens in a Department of Youth Services facility. From that experience, he became a lifelong advocate for criminal justice reform and for the deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients he believed would fare better in a community setting.
There, he also met Betsy Pattullo, his future wife of 42 years. Their first kind-of-date, she recalled, was dinner at her railroad flat in Central Square, a meal that included three DYS teenagers she was counseling. Greg and Betsy were talking in the living room, the trio of teenagers in the kitchen. Until the adults noticed things had grown strangely quiet. Two of the young men had flown the coop.
“He ran to the subway looking for them, and then worked his magic, and brought them back to the DYS facility,” Betsy remembered.
Part of what made Greg so effective was that he combined extensive knowledge of policy particulars with a keen understanding of how politics really works, which led to well-developed plans for achieving his policy goals.
“He was always playing chess and he was always a couple of moves ahead of everyone else, but he was so unassuming in his approach that it left everybody else unaware and flatfooted,” said Dwight Robson, who worked with Torres at The MENTOR Network (now Sevita) a Boston-headquartered human services company that Torres grew into a national powerhouse.
Another part was his engaging nature. “He had a remarkable personality, which created loyalty and affection for him,” said former fellow state government official Ned Murphy. “People trusted him, and it was in large part because of the way he interacted with them.”
He was an important source for reporters, and with his knowledge of the legislative process and penchant for politics, was adept at shaping the narrative at the State House. And he was the one McGovern turned to when journalists wanted a deep-dive explanation of this initiative or that.
Molly Baldwin, the founder and CEO of Roca, a multistate organization that works with youth at the center of urban violence, recalled that while her early mentors had sometimes looked askance on the criminal justice system, “Greg said these young people are engaging with police, with probation, with correction, so we have to find a way to work with people in the system that didn’t infuriate them, but rather helped them move young people forward.”
“He was a believer in the role of government and the difference it made in people’s lives,” said Geri Denterlein, a former journalist and owner of a communications company, who served on the board when Torres ran and expanded MassINC. In that role, he was the driving strategic force behind this state’s 2018 criminal justice reform law.
In typical Torres fashion, he didn’t want a memorial service. He doesn’t need one. The many people he worked with over the years will carry the memory of his friendship, his kindness, his sense of purpose, and his example with them throughout their lives.