Remembering Ken Donnelly

By Jim Shaw

Ken Donnelly

Few people in life have that special something, Ken Donnelly was such a person. He knew early on that his calling was to serve.  Whether it was as a fire fighter, a union leader, or as a state senator, Ken Donnelly epitomized the meaning public service.  Senator Donnelly, or simply Ken as he preferred to be called, recently lost his battle with brain cancer. And, although he may be gone, his legacy will carry on through the lives he touched along the way.

I first met Ken soon after I took my first job after college.  I was hired by the Massachusetts AFL/CIO to serve as the program director for young union members.  The program was intended to motivate young union members to be more involved in the political process.  One of the first people I was introduced to was a young legislative agent from the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts (PFFM), his name was Ken Donnelly.  The fact that he was a Lexington fire fighter was completely coincidental. Ken took me around and introduced me to several young union activists who became the core of our program.  Most of them went on to do great things.  Ironworker Steve Lynch is now a Congressman, Red Cap Steve Tolman is a former senator and current president of the Mass AFL/CIO, assembly worker George Noel became Commissioner of Labor in Massachusetts, and Ken Donnelly went on to become the second highest ranking fire fighter and a powerful member of the State Senate.

My relationship with Ken continued for a longtime.  We became friends.  Good friends.  That was easy with Ken.  He made everyone feel as though they were a good friend.  That was his gift.

Ken spent nearly four decades as a full-time Lexington Fire Fighter.  He soon became president of the local union, then turned his attention to the state fire fighter organization.  In the early 1980s, he was elected Legislative Agent for the PFFM.  He became close to Bob McCarthy who served at the time as president of the Watertown local. Then tragedy struck the PFFM when longtime president Dusty Alward was killed in an automobile accident.  McCarthy and Donnelly took the helm of the PFFM and worked together until Ken’s election to the State Senate in 2008.

Ken was a teacher by nature.  He liked to identify talented young people and help bring them along.  Current Lexington Fire Lieutenant Mark Ferreira was one of his proteges.  Mark explained that Ken was a special kind of leader.  Almost as if he led from behind, because he was always pushing you along trying to bring the best out.  Mark said, “I first met Ken when I joined the fire department 31 years ago. I was a young kid of 21 years and he took me under his wing. He was 21 when he joined the Department too. He eventually became my lieutenant and I was on the truck with him on a regular basis. He taught me how to be a good firefighter and introduced me to the importance of being involved in the union. Serving the public was important to him, so was his desire to serve his fellow firefighters.”

Ferreira explains that Ken spent the greater part of his career at the East Lexington fire house. He said, “He was the union president for the Lexington local and eventually became the legislative agent for the state fire fighters union or the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts. After several years of serving as legislative agent, he was elected statewide secretary-treasurer of the PFFM. Ken was the best! He always took good care of his crew. He was always fun to be around. He had a great sense of humor, but he took his responsibilities as a fire fighter very seriously. One of the things I remember most fondly is that his crew always ate very well. Ken was a great cook. He would cook every Sunday at the East Lexington station. I remember one time we were working a shift on New Year’s Eve and when the other station called to say they ordered Chinese food, Ken wanted better.  He decided we weren’t going to eat “that junk” and he cooked beautiful homemade Chinese food for everyone at the East Lexington station. It was the most delicious Chinese food I’ve ever eaten.”

Mark talks about Ken’s dedication to fire fighters who made the ultimate sacrifice.  Mark said, “Ken felt that fallen fire fighters had waited too long to be recognized in way befitting to their sacrifice, so he helped to move forward the Massachusetts Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial.”   Ferreira continued, “He served on the original board of directors. He was very active in securing the site, raising the needed funds, and the effort to construct the memorial. He was particularly involved with the design of the memorial. He served as chairman of the board for a while right up until the time he passed away. We will be adding his name to the memorial at a ceremony this fall”

In a final thought, Mark shared what might be Ken’s greatest legacy.  He said, “What made Ken great and where he succeeded, was that he could always find common ground with both sides. His gift was his ability to educate. Whether it was negotiating in Lexington or as a member of the Senate, he was effective because he was fair and he educated those he dealt with. He was a special kind of a person who left an indelible impression, not only here in Lexington but in the town of Arlington where he lived and in the Senate where in nine short years he became a top member of the leadership.”

Ken had the ability to affect change and motivate people.  A longtime friend of Ken’s is United States Senator Ed Markey.  I talked with Senator Markey about Ken and as you might guess, he said Ken was one of his “go to guys for advice and counsel.”  Senator Markey said, “Ken Donnelly was Massachusetts. He was a guy who worked his way up, worked his way through UMass, was a fire fighter for thirty-seven years. He was a happy warrior. I always thought of him as a sort of Hubert Humphrey, fighting as hard as he could for the causes which he cared about, while at the same time enjoying the battle. He communicated that to everyone with a wink and a smile.”

Recalling a night of just unwinding with his friend Ken, Senator Markey talked about spending time at Fenway Park. He said, “I miss him. I took him in 2013 to the deciding game of the ALCS championship at Fenway Park. You might remember that was the game where Shane Victorino hit a grand slam to win the series. We sat in the third row next to Mike Pence and his wife. For Kenny it was a beautiful moment. He got the Red Sox, the Governor of Indiana, and the new U.S. Senator. We talked politics and baseball for 4 hours culminating in Victorino’s grand slam to win the game 5-2. We left and went back to his car and he drove me back home to Malden. That’s a great memory for me. I remember him as a good friend, and just an all around decent guy. He was a down-to-earth guy who loved politics and loved everything about life itself. He never forgot where he came from.”

Ken walked with kings and commoners alike.  Everyone was equal in his eyes.  After a long day of fighting fires, negotiating with governmental leaders, writing pension policy, or sitting through long legislative hearings, Ken was at his best when he was home on the grill or in the kitchen.  That’s how Ken showed his love.  Good food and companionship.  Ken and I spent lots of time together during his campaigns and driving to political conventions.  He always made me feel needed by asking me for advice, even though he already had the answers.  He was a friend to me and my family.  I will always remember his kindness, guidance and generosity of spirit.

Ken was a Senator and a fire fighter, but his deepest devotion was reserved for his family. His wife Judy was at the center of his existence.  The same is true about his children Ryan, Keith and Brenna. His grand children too.  He valued his time with family.  I remember Ken telling me that being a Senator was not going to interfere with spending time with his family.  And it didn’t. He valued his time at home and visiting their place in New Hampshire.  He loved the outdoors and spending time with his kids.

The pageantry at his funeral was nothing less than spectacular.  Flagged-draped fire trucks, hundreds of fire fighters lined up in formal uniforms, hundreds of friends and family were all there to pay respect to a simple man who made a lasting impression.

 

Rest in peace my good friend.

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Question Everything

 

By Laurie Atwater

We’ve become an answer culture.

Do we have time for questions anymore? As busy parents, do we reward the constant why, why, why that is the hallmark of childhood? Do teachers entertain questions in time-crunched classrooms? Do our leaders encourage questioning and transparency as they represent us? Do our doctors have enough time to ask the questions that would aid a proper diagnosis?

The lowly question has lost its appeal in the information age. Answers are so easy—why ask questions?

Dan Rothstein

 

Dan Rothstein is a Lexington resident, and co-founder (with Luz Santana) and director of The Right Question Institute (RQI). RQI is a nonprofit based in Boston.

Rothstein is a big fan of questions. His professional experience has taught him that thinking in questions—like little kids—may be the key to becoming better problem solvers and decision-makers, more creative thinkers, better students and more engaged citizens. In fact, Rothstein and RQI think that formulating effective questions—strategic questions that lead us to the answers we seek—may be the foundational skill for critical-thinking and higher learning. But, it is a skill that is rarely, if ever taught in school.

