David Mugar’s generosity was legendary, but he was the type of philanthropist who preferred to stay behind the scenes rather than stand on center stage.
Mugar was best known for nurturing — and at times bankrolling — what has become a national treasure: the Fourth of July celebration with fireworks and cannon fire over the Esplanade as the Boston Pops plays Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”
So you can understand why Mugar was taken aback when lifelong friend Bill Brett told him about an effort to honor him with a statue on the Esplanade. With tears in his eyes, Mugar reluctantly blessed the project, but with one request: “Do it after I die.”
That helps explain why, after-then Governor Charlie Baker went public with the idea in 2016, no one heard much — until after Mugar died on January 25, 2022, at 82.
Mugar’s passing jumpstarted the family’s process of finding a sculptor. They chose Woburn artist Robert Shure who is known for his public memorials for firefighters and veterans.
On Saturday, the Mugar family unveiled a bronze statue of David Mugar on the oval lawn in front of the Hatch Shell, immortalizing the businessman-turned-philanthropist and his words: “You bring the music, and I’ll bring the fireworks.”
The statue depicts Mugar dressed in a button-down shirt, gripping a walkie-talkie, which he used to coordinate the music with the fireworks and the cannons. He is smiling as he gazes over the lawn where millions of spectators have gathered to listen to the Pops and watch the fireworks.
“His soul comes out of that statue,” said Jennifer Mugar, one of David’s three children.
The statue also captures one of Jennifer’s favorite memories on July 4th, that moment when her father took a break from being the “maestro of logistics” and wandered along the Esplanade.
“He would look into the crowds on that day with such a warm smile on his face,” she recalled, “seeing how all of these people are together, celebrating the same thing, enjoying a day together just to remember our country’s history, and spending time with their families.”
The Mugar family raised money to build the statue, which will be maintained by the Department of Conservation and Recreation because it sits on state land. His is the first statue on the Hatch Shell oval since 1958, when one was erected in honor of Maurice Tobin, the former Boston mayor, governor, and secretary of labor under President Harry Truman.
Mugar was the scion of the Armenian-American family that built the Star Market grocery chain before selling it more than a half-century ago. He grew up in the business, chasing carriages in parking lots and stocking shelves.
One of my favorite memories of Mugar is him walking the aisles of a Wegmans grocery store with me in 2015 to get his opinion on the New York import as it was breaking into the Massachusetts market.
Mugar dabbled in development and at one time owned WHDH-TV (Ch. 7). But he spent most of his life giving money away, with the Mugar name gracing institutions across the region, from the Museum of Science’s Mugar Omni Theater to the Boston University’s Mugar Memorial Library.
But what he will be most remembered for is the unlikely friendship he struck with the legendary Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler — a friendship that changed how we celebrate the Fourth of July.
The two were “sparks,” bonding over listening to the police scanner for the next big fire to chase. They would often drive out together. But Mugar also loved music and noticed how attendance at the free July Fourth concerts Fiedler started on the Esplanade was dwindling.
One day in 1974, Mugar worked up the courage to ask if he could liven up the series. Perhaps while the Pops played the “1812 Overture,” Mugar could accompany the piece with fireworks, church bells, and cannon fire. A tradition was born.
At Saturday’s dedication ceremony, Baker, now the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, offered a statement for the Mugar family to share.
“I am so glad David’s statue will stand on this sacred ground for eternity — a gracious reminder of all he has meant to this very special celebration of our hopes and aspirations,” Baker said.
While Mugar started with Fiedler, his longest Pops collaborator is the current conductor, Keith Lockhart, who has led the orchestra since 1995. The two worked together until Mugar retired as the executive producer of the Pops Fireworks Spectacular in 2016.
Lockhart said many people may not know that the fireworks celebration is neither organized nor financed by the City of Boston. Over the years, the Pops, Mugar, and corporate funders have kept the tradition alive. And in years when more money was needed, Mugar would tap his personal fortune, Lockhart said.
“It’s not only David’s vision and his passion for this particular project. It’s also a statue to philanthropy and civic generosity,” Lockhart told me. “There were shortfalls many of those years, and he put the money in himself.”
Fiedler died in 1979, and now the two sparks behind our famous fireworks are reunited on the Esplanade. Just beyond the Mugar statue sits Fiedler’s bust by the Charles River.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.