Before they were candidates: A beloved bike, an interlude on the Vineyard

From left:Steve Grossman and his father in 1969, Juliette Kayyem and two of her students in South Africa in 1992, and Joe Avellone on his motorcycle in 1970.
From left:Steve Grossman and his father in 1969, Juliette Kayyem and two of her students in South Africa in 1992, and Joe Avellone on his motorcycle in 1970.

They’re the stories you don’t hear on the campaign trail.

Martha Coakley spent 15 months on Martha’s Vineyard, mopping floors, substitute teaching, and managing a condo building between college and law school. As apartheid was coming undone in South Africa, 22-year-old Juliette Kayyem taught at the University of Western Cape. In 1969, in the Deep South, Steven Grossman trained to be a soldier and was seared by the experience of being on the military funeral detail for a man who died in Vietnam.

Like all political candidates, the Democrats running to succeed Governor Deval Patrick craft a version of their life story that they tell voters, highlighting certain achievements, while rarely mentioning others aspects of their careers.


But a look at their early adult years offers a glimpse of who the candidates were before they became polished politicos.

Steve Grossman and his father, Edgar Grossman, in 1969.
Steve Grossman and his father, Edgar Grossman, in 1969.

A funeral burned in his memory

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It was 1969, the Vietnam War was in full swing and Steven Grossman was on active duty training in the US Army Reserve at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. He learned the regimented military schedule, how to shoot, and how to throw a hand grenade.

But his most profound experience began with an order from a lieutenant.

He remembers being told that he had been selected to be on a funeral detail and then spending hours polishing his shoes and getting his uniform in perfect shape. There was a long drive to rural Georgia and then the arrival in front of a small house in a tiny town.

In the front yard, he remembers pigs rooting around in the mud and barefoot children. Inside the home, there was a coffin with the body of a young man killed after being in Vietnam only 10 days. Grossman recalls going to cemetery, the folding of the flag, the ashen faces.


The name of the soldier, the name of town — lost to the passage of more than 45 years. But the visceral details of funeral rites have stayed with Grossman, who served for about 4½ years in the Reserve and did not deploy overseas, according to his military record.

“I can close my eyes and see the front parlor. I see the clock. I see the coffin. I see the flag. I see the mother. I see the kids. I see the townspeople,” he says.

“And for what? For an unjust war that never should have happened. And, anyhow —” Grossman trails off.

Joe Avellone on his motorcycle on Cape Cod in August, 1970.
Joe Avellone on his motorcycle on Cape Cod in August, 1970.

Bonds built on a motorbike

Joe Avellone felt every bump in the road.

It was 1970. Medical school loomed. And Avellone, a freshly minted Dartmouth College graduate, had bought a World War II-era British motorcycle from a local farmer, after spotting an ad for it in a New Hampshire newspaper.


The bike, a Birmingham Small Arms, had a single cylinder and no shock absorbers. It made a loud chugging sound in action, Avellone recalls.

But it did the job, shuttling him from the farmer’s house to Woods Hole, where he began his summer job as a food and drink vendor aboard the SS Nantucket, a Steamship Authority boat.

Avellone remembers the routine: two grueling days on, two glorious days off. And nights sleeping in the crew’s quarters aboard the boat.

When he was working, he’d haul beer, wine, soda and food on board. He and a fellow concessionaire would sell it to passengers for two trips to Nantucket and back; then they’d haul the trash off the boat, clean up, and do it again the next day.

When he was off, he roamed the Cape and Islands on his bike, tromped through dunes, attended parties, and hung out at Woods Hole drinking establishments. One of his favorite spots was South Beach on Martha’s Vineyard. It was part of a summer that was “a little break from the real world.”

Avellone, an Ohio native, said he fell in love with Massachusetts over those months and that affair continues. But his connection to the motorcycle ended abruptly: He sold it because he needed the money for the first year of medical school.

Even though his current vehicle, a Honda Accord, gives smoother ride, 44 years later, Avellone still regrets handing off that old BSA.