A PROTOCOL CREATED THROUGH GRASSROOTS ADVOCACY
Early in his career Rothstein worked as the Director of Neighborhood Planning Director in Lawrence, Massachusetts trying to curb high dropout rates in the city. It was Rothstein’s job to work with parents from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and get them involved in their children’s education—to convince them that they could make a difference and encourage them to engage with the schools.

In these conversations they learned that many parents didn’t participate in their children’s education and didn’t engage with their kid’s teachers because they “didn’t even know what to ask.”
That was an epiphany for Rothstein and his team. “The parents named an insight that had never really been fully recognized—not knowing what to ask as a major obstacle to effective participation,” he explains.

Rothstein set out with other members of his team to explore this problem in their community-building work. They first tried a simple fix: supplying the parents with prepared questions to take with them to a school meeting. “We discovered that it only created greater dependency on us which was the opposite of what we were trying to accomplish.”

They needed to teach the parents to come up with their own questions so that they would take ownership. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what’s the simplest way to teach what is really a very sophisticated thinking skill—learning to ask your own questions and getting better at asking questions,” he says.

They found that the skill did not come naturally to most people. Initial barriers to participation—fear of judgment, embarrassment or shyness could be overcome as a group built trust. “But we started to understand that this was a dramatic change in practice,” Rothstein explains. “People were accustomed to being asked questions not to actually being invited to work on asking their own questions.”

Working with small groups, they observed how people formed questions and that producing questions (not statements, ideas or facts) was very difficult. “We then had to create these rules for producing questions that are similar to brainstorming rules, but also very different because you are working only with questions.”

 

“QFT helps you organize your thinking around what you don’t know.”  

                                                 -Stephen Quatrano, RQI board member

 

They tested out lots of ways to lead people through the process of developing questions and determined that an essential element was a stimulus or focus for question formation. “We came to understand how important that was. We created this term Question Focus (QFocus).” The QFocus is an initial prompt that focuses the group to form more directed and relevant questions. It can be a description of the problem at hand or a statement or subject depending on the setting.

THE QFT TECHNIQUE
The Question Formulation Technique includes the following steps:

  • Design a question focus (QFocus)
  • Produce questions
  • Work with closed-ended and open-ended questions
  • Prioritize questions
  • Plan next steps
  • Reflect

Once a group has a QFocus, each member must pose as many questions as they can and one member records the questions without stopping for discussion. No question is judged, reworded or rejected. When the questions have been formulated, the group works on improving the questions (changing close-ended questions to open-ended and any statements to questions). They then prioritize the questions and select three key questions. They decide how they will act on each question and finally they reflect on what they have learned from the process.

It took years of trial and error to refine the process—to make it simple, usable, repeatable and reliable. The Right Question Institute calls this protocol the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).

Rothstein points out that this is not a technique that was created in a think-tank or by academics or communications experts—this is a ground-up process that began with regular people in challenging circumstances. Although they started their work with adults in low-income communities, it soon became apparent that the protocol could be effective in almost unlimited settings across age groups, disciplines and education levels.

These days QFT is used by Lexington Public Schools, Harvard graduate students, Microsoft Corporation, Kaiser Permanente, schools in rural Appalachia and many more organizations around the globe to stimulate participation, aid in self-advocacy, unlock creative potential and facilitate learning.

 


Why is the Question Formulation Technique so powerful?
As participants learn to produce their own questions, they are thinking divergently—that is, more broadly and creatively. When they focus on the kinds of questions they are asking and choose their priority questions, they are thinking convergently—narrowing down, analyzing, assessing, comparing, and synthesizing. And when they reflect on what they have learned through the process, students are engaged in metacognition—they are thinking about their thinking. -RQI


 

HOW CAN QUESTIONS CREATE BETTER CITIZENS? The Hawaiian Sugar Cane Plantation Experience
When sugar cane plantation workers were about to lose their livelihood in Hawaii, RQI was brought in to help the workers through the transition.

“The plantation was being sold off,” Rothstein explains. “The department of public health brought us in. They were worried about how company owned housing was going to be divided up, how the land was going to be used, how healthcare was going to be provided all of these things that the company had provided.”

Working with these farm workers, RQI gained insight about how the QFT could empower people to take ownership and participate in decisions that could affect their immediate welfare and their future. Like their work in Lawrence, they observed that the simple act of asking questions was empowering to those who felt disempowered.

“That was a major point in our development—in understanding how to help people learn to focus on decisions right in front of them as the first step in learning how to participate effectively,” Rothstein says. ”What people learned was they needed to ask questions about the decisions that were going to be made locally—about the housing and the healthcare but that they were not able the change the decision made by a corporate board in London.” RQI witnessed that this process engendered a sense of control in people who felt helpless. “This process changes the dynamic and says that it’s not just the person with more power who gets to ask the questions,” Rothstein says, “but it’s the person who needs the service or the information or the help that also is entitled to question.”

What RQI observed through this experience and other advocacy work they conducted around the country was the many ways that positive interactions by disenfranchised people with institutions or figures in power could improve their self-esteem and increase engagement. “The process of asking questions sets up the expectation for responsible decision making from that authority figure,” Rothstein says. It’s a way to hold the system accountable.

This led RQI to the insight that each of these advocacy situations had produced citizens that were more prepared and therefore more engaged with their communities through each productive interaction. Government agencies like Medicaid, Social Security, immigration, schools, courts or housing authorities can be little gymnasiums for the “small d” democratic muscle necessary for citizenship. “They need an opportunity to see how all those services and programs are affected by decisions made by elected officials who are usually invisible,” Rothstein says. “It’s a muscle that develops over time through action. If you don’t develop the muscle it atrophies.”

RQI calls this network of public institutions “outposts of democracy or a Microdemocracy” where citizens or prospective citizens are often discouraged from participating in their own government. “When they experience participation on the micro level they discover the value of participating in traditional forms of democratic action,” he adds.

RQI’s Better Questions Better Decisions (BQBD) Voter Engagement Workshop uses the Question Formulation Technique to help citizens become more involved with the democratic process. “It’s a voter engagement strategy that starts where people are and allows them to ask questions about decisions that are affecting them all the way up the democratic decision-making chain. It’s a different way to approach voter education,” Rothstein says. RQI thinks their strategy can make democracy work better.

HOW CAN QUESTIONS CREATE BETTER STUDENTS? The Classroom Experience
It’s actually fascinating that Rothstein and Santana, who started their work so many years ago with adults, have come up with an insight and a protocol that has perhaps its most natural application in the classroom.

And, it could not be timelier. As intellectuals, college educators, employers and innovators reflect more and more on our current testing-centric education system—the decline of creativity, the collapse of critical thinking and the crisis of school funding—RQI enters with a decidedly low tech, low cost protocol that can radically transform learning. Switching the classroom dynamic and allowing kids to do what used to come naturally—ask questions—paves the way toward a coveted educational goal—creating critical thinkers for 21st century jobs and lives.

Naysayers believe that there can’t possibly be time for student generated questioning in the modern classroom with its performance demands and multiple assessments. To the contrary Rothstein says, “When students spend time on forming questions about what they need to learn it’s not a detour—it’s actually a shortcut. They just get there much more quickly and more effectively.” He’s not guessing about this; he’s seen it in practice. “This is what we have seen from educators all around the world—there are now over 200,000 educators using the question formulation technique.”

Teachers continue to inspire Rothstein and his colleagues at RQI. “There’s an art and a science to the question formulation technique. The science is—it’s a protocol. The art is in learning how to adapt it to what you need to be teaching what the students need to be learning,” he explains. RQI has now developed an extensive library of tools available for download from their site to help educators deploy the protocol in their classrooms.

QFT IN LEXINGTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS
As a Lexington resident, Rothstein is particularly pleased about the enthusiasm that the Lexington Public Schools have expressed for the QFT program. “So many Lexington educators are using the QF technique and it’s really great,” he says. “When successful communities also recognize that they want their students to be asking better questions, that’s inspiring.”

The Lexington Education Foundation awarded a grant to Lexington middle schools to attend a RQI summer seminar. Social Studies specialists were interested in using the technique to foster “higher order thinking skills.” RQI did further professional development across the district to enhance teachers’ understanding and implementation of the protocol.

Karen Russell, an English teacher at LHS, was one of the QFT pioneers in Lexington. I talked with Russell by phone and she was very enthusiastic about using the QFT in the classroom.

“I often use it when I begin a text,” she says. “Students’ questions inform me about their interests and [through the process] they take ownership over where we are going with the text,” she explains. “It gives me a chance to listen to their concerns about what the text might address. Great texts have plasticity that way and can lead in many different directions.” Russell says it works particularly well with students who may not be so quick to speak up in a regular setting. “I often worry about the students who take more time to process and want to go deeper—where do we give them a chance for their voices to be heard? This process values that.”

Russell also refers back to the student’s questions throughout their study of the text. “They’re given permission…their thinking is valued and they know it’s not just the right answer I’m looking for. When they ask their own questions, the seed of their ideas has been planted early on and they’re growing their own ideas.”

Russell also appreciates that the QFT is being used across the history curriculum at LHS so the language and process is familiar to students. She finds the common practice creates fluency and ease for the students. “In a place like Lexington where so many students are articulate and so quick to have the answers, it’s a chance to slow down. It’s a very different way of thinking and it often frustrates the kids who always have a quick answer which isn’t a bad thing,” she says. “To work together and listen to what other students have to say is a benefit for them.”

Rothstein says all teachers like this about the QFT. “It creates a better community and it creates respect for different perspectives among the students.”

****

Through creation of this invaluable protocol, the Right Question Institute has taken a complicated skill and made it accessible to everyone in any setting that requires engagement, advocacy or problem-solving.

In education, where problems often seem insurmountable, this technique is low-tech, affordable and transformative. Encouraging collaboration, sparking curiosity and creativity, creating confidence and laying the groundwork for critical thinking can only increase our capacity as a nation to thrive in the 21st century and help our kids realize their potential in these challenging times.


To learn more about the work of the Right question Institute, visit them online at rightquestion.org.

Right Question Institute

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Lexington’s Walking Man

 

Rick Abrams

Rick Abrams


 

The Pied Piper of ACROSS Lexington

A year after Rick left us, ACROSS Lexington, the work of his final months, is being rededicated in his memory. This is a tribute to Rick and his indefatigable devotion to this project and his special talent for creating connections, leading and inspiring with quiet, grace, determination and humor.


 

By Laurie Atwater

 

He loved to walk in nature. He fell in love with footpaths in England while attending York University and continued the practice when he wanted a quiet meditative place to think away from traffic and the hectic business of life. When he became ill, he found walking to be therapeutic and life affirming, and it sustained him throughout a decade-long battle with thyroid cancer.

In his final years, Rick Abrams turned his attention to an ambitious community project in Lexington that would make it easier for the entire community to share his love of walking in nature. Linking the many protected conservation areas in Lexington to form a coherent network of walking trails, ACROSS (Accessing Conservation land, Recreation areas, Open space, Schools and Streets) Lexington is Rick’s legacy and a gift to all Lexingtonians.  He worked tirelessly to make this idea a reality and now, just about one year after Rick’s death, ACROSS Lexington: the Rick Abrams Memorial Trail Network will be officially dedicated to his memory on June 14th.

And what a memory it is for people who knew and loved him and even those who met him briefly—Rick Abrams was one of those rare people who made good things happen all around him, inspired respect and affection and left the world a better place. He had a gift.


 

Grey QuoteIt was Rick’s spirit and enthusiasm, that was the spark, his constant encouragement, positive attitude, and smile—that kept all of us coming back every month.”

Mark Sandeen, Chairman
Sustainable Lexington Committee


 

AN ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT 

Starting young, Rick learned to work hard. I recently visited with his wife Susan Kenyon and she told me that Rick’s parents raised chickens on a farm in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. The family left the farm when Rick was six and moved to Providence. Then in 1969, when Rick was 12, they bought a “rundown rooming house on Block Island.” Rick’s father was a “visionary” according to Susan—one of those entrepreneurial spirits who was always ahead of the curve. Block Island didn’t have any prestige in those days, but his parents thought it would be good for the kids—they could have summer jobs at the inn and start on a new adventure. No small nod to dad’s instincts, the inn is a vibrant business to this day as the locale has grown into a popular vacation spot. His sister Rita Draper runs it now, but in the early years all the kids pitched in. Susan often tells the story of Rick’s humble culinary beginnings as an assistant to the Chef when he was 14. In a dramatic moment, after the chef burned his hand, young Rick jumped in to cook breakfast for 160 guests! Cooking was a skill that Rick continued to develop and enjoy.  In thirty-five years of marriage, Susan says she never cooked a meal, while Rick’s skills became legend among his friends. “It was good because I come from a long line of bad cooks,” Susan says with a laugh.

Rick and his brother Mark started a sandwich shop on the island and Susan says people still say, ‘I remember those sandwiches!’ with a nostalgic lick of the lips. As fledgling entrepreneurs, they stayed open late and would sell their sandwiches to the hungry bar crowds after hours. “They would sleep till 1 or 2 the next day,” Susan says with a laugh.

Ironically Susan and Rick started out just miles from one another in Rhode Island; Rick on the chicken farm and Susan in potato country in South Kingstown, but they wouldn’t meet for years down the road. They both landed at Colby College in Waterville, Maine in the 1970s, but for the 4 years on campus they only spoke a few times. Rick was a dedicated student and applied himself enthusiastically to his studies at the expense of a social life—often disappearing into the library stacks. (He graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in economics and mathematics. He was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa.)

Susan did know Rick’s roommate Doug Kaplan at Colby. After graduation when Susan was in law school and needed a place to crash while she started a summer associateship at Mintz Levin, she contacted Doug. He was in Boston and still rooming with Rick. Finally Susan and Rick got to know each other and discovered everything that they had in common! They were married in 1982 and moved to Lexington in 1993.

Rick was a family man first. Rick with his wife Susan Kenyon and beloved children (left to right)  Archie, Sydney and Stan.

Rick was a family man first. Rick with his wife Susan Kenyon and beloved children (left to right) Archie, Sydney and Stan.

In the early years Rick worked for Data Resources in Lexington and Susan was practicing law at Mintz Levin. They had a great life for two young people, but Rick was itching to do something else. Susan says he was toying with going back to graduate school, but wasn’t really that interested. His inner entrepreneur was just dying to get out! Rick had a regular squash game with a venture capitalist named Jerry Dykama. One day Jerry hinted around at a possible business opportunity. Eventually Jerry introduced Rick to Tom Snyder, a teacher from the Shady Hill School who had started a business called Computer Learning Connection. Snyder would eventually become Rick’s business partner in something that was called “educational software.”

SOFTWARE, WHAT’S SOFTWARE?  

Susan can laugh about it now, but it must have been pretty scary at the time. “Rick took a fifty percent cut in pay,” she says and moved to an office in a 3rd story walk-up. His desk was a piece of plywood on hinges that rested atop the sink in the kitchen! “Back then, no one understood computers,” she says. “Everyone thought he was crazy!”

It appears that Rick had inherited some of that visionary gift from his father because the field of educational software was in its infancy and their company, Tom Snyder Productions (TSP), went on to pioneer innovative, creative products, even expanding into animation with Soup2Nuts Studios.

“The notion of combining business with a social agenda like education was something that appealed to Rick,” Susan says. “Their products were never designed to replace teachers, they were made for teachers who wanted to enhance the curriculum and enrich the learning experience.”