An interlude on the Vineyard

In the summer of ’75, mop strapped to her 10-speed bicycle, Martha Coakley showed up at the doorsteps of the rich and famous and cleaned their houses. In the dead of winter, she waitressed at a greasy spoon in Vineyard Haven. In the spring of ’76, as a substitute teacher, she learned to manage unruly elementary school children. And as summer blossomed, she helped manage a condominium.

For more than a year after she graduated from Williams College with a bachelor’s degree in the history of ideas, Coakley lived and worked on Martha’s Vineyard. It was a pretty good place to land for a young woman who had fallen short of getting into the law schools where she wanted to go.

There were dinner parties in Oak Bluffs and a New Year’s Day celebration along the cliffs of Gay Head. She reveled in the quiet and solitude of the Vineyard’s varied landscapes. Coakley recalls reading Shakespeare in the morning and murder mysteries in the afternoon. She remembers biking that first summer there from her rented room in Oak Bluffs to visit her sister Mary, who was working as an au pair in Edgartown.

Through a friend, Coakley got a job with Martha ’72 Inc., a general services company that connected young people with assorted jobs on the island. The work she did through the company — and her other jobs — was often not easy, she says, but her 15 months on the island were fun.

In early 1976, she received word she had been accepted to Boston University School of Law; her break from academics would not last.

But Coakley says she hopes the island bookends her professional career: “When I retire, I want to go back to the Vineyard and write murder mysteries. Now I have more raw material, having worked in law enforcement for as long as I have.”

Dancing up a storm

It was no standard dance party that Donald Berwick threw. Sure, there was music and dancing and teenagers. But in a place anchored by its grim reality — a big state mental hospital in eastern Connecticut — the fete was extraordinary.

For at least two summers in the late 1960s, including one as a Harvard College student and one before he attended medical school, Berwick worked as part of the Connecticut Service Corps. The program put about 100 college students and recent graduates each summer to work in state mental hospitals. The goal was to both interest the students in careers in mental health and help patients by offering them interaction with people other than staff.

For two of his years in the Corps, Berwick was one of the leaders of the program at Norwich Hospital, helping to organize activities, buck up students stressed out from interactions with patients on locked wards, and bring fresh perspectives to institutionalized people.

Karl E. Scheibe, then a Wesleyan University professor who studied and co-authored a report about the Corps, said the program tried to introduce some “fresh air into these [places] by bringing in college students.”

Robert H. Smith, now a Suffolk University law professor, worked at Norwich with Berwick in the summer of 1968. He recalls Berwick challenging the students “to not see these people as warehoused, hopeless situations, or cases, but to see them as people who had potential and figure out strategies for having them interact with us.”

Berwick remembers summers there as a “very, very stressful time” but also filled with possibility as they introduced new activities to patients in the hospital.

But the stand-out experience of his time there was the party. “I remember, looking, standing back, and watching the dancing,” Berwick recalled. “You had the students and the patients on the floor dancing to rock music and you couldn’t tell who were the patients and who were the students. And that was a good thing.”

Juliette Kayyem with two of her students in South Africa in the spring of 1992.
Juliette Kayyem with two of her students in South Africa in the spring of 1992.

A front-row seat to history unfolding

Juliette Kayyem was less than a year out of Harvard College, but, she recalls, to her students in South Africa, she was already “professor.”

For part of the summer and fall of 1991, she lived in Johannesburg, wrote freelance articles — including one for The New Republic on black journalists in the rapidly changing country — and traveled around other parts of the continent, from Botswana to Kenya.

Then, at the invitation of an actual professor, she moved to Cape Town and taught classes focused on writing and communication at a university there for a few months in 1992.

She remembers driving her VW Rabbit through the heart of the city, from where she lived near the University of Cape Town to where she taught at the University of Western Cape. And she recalls teaching a wide variety of students — some still teenagers, some in their late 20s; some with formal education and others who had spent recent years working in the mines.

It was two years after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but two years before he was elected president. Kayyem says the intense political conversations among students and the feeling that the country was at the precipice have stayed with her. “There was just a sense of: Something was going to happen and it could be really, really good or it could be really, really bad,” she says.

Kayyem’s only regret about her year there was it wasn’t longer. But there was an upside to coming home for law school. One of the first people she had lunch with after she returned: David Barron, who is now her husband.

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.