Eventually the partners sold TSP to Scholastic. Rick stayed on as General Manager and was still working when he discovered a lump while shaving. The lump turned out to be thyroid cancer.

THYROID CANCER

Rick attacked the new challenge with the same inquisitive, hard-working, optimistic attitude that shaped his every endeavor. He researched and learned everything he could. He met his treatment regimen with mettle and everything seemed to follow the predictably curable path of the most common thyroid cancers for a short while. But when it came roaring back and it was obvious that Rick’s was a more virulent form of thyroid cancer—a cancer that is actually rather rare.

He underwent grueling radiation and chemotherapy. During his therapy, Rick contacted a group called ITOG (International Thyroid Oncology Group) and went on to become the only patient advocate on the ITOG board.  Susan explains that Rick spent hours advocating, helped the organization develop their website and made a short video about his experience to help other patients (still on the website) all during his difficult illness.

He continued to work for as long as he could, reduced his hours to part-time, and began to look outside his professional life for sources of strength. He loved photography, cooking and reading. He was well-known for his men-only book club with paired meals—the menu matched the topic of the book!

He connected with Ramel (Rami) Rones, a Tai Chi instructor after seeing a flyer at Dana Farber and learned to expand his understanding of the mind-body connection through Tai Chi and meditation—a practice and friendship that sustained him on his journey.

And he kept walking.

When he decided to go on disability, he experienced the stress that anyone experiences when they stop working. “He said, ‘What am I going to do?’” Susan says, and he was really worried about the idea of “retiring.”

For Rick, “retirement” meant continued work with the ITOG board, a position with the Woods Hole Corporation, the Wheelock College Board of Directors, the Lexington Greenways Corridor Committee, the Lexington Global Warming Action Coalition, Sustainable Lexington, and the Battle Road Historic Byway Committee.

ACROSS Lexington   

The sinage that marks the trails of ACROSS Lexington.

The sinage that marks the trails of ACROSS Lexington.

Despite his fears, Susan says, “The timing worked out really well. When the Greenways Corridor Committee was formed there were people involved who were thinking about creating trails and linking paths in Lexington.” Susan says that their son Archie, a former member of the LHS cross country team used to tell them that he could go for a 10 mile run and “his feet would barely hit pavement.” The idea of interconnected footpaths really appealed to Rick’s love of walking in nature.

“We were always big walkers. Route B, as it’s now known, is the trail that we would walk together.”

Susan explains, “Over time ACROSS Lexington became like his full-time job!” He threw himself into the project and worked tirelessly with Keith Ohmart and other committee members. “He went to 22 boards to gain approvals,” Susan says. Soon he became the public face of ACROSS Lexington. He had the time and seemingly endless stores of energy. It was hard not to wonder how he was managing it all in the face of his illness. He never talked about it. “I think in the last two years of his life he was in bed maybe for a day or two,” Susan says. “He was always busy with meetings and things to do for ACROSS Lexington.”

Rick, ever the technology advocate, even made a connection with David Neal, an IOS developer and Lexington resident, to create the ACROSS Lexington App which is available for free download from the Apple App Store and provides GPS guidance while walking the trails.

Members of the Greenways Corridor Committee. Front row- Alex Dohan, Eileen Entin, Rick Abrams, Keith Ohmart.  Back row- Peggy Enders, Paul Knight, Mike Tabaczynski, Bob Hausselein, Stew Kennedy. Photo by David Tabeling.

Members of the Greenways Corridor Committee. Front row- Alex Dohan, Eileen Entin, Rick Abrams, Keith Ohmart. Back row- Peggy Enders, Paul Knight, Mike Tabaczynski, Bob Hausselein, Stew Kennedy. Photo by David Tabeling.

Keith Ohmart, Chair of the Greenways Corridor Committee says, “Rick seemingly came out of nowhere, blazed across my life and those of my colleagues on the Greenways Corridor Committee for a much too short period of time, made what became the ACROSS Lexington project his own including creating the name for the project, and will be forever remembered.”

The members of the committee loved working with Rick. Much as he had done in his professional life, he infused his work with energy, creativity, inclusiveness and fun. He was a motivator. When several college students reached out to the Sustainable Lexington Committee Rick offered to be their mentor. Mark Sandeen, Chairman of the Sustainable Lexington Committee says that Rick thought it was a good way to pass on their concern and keen interest for the future of the planet to the next generation.

“When you think about climate change and sustainability,” Sandeen explains, “you can get lost in numbers and graphs and reports, but Rick said, ‘We’re talking about quality of life. How can we make this town a better place to live and how can we do the right thing for ourselves and for our kids?’”

“Rick touched many lives through his work with Sustainable Lexington. Rick was the first person who gave me hope that we really could pull a group of great people together who would be willing to work together to make a sustainable difference in Lexington. It was Rick’s spirit and enthusiasm, that was the spark, his constant encouragement, positive attitude, and smile—that kept all of us coming back every month,” Mark says. “Rick was an amazing guy who had more friends than you can count, because Rick made a new friend every time he met someone new. That is a rare gift indeed!”

Sheryl Rosner, who was new to the committee at the time says, “Rick brought such an important perspective to the Sustainable Lexington Committee as he was so committed and enthusiastic about connecting people to nature and very savvy about messaging and technology. His passion and vision about the protected parcels not only led to the success of ACROSS Lexington but was the catalyst for creating an app for the routes. He would have been thrilled with last weekend’s Hidden Treasures event that also tied in art to the trails.”

A year ago in April Rick found out that the last of the experimental drugs was not working and the cancer had spread. He was facing two surgeries over the next couple of months. According to Susan, he was most worried about getting things done for ACROSS Lexington. “He was working on the first map and it was Bike Walk ‘n Bus Week—he led 3 walks that week!” He was thinking ahead to the future and never lost his hopeful attitude.

Susan is working on approval for a memorial bench on Route B in Dunback Meadow, Rick’s favorite spot. It will hopefully inspire walkers to stop for a few moments, breathe deeply and connect with the beauty of nature. Rick would like that.


 

Brochure

To download the complete ACROSS Lexington  brochure visit: www.acrosslexington.org

 

Visit ACROSS Lexington on facebook: www.facebook.com/acrosslex and post a picture of yourself enjoying the trails!

 

Download the FREE ACROSS Lexington App at the Apple App Store:

ACROSS LEXINGTON

 


HatThe Board of Selectmen has established
the Rick Abrams ACROSS Lexington Fund
to support the trail network by creating:

• New directional and interpretive signage,
• Electronic and/or print maps, and
• Web/software development to incorporate current technologies.

The mailing address for donations is:

Board of Selectmen
ACROSS Lexington Trust Fund
Town of Lexington
1625 Massachusetts Ave.
Lexington, MA 02420

Please make checks out to “Town of Lexington”
and write “Rick Abrams ACROSS Lexington Trust Fund”
on the memo line.

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In Full Bloom

Photo Courtesy of Mary Lou Chamberland

Spring prep for the garden.  Photo Courtesy of Mary Lou Chamberland

By Jane Whitehead

The garden is the result of an innovative collaboration among various Town departments: LPS, the Department of Public Facilities (DPF) and the Department of Public Works (DPW), with expert input from Lexington Community Farm (LexFarm), and LPS food service providers, Whitsons.


 

“Look at the size of the pumpkins – I’ve never seen them this early!” said Don Chamberland. He was admiring a riot of vines and Cinderella’s-coach-worthy gourds overspilling one corner of the new Employee Wellness Garden in the field behind the Lexington Public Schools (LPS) Central Administration Building on Maple Street.

Chamberland’s wife Mary Lou, a kindergarten assistant at Fiske Elementary School, is one of 25 LPS employees who signed up for a season of organic gardening under the umbrella of the LPS Employee Wellness Program. On a warm late July evening, while bees buzzed around colorful clumps of cornflowers, zinnias and sunflowers in the shared cutting-garden, she was harvesting eggplants and giant knobbly summer squash from the 4-foot by 8-foot plot she shares with ESL instructor Carolyn Hine.

The garden is the result of an innovative collaboration among various Town departments: LPS, the Department of Public Facilities (DPF) and the Department of Public Works (DPW), with expert input from Lexington Community Farm (LexFarm), and LPS food service providers, Whitsons. “It’s so much fun just to watch it grow and see the progress of it all,” said Chamberland. “I’m just so glad Bob Harris came up with this great idea!”

 


 

Quotation MarkThe garden is the best example of what we in education call ‘the growth mindset.”

Bob Harris,
LPS Assistant Superintendent


 

START WITH COMPOST
In December 2013, Bob Harris, LPS Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, came across a magazine article about a new Massachusetts law concerning the disposal of organic waste. That prompted him to investigate the waste generated by LPS food services, and explore the possibility of setting up an internal composting system. In the end, the composting scheme was never pursued, but the germ of an idea had been sown.

Harris’s office in the Central Administration Building overlooks a former playground, bounded by woodland. With his mind still revolving thoughts of compost and the food supply, he realized that there was an un-utilized resource right outside his window – a sunny field that could be turned into a garden for the use of LPS employees. Learning about and then practicing organic gardening would be an extra benefit that fit right into the holistic model of wellness embodied in the wide-ranging LPS Employee Wellness Program, launched in 2012-13.

In early 2014, Harris marshaled a planning team to help determine the viability of the Employee Wellness Garden, and figure out how to deploy existing resources to make it a reality. The group included Jacky Dick, Coordinator of the LPS Employee Wellness Program, Kevin Silvia, Food Services Director, of Whitsons, Bill Whitson, coordinator of student garden projects for Whitsons, Shawn Newall, Lexington’s Assistant Director of Public Facilities, and Nancy Gold, of LexFarm’s Education Committee.

FROM FIELD TO GARDEN
After identifying a specific site, for its sunny aspect, easy access to parking, and proximity to a water supply, and getting the all-clear from the Lexington Conservation Commission and the Board of Health, Harris and the team broke ground in Fall 2014.

With documentary footage from his smartphone, Harris replayed the multi-stage process by which a dormant piece of land was brought back to life. “DPF came in with a bobcat and just tore it up,” he said, showing a video of the first stage in the creation of the 2400-square-foot garden. “We wanted to get really high grade material to amend the soil,” he said, scrolling to another clip documenting the delivery of 42 cubic yards of rich black compost from an organic farm on the North Shore.

In all decisions about the site including location, preparation, soil analysis and improvement, Harris enlisted the expert advice of Charlie Radoslovich, LexFarm’s backyard garden guru. For the last six years Radoslovich, whose motto is “Don’t mow it, eat it!” has been urging people to dig up their lawns and plant vegetables (www.radurbanfarmers.com).


 

Quotation MarkIt’s just so great to go out there and be surrounded by so much lush green and color. It makes me feel really happy that the place where I work has given us something like this.”

Beverly Quirk


   Harvest! Mary Lou Chamberland with one of her first eggplants.

Harvest! Mary Lou Chamberland with one of her first eggplants.

 

When his initial analysis showed the soil to be acidic and low in nitrogen, Radoslovich recommended adding the organic compost, and insulating half of the plot through the winter with a mixture of “green cover” provided by rye-grass and vetch, and the other with a layer of salt-marsh hay. “You’re nurturing the soil back to life, trying to encourage as much microbiology as possible,” he said.

Radoslovich emphasized the collaborative nature of the project. “This was a town wide effort,” he said. “DPF and DPW were excellent partners,” said Harris. “DPF lined up all the other contractors for things we couldn’t do internally, like moving the shed and putting in the fence.” He was referring to the toolshed, that needed to be moved from the far side of the field – and got stuck in the mud in the process – and the installation of a sturdy wire perimeter fence set in a two-foot deep trench, to keep out animal pests. With the addition of four wooden raised beds and the installation of pathways, to ensure disabled access, the garden was ready for planting in Spring 2015.

AN ORGANIC LEARNING CURVE
Connecting gardening with learning was always a central aim of the project. “The garden is the best example of what we in education call ‘the growth mindset,’” said Harris, as it is both literally and metaphorically a place of growth, not only for plants, but also for the people tending and learning about them. So in Spring 2014, while the garden was still in the planning stage, LPS Employee Wellness Program Coordinator Jacky Dick contacted LexFarm about offering a class on organic gardening.

Taught by Radoslovich, Nancy Gold and former fourth-grade teacher and LexFarm volunteer Linda Levin, the seven-session hands-on class was a prerequisite for any aspiring gardener applying for a plot in the Employee Wellness Garden. The class has now run for three terms, the most recent being in Spring 2015, starting out in LexFarm’s greenhouse at Lowell Street on the Arlington border, and moving to the garden itself in late April.

“I’ve never really grown anything myself, apart from a couple of tomatoes in a flower pot,” said data specialist Beverly Quirk, who signed up for the class as an experiment and to challenge herself to learn something new. “Charlie and Nancy were just really helpful, friendly and informative,” she said. With the information, skills and confidence she gained, she has successfully grown cucumbers, radishes, peas and spinach, and is impatiently waiting for her tomatoes to ripen.

A seasoned gardener who retired as an Occupational Therapist from Estabrook Elementary School in June, Cynthia Kimball found she still had much to learn from the class, “mainly about the need to choose seeds carefully, and think about companion gardening and how to rotate our plots.”

“I’ve never worked with such good soil,” said Kimball, and she has found that the organic seeds from the new Lexington Seed Library at Cary Library, which Gold coordinates, “have germinated so much better than those from regular seed companies.” Of the garden itself, she said: “I feel I’m in a magic land when I go there – it’s truly like a dream to see how fast things grow.”

A GROWING COMMUNITY
“It’s not just a garden – it’s a place for people to make connections with other people,” said Harris, who has been struck by the wide range of employees who have signed up as gardeners. “We have teachers, instructional support staff, clerical staff, custodians, administrators – they say it’s a really great place for them to connect with other people in the school system,” he said.

The garden also bridges generations, as it includes a large raised bed for the use of Harrington first graders – that’s the one currently filled with pumpkins – and a plot for LABBB students (special needs students from Lexington, Arlington, Burlington, Bedford and Belmont), who have volunteered to weed and water other gardeners’ patches during the vacation.

The project has multiple benefits, said Employee Wellness Program Coordinator Jacky Dick. “Spending time in the garden gives employees a peaceful place where they can get exercise, be creative and enjoy the outdoors,” she said. Along with supporting sustainability and providing healthy chemical-free produce, she noted, the garden has also “promoted community by our collaboration with LexFarm and by the arrangement of plot sharing –where employees chose to share a plot and work with each other to cultivate the garden.”

No garden is trouble free, and the gardeners of the Employee Wellness Garden are currently dealing with an outbreak of powdery mildew, with hands-on and email assistance from Nancy Gold. But many are already looking forward to the next season. “I will definitely do it next year – I’ll be wiser and smarter and know what to plant!” said Mary Lou Chamberland. For Beverly Quirk, the garden has given her more than just the discovery of an unexpected green thumb. “It’s just so great to go out there and be surrounded by so much lush green and color,” she said. She paused, then added: “It makes me feel really happy that the place where I work has given us something like this.”

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A new exhibit at the Depot Building showcases Lexington’s pivotal role in this international architecture and design movement

 

 NewsletterAd2MMC Title

Can architecture make the world a better place?

In the years after World War II, a diverse group of bold young architects sought an answer to that question in Lexington. They came to the sleepy Boston suburb with a dream of revolutionizing home architecture and design, and embracing mid-century modernism to achieve a utopian ideal. What they accomplished here has been called Lexington’s second revolution, and it certainly was an architectural “shot heard ‘round the world.”

The Lexington Historical Society will celebrate the town’s unique architectural legacy with a new exhibit that opens in June 2015: Lextopia: Lexington’s Launch of Mid Century Modern. The exhibit will highlight the architects who worked here and examine how their work affected Lexington and the larger world. It will showcase modernist architecture, furniture, and housewares from the Society’s collections, as well as artifacts donated by other individuals and organizations. Several mid-century modern house tours, a mid-century modern marketplace, Sunday afternoon gallery talks and other events will occur throughout the summer and fall.

The exhibit is sponsored by Century 21/Lester E. Savage Real Estate. Additional support comes from the Lexington Council on the Arts.


 

Highlights from the ExhibitTimelines and infographics bursting with historic photos and documents chart the development Mid-Century Modernism in Lexington, and bring together the story of the architects, the neighborhoods they created, and their impact on the world.Mid Century Modern living is showcase with a display of vintage furniture.

Items include:

     -Eames Molded Plywood Chair

     -Original Design Research Couch

     -Adult and child folding butterfly Chairs

Re-created architect’s office populated with artifacts used in the office of famed Lexington architect Walter Pierce (and supplied by his former partner Phil Poinelli.) Features blown-up quotes from Lexington’s Mid-Century Modern architects.

Neighborhood display that includes photo essays, unique 8mm home movies from Moon Hill, artifacts from the recently replaced 1961 Estabrook School building, and more.

A detailed scale model of a house from the Peacock Farm neighborhood (see right).

A display of Marimekko fabrics, kitchen items, and dishware of the type sold Design/Research, the groundbreaking store started by Lexington architect Benjamin Thompson.


Sunday Gallery TalksJune 21 –  Wendy Cox,  Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Art  at Norwich University, Tracing Intentions-The Founding of The Architects Collaborative and Early Housing Project Six Moon Hill.June 28 – Susan Ward, independent curator and consultant, Textiles in Mid-Century Interiors: The Softer Side of Modernism

July 12 – Jane Thompson, co-owner with her husband Ben of the Design Research stores, and author of Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes

July 19 – Peter McMahon, Executive Director of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust and Christine Cipriani, author of the new book Cape Cod Modern

July 26 – Timothy Techler, architect principal of Techler Design Group, A Moon Hill Restoration

August 2 – Wendy Hubbard, Site Manager of Historic New England’s Gropius House in Lincoln, Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus and the Gropius House: Roots of Mid-Century Modern in Middlesex County

August 9 – Andrea Quagliata, former Moon Hill resident, creative director, photographer and author of Modern Orthodoxy and Eclecticism, The Case Study of Six Moon Hill.

August 16 – Pamela Hartford, landscape historian and preservation consultant, It’s Not Just the Buildings: Landscape in the Aesthetics of Mid Century Modernism

August 23 – Bruce Clouette, senior historian of the Public Archaeology Survey Team in Storrs, Connecticut and author of the National Historic District Nomination for Moon Hill in Lexington

August 30 – Katie Rowley, Manager, and Somers Killian, Associate of Machine Age, Highlights of Mid-20th-Century Furniture Design.

September 13 – Bill Janovitz and John Tse – Marketing and Purchas

“We are really expanding our horizons with these events,” says Historical Society Executive Director Susan Bennett. “Our revolutionary history will always be central to our mission, but it is exciting to branch out and celebrate other areas where Lexington has played a pivotal role in our nation’s history.”

Inspired by Walter Gropius and his contemporaries, a number of architects made the town a laboratory to test their ideas. By the 1960s there were more neighborhoods of modernist homes here than any other town in the country. Nine neighborhoods with such whimsical names as Six Moon Hill and Peacock Farms expressed the visions of The Architects Collaborative (TAC), Walter Pierce, Hugh Stubbins, Carl Koch and others. Many of the modernist architects who worked and lived in Lexington would develop international reputations. One of them, Benjamin Thompson, went on to found to found Design Research, the innovative retailer that played a key role in spreading awareness of modern design in the consumer world.

These architects sought to create neighborhoods that would change the way people lived together. “We had grandiose thoughts about reforming the world,” recalled TAC architect Norman Fletcher. These neighborhoods attracted a new kind of resident to the small town. There were scientists and academics – including four Nobel Prize winners (two of whom lived across the street from each other.) Unusual for the time, there were women who were doctors and architects and editors. These new residents were more progressive than Lexington residentsof the time – 90% were Democrats, according to one survey.  Their presence had an undeniable role in shaping the community.

Lexington Historical Society member Harry Forsdick (left) has painstakingly constructed a detailed model of a Peacock Farm house (above) designed by architect Walter Pierce, who lived and worked in Lexington.

Lexington Historical Society member Harry Forsdick has painstakingly constructed a detailed model of a Peacock Farm house (above) designed by architect Walter Pierce, who lived and worked in Lexington.


Lextopia Exhibit
June 20 – September 19
Open daily 1 – 5 pm
The Lexington Depot | Lexington Center
Admission: $5 / Free to members

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Memory of Beloved Lexington High School Student Continues to Inspire

The In Anne’s Spirit foundation is celebrating fifteen years of continued service to the community.  Robert D. Putnam to speak at the celebration about his new book Our Kids.

This year The Borghesani Foundation and In Anne’s Spirit is sponsoring a very special evening to celebrate the caring,  hard-working community that has grown up around the foundation named for their daughter Anne who was senselessly murdered in 1990. The foundation and its many supporters are like a second family to the Borghesanis. This is an opportunity to celebrate the foundation’s growth and the work they have done to fight violence in schools and communities for the past fifteen years. The event is open to the public and will be held at the beautiful deCordova Museum in Lincoln.

Robert D. Putnam PhD Is Keynote Speaker

PutnamFifteen years ago Dr. Putnam helped launch the foundation when he spoke about his then current book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Renewal of American Community at the inaugural event.  This year he returns to discuss his recently published and highly acclaimed book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.  He will speak on “Inequality and opportunity: the growing class gap among American young people and the implications for social mobility.”  The public is welcome to attend and learn more about this exciting new book and Dr. putnam will be signing books after the talk.

Dr. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University.  He is founder of the Saguaro Seminar which brings together leading academics, political figures and practitioners to study social issues.

His current book examines the troubling state of income inequality in America and its terrible consequences for social mobility among children of the middle and lower classes. (See box above.)


 

About the book, David Gergen, advisor to presidents and CNN political commentator says:

“In yet another path-breaking book about America’s changing social landscape, Robert Putnam investigates how growing income gaps have shaped our children so differently.  His conclusion is chilling: social mobility ‘seems poised to plunge in the years ahead, shattering the American dream.’  Must reading from the White House to your house.”


 

Anne’s Story

“At the time of Anne’s death our family was supported by so many in the Lexington community and beyond.  I often felt we were being held up by our friends, family, and neighbors,” says Anne’s mother Betty Borghesani.  She believes that The Borghesani Foundation is an outgrowth of Anne’s loving and generous spirit and wants to celebrate the love, hard work and dedication of those who continue to support it.

Anne Borghesani was a bright, vibrant young woman with hopes and aspirations like any of our young people in Lexington.  She was connected to her family and friends, always had time to listen, and was an active participant at LHS and in her town.  She loved travel, learning about different cultures, and had aspirations of attending law school and being a public defender.

Anne Borghesani

Anne Borghesani

Anne graduated from LHS in 1985 and from Tufts in 1989. Ten months later in 1990, Anne was accosted by a stranger and murdered while walking from her apartment to the Metro in Arlington, Virginia to meet friends to celebrate her 23rd birthday.

The first year after Anne’s death a scholarship was started in her name at Tufts.  A year later Anne’s classmates initiated a scholarship at Lexington High School to be awarded to a graduating female who exemplifies Anne’s qualities of school and community spirit.  This committee of classmates has continued to encourage the growth of the scholarship, maintained relationships with the former scholarship recipients, and they meet annually to select a new scholarship recipient.  They are motivated in their work by friendships forged at Lexington High School and Anne’s memory.

About the Foundation

In Anne’s Spirit was created in 2000 by Anne’s friends and family.  In Anne’s Spirit is a non-profit, voluntary organization dedicated to reducing the incidence and effects of violence by promoting development of healthy children and families. A yearly newsletter goes out to supporters describing the grants made by the foundation. Donations received from this newsletter have enabled In Anne’s Spirit to support inner city day camps, after-school programs, victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, violence prevention projects such as anti-bullying and dating violence programs – in addition to continuing to support the growth of scholarships in Anne’s name at Tufts and Lexington High School.  Without the generous support of so many in the community who still remember Anne, this work would not have been possible.

 

 


 

 

In Anne's Spirit Logo

About the Event

A Celebration of Community
With Keynote speaker
Robert Putnam
Author of “Our Kids”
Sunday June 28, 2015
6:00 to 8:30 p.m.
At the deCordova
Sculpture Park and Museum
51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, MA

Pre-keynote wine reception at 6 p.m.
Talk followed by a community conversation and book-signing
with coffee and dessert.
The museum’s exhibits and Sculpture Park will be open during the reception
For reservations and information, please call (781) 862-7309 or

email Borghesani@inannesspirit.org

Honorary Event Committee
Nancy and Joel Adler, Lexington Town Meeting Members
Prof. Drusilla Brown, Director of Tufts Program in International Relations
Michelle Ciccolo, Lexington Board of Selectmen
Norm Cohen, Lexington Board of Selectmen
Linda Cohen, Friends of Cary Library Board Member
Margaret Coppe, Lexington School Committee
Margaret Counts-Klebe, LHS Scholarship Committee
Dan Fenn, Founding Director of John F. Kennedy Library
Hon. Jay Kaufman, State Representative
Florence Koplow, former member Lexington School Committee
Lyn Lustig, Tufts Scholarship Committee
Jerry Michelson, LHS Scholarship Committee
Dr. Daniel and Barbara Palant
Susan Vickers, Founder of Victim Rights Law Center
Steve Volante, chair of LHS Scholarship Committee

 

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Lexington’s civic champion David Eagle has passed

 

 

Dave Eagle

Dave Eagle

In life, some people are spectators while others roll up their sleeves and dive
right in. Dave Eagle was a participant. He personified what it means to be a
“citizen.” He refused to be called a civic leader, yet that’s exactly what he was.
He took no credit for his profound contributions to this community, yet he took
great pride in those accomplishments. He had a deep and abiding commitment
to making Lexington a better place for all. He will be dearly missed. – Jim Shaw


Visiting hours will be on Monday June 29, 2015, from 4 PM to 8 PM at Douglass
Funeral Home in Lexington. His funeral service will be held at Saint
Brigid Parish on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 at 10 AM. Full notice will be in the
Sunday Globe on June 28, 2015. (Photo by Jim Shaw)

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DIY Sisters find business inspiration in mid-century modern furniture and a shared love for design

Sisters Lisa Berland of Lexington and Laura Berland-Wyman of Lincoln are partners in Retrocraft Design

Sisters Lisa Berland of Lexington and Laura Berland-Wyman of Lincoln are partners in Retrocraft Design

Header

In an airy light industrial space in West Concord, sisters Laura Berland-Wyman and Lisa Berland renovate and transform vintage furnishings to enhance contemporary homes.

They launched Retrocraft Design studio in 2011 (www.retrocraftdesign.com) and also have online stores on the e-commerce website Etsy (www.etsy.com) and the new vintage design website Chairish (www.chairish.com).

By Jane Whitehead

On a recent sunny afternoon, the sisters sat with me around a refurbished 1960s Park dining table in their showroom and talked about their mother’s genius for creative dumpster-diving, their enthusiasm for mid-century modern design, their evolving business model, and the dynamics of being sisters in business together.

A DIY INHERITANCE    “We all grew up with a strong sense of design,” says Berland-Wyman, recalling their childhood on the Chelsea/Greenwich Village border in Manhattan in the late 1950s and 1960s. Both sisters attended PS 41, “where all the bohemian kids went,” she says, laughing. Their mother, a modern dancer by training, was an intrepid DIY decorator who furnished their home with curbside trophies.

“Nothing daunted her,” says Berland-Wyman: “She was always cutting legs off things, repurposing them.” Two memorable transformations were the grafting of hairpin legs on to an antique oak pedestal table, and the conversion of a rattan chair into a giant hanging lampshade. Their father, a social worker by profession, was also a photographer who commandeered a bathroom as a darkroom and improvised sculpture out of found objects like pieces of driftwood.

Apart from a sense of design, color and the aesthetics of everyday life, the sisters also inherited their parents’ can-do attitude. “That generation came out of the Depression, and they were just used to doing whatever needed to be done,” says Berland. So whether it was upholstering a chair, making curtains or refinishing a floor: “You learned that you could just do it, you could figure it out,” she says.

A TRAINED EYE    Both sisters have fine art training. While working as an editor and later, school administrator, and raising three children, Berland took many art classes at the De Cordova Museum in Lincoln. “Art was always there,” she says, “something I did in the background.” As a continuing education student at the Museum of Fine Art School in Boston, her younger sister Berland-Wyman honed skills she used for many years as a decorative painter – “faux everything” – and color consultant. “I love working with color, I like materials and I like working with my hands,” she says. Working primarily in other people’s houses had its frustrations, she admits, and part of the appeal of launching a small business was the prospect of more autonomy and creative freedom.

As they started working together on the projects that would evolve into Retrocraft, the sisters studied upholstery at the Elliot School in Jamaica Plain.  “We did a very complicated chair as our project,” says Berland-Wyman, who also took wood-working classes at the school.

A fine mess!  The sisters acquire pieces with good bones just waiting for their moment to shine once again!

A fine mess! The sisters acquire pieces with good bones just waiting for their moment to shine once again!

THE ALLURE OF MID-CENTURY MODERN   The idea for Retrocraft grew organically out of the sisters’ shared DIY projects over the years. Berland lives in Lexington, Berland-Wyman in Lincoln, and they’ve always helped each other with home decorating. “When we first thought of it, we thought of taking pieces that we liked, and transforming them in some way,” says Berland. “We went out looking, and we really had no clue what we were doing,” she says. “People gave us all kinds of things, we picked up stuff on the street.”

At first, says Berland-Wyman, “we just found things that we liked, and we really weren’t looking for mid-century particularly, although we found those things and we loved them.”  They found premises in the crumbling Bradford Mill in West Concord, “huge space, cheap, lots of light,” and worked a few days a week, mainly painting antique pieces in bold colors and selling them on Craigslist, reaching customers throughout the Greater Boston area. As the mill buildings were upgraded, the rent went up, the footage shrank, and in 2013 the sisters found new space at 152 Commonwealth Avenue, West Concord, near the Nashoba Bakery.

The interior of Retrocraft in West Concord is filled with lovingly transformed pieces.

The interior of Retrocraft in West Concord is filled with lovingly transformed pieces.

As the business gained traction, it became clear that “the mid-century stuff got so much more attention than anything else,” says Berland. Berland-Wyman thinks the current enthusiasm for mid-century modern design comes from an appreciation of its simple lines and good craftsmanship, as well as a hunger for “eclectic, different, unique pieces.”

Both sisters emphasize that they’re not restorers – they often choose to alter the look of a piece with paint or a colored stain, or add a stenciled design, or other custom element. An example is a rosewood coffee table made from a piece of wood discarded during a renovation project at a local museum where it served as a bench. The rosewood top, with subtly rounded edges and corners, carries the seal of the well known mid century Danish cabinet-maker, Ludvig Pontoppidan. The sisters commissioned welded steel legs to complement the rosewood grain and refinished the top, to create a handsome and unique piece. “We’re always thinking about what we can change up and make more interesting,” says Berland.

Lane Acclaim Dining Table

Lane Acclaim Dining Table

Lane Altavista Credenza

Lane Altavista Credenza

The downside to the boom in all things mid-century modern is increasing competition. “The problem for us is that it’s very competitive to buy this stuff now – it’s getting harder to find, harder to afford,” says Berland. To keep Retrocraft’s inventory fresh, she says, they work with a handful of dealers and businesses that specialize in cleanouts, and as the profile of the business grows they find that more and more people bring mid-century pieces to them.

Before

Before: Custom upholstery gives this drab chair a new life.

After

After: Ready to add a beautiful accent to any decor.

A BUSINESS EVOLVES    From selling a handful of pieces monthly on Craigslist, the sisters have developed a hybrid operation that relies on their constantly updated website, and online stores at Etsy, Chairish and Krrb, to bring customers into the store. They also send out a monthly email newsletter to around 600 clients, highlighting new items in stock.

“The idea is that people can go to the website and see what we have before they truck out here,” says Berland, “and mostly people come because there’s something specific they want to buy.” Recently, they have added a range of accessories including Austrian-made patterned throws by David Fusseneger Textiles, colorful mid-century cased-glass decorative pieces, and sturdy handcrafted brooms from rural Pennsylvania.

Early on, Berland and Berland-Wyman decided that shipping would not be part of their services, so clients buying directly from Retrocraft and through the Etsy store arrange their own shipping – a fact that has not deterred a growing base of fans in California, Texas and New York. Retrocraft’s latest online venture is a store on the website www.Chairish.com, which bills itself as “the first online consignment marketplace,” and handles all shipping arrangements, for a cut of 20 per cent on sales. It’s a mark of Retrocraft’s growing reputation that Chairish invited their participation on the new site.

In the growing local market for mid-century modern design, the sisters see Retrocraft as occupying a unique niche. “There are some very high end mid-century modern retailers who are doing restoration,” says Berland. “We’re not competing with those guys.” At the other end of the scale, she says Retrocraft offers much more than the average consignment store. “When we sell something we want it to be structurally sound and in good working order,” says Berland-Wyman. “We try to make people happy, and if something’s not the way they want, we try to make it right,” she says – an attitude that has garnered many enthusiastic reviews at Retrocraft’s Etsy store.

SISTER ACT    Asked about how they divide up the work, and how they get on as business partners, both sisters laugh. “We get on each other’s nerves,” says Berland. “We have different obsessions.” “I’m also a perfectionist!” admits Berland-Wyman. “Yes! To the nth degree!” agrees her sister.

Retrocraft seems to thrive on the sisters’ complementary talents. “I’m the CFO – I do all the books. I’m a little compulsive about keeping things in order,” says Berland-Wyman, laughing. “I ended up doing the website and the photography,” says Berland, “and Laurie advises on colors and fabrics.” They employ one part-time assistant, and switch off working Saturdays at the showroom.

“I don’t think people realize how hard it is to have a small business and make it work and have an income from it,” says Berland. Trying to figure out the next move for the business is “on our brains all the time,” she says. And yet when the sisters pause to take stock of what they’ve achieved, they share a certain pride. “We didn’t start with a business plan,” says Berland, “but here we are five years later with a business that people know about, that has a profile.”


Untitled

RETROCRAFT DESIGN STUDIO

152 Commonwealth Avenue, West Concord. Tel: 781-320-9749/781-710-3911; email: contact@retrocraftdesign.com; showroom open Thurs. 1:00 pm-7:00 pm, Fri. and Sat. 11:00 am – 4:00 pm and by appointment.

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American Ride features Hancock/Clarke House on Emmy Award winning program

American Ride

The production crew from American Ride was in Lexington recently to film a segment for their Emmy Award winning television series. The program’s host, Stan Ellsworth (above center) is a teacher and great guy with a passion for American history. Thanks for featuring this great community.

AR Jane and Susan

 

Pictured left: Stan is with Susan Bennett and Jane Morse of the Lexington Historical Society. Above: Stan is pictured with members of the production crew filming outside the Hancock/Clarke House in Lexington. (Photo by Jim Shaw)

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Building Community Around the Supper Table

COMMUNITY ACTIVISTS SEEK TO HELP THOSE IN NEED

From L. to R: Harriet Kaufman, John Bernhard, George Murnaghan and Laura Derby stir the pot for Lex Eat Together. Photo courtesy of D. Peter Lund.

From L. to R: Harriet Kaufman, John Bernhard, George Murnaghan and Laura Derby stir the pot for LexEat Together. Photo courtesy of D. Peter Lund.

 

By E. Ashley Rooney

On Tuesday, May 26, a group of 35 residents met to discuss how we as a community could help those in need. Though not easily visible, there are those among us who struggle with not having enough food and social interaction.  By providing a free, nutritious and regularly scheduled community meal, open to all, we can address these needs and build community with those whose circumstances serve to isolate them.

It is difficult to imagine as the bulldozers raze older homes and turn them into multi-million-dollar dwellings, that we could be hungry because we didn’t have enough money to buy food, but a husband can die, a job disappear, a family or medical emergency can devastate our savings. As Laura Derby, one of the organizers, pointed out, once you lose your financial security, you may drift into social isolation. Life becomes a vicious spiral downward.

PROVIDING A FREE COMMUNITY MEAL

Laura, Harriet Kaufman, John Bernhard, and George Murnaghan have been meeting for several months to understand how Lexington can help those in need with a free weekly meal, open to all, which they have named Lex Eat Together.  They have researched similar efforts in Concord and Bedford, worked with the Town’s human services director Charlotte Rodgers, and met with community activists to get their suggestions and input.

Harriet Kaufman pointed out that we have many individuals and groups in town with a strong commitment to service.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ”Life’s most persistent and important question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’ Here is an opportunity for connection, for change, and for performing a valuable service.”

She then described the Open Table in Concord and Maynard, which provides a pantry and dinner to all who come, with no questions asked. She spent twenty-five years as a volunteer there, in a variety of roles, including pantry manager, cook, president, board member, and head of guest support services.  The spirit of Open Table, she said, is one of kindness, dignity, inclusion and community.  This spirit is what the group envisions replicating In Lexington.

HARNESSING LEXINGTON’S VOLUNTEER SPIRIT

Their overall plan is to have a weekly meal on Wednesday evenings from 5:30-7 pm, starting, in mid-October, and they are working with the Church of Our Redeemer, located in Lexington Center, to hold the meal in Redeemer’s renovated parish hall and kitchen.  They believe a central location, with suitable kitchen and dining facilities, ample parking and handicap access will serve the guests best.  Redeemer, which has hosted the food pantry for 25 years, fulfills all those requirements.

The 35 attendees broke into teams to discuss obtaining volunteers for cooking, serving, setup/cleanup, outreach and promotion, and organization and fundraising. In the next several months, they plan to build awareness about the Lex Eats Together program, to inform and invite potential guests and our community at large about the meal. They plan to seek funds to secure at least six months of operation.  The organizers believe it will cost around $500 per meal to purchase, prepare and serve 80 individual guests, or $12,500 for six months. They will establish a non-profit group to receive donations in the next several weeks.

To volunteer, contribute or obtain more information, contact John Bernhard jhbernhard2@gmail.com, Laura Derby lauraderby32@gmail.com, Harriet Kaufman harrietkaufman@rcn.com, or George Murnaghan gmurnaghan@verizon.net.  Or email lexeattogether@gmail.com.

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