December 17, 2018

Oh, how dear old Worcester is changing!

            I’m happy to tell you I’m on the road in my camping van again. Yes, alone again.  I’m driving slowly up through New England into Quebec and then back home. I expect to be gone two weeks, maybe three. As always I’m favoring the quiet, slower roads.  I’ve just entered beautiful Vermont on a nice, slow road.

            Why  do I do this? You may be wondering. I have an easy answer. I enjoy it. I want to squeeze in as much of it as I can while I can.

            My first destination was Worcester in central Massachusetts, and what a wonderful three days I had there! I spent more than 50 years of my life in Worcester. I was a Rhode Islander. I entered Assumption Prep School in Worcester at 13 and stayed in the area right into my retirement.

            (It’s then that I left to attend a one-week program at the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in Ivoryton, Connecticut—now known as Incarnation Center—and gosh, how that changed everything for me!)

             So now you understand why I put visiting Worcester at the top of my list.

            Worcester may not be well known to you. It is a very impressive city—it is certainly the largest and most significant city in the six New England states except for Boston, Hartford, and Providence, which happen to be state capitals.

            It has a big and strong industrial base. It includes long-established companies which are leaders in their fields, such as Norton abrasives and Wyman-Gordon forgings.

            And it has 10 colleges and universities, an astounding number. They include the University of Massachusetts Medical School and my alma mater, Assumption College.             And it has a remarkable array of hospitals and shopping centers and museums and musical venues and theatres and parks and so many other such good things.  One of its big pluses is Lake Quinsigamond, and I had a wonderful experience there during my visit. More about this in a minute.

            Oh, I visit Worcester from time to time, but I always go to the same two or three places. This time for three days I was all over the place. A couple of times I wasn’t sure how to get to the next place on my list. I found this so surprising. That happened because of new roads and some bewildering traffic changes.

            People grow old and die, of course. Cities grow old, too, and many of our cities in New England are very old, among the oldest in the country. But they don’t die. They  keep getting modified and modernized and spruced up. Worcester is a good example.

            In my three days, I visited 11 long-time friends. I missed just two, and I feel bad about that.  I wish I could tell you about each of these 11. They are truly fascinating. Not possible. I’ve vowed to send you shorter posts. Remember how I got bogged down on my recent trip across the U.S.? My writing projects were too ambitious. Took too much time. Well, I’m keeping my word.

            That said, I can’t resist telling you about two.

            One was Rev. Oliver Blanchette.  He was a young priest when I was a student at Assumption. He is 97 years old.  He is so amazing. Augustinians of the Assumption are a Catholic religious order, like the better-known Jesuits or Dominicans, and international, too, but much smaller. Assumptionists can expect to do many things during their career.  They don’t seem to have a fixed retirement age. Father Blanchette—we all call him Father Oliver—is a good example. For six years until just a few years ago, he served in Africa—in the Congo. He was one of a small team of Assumptionists there.

            Yes, 97! Now that I think about it, he is the oldest person I know. What a remarkable man. Sure, he walks with a walker, but in a pinch I believe he could get along without it. He seems so healthy. His speech is so clear. His memory so sharp.  He reminded me of incidents I have long forgotten. His insights so interesting.  His humor such a pleasure. He is really with it! It gives me hope.

            In running around, I stopped by  Lake Quinsigamond. I mentioned it above. Regatta Point State Park is on its shore. The park has a fine bathing beach. And it’s the home of the Regatta Point Community Sailing Center–a wonderful non-profit that teaches people how to sail small boats. Adults, teen-agers, little kids.

         I learned how to sail there, as a 40-year-old, mind you.  Sailing small boats became fun for me for many years. My three children learned to sail there. I was the president there for two terms. I love the place. So of course I stopped by to take a look.

            It was a beautiful day and a dozen boats were on the lake, scooting about. Lake Quinsigamond is long and very narrow, which makes it perfect for rowing regattas. But very challenging for sailing.

            One day long ago I heard a member who had just finished sailing remark, “I had to tack and jibe more today than I would crossing the Atlantic!” I laughed. But I knew what he meant.  The training we got there on Lake Quinsigamond really paid off. I knew several members who who went on to become confident salt-water sailors.

            The place was busy now, but I didn’t know anybody, of course. I stood and watched the boats out there. Such a beautiful scene.  Then I walked into the impressive boathouse—just recently renovated–to look it over after all these years.

            I walked into the boat overhaul shop—I had spent lots of time in there. I recognized a man I hadn’t seen in a dozen years, Alan Fearn. He was hard at work on a boat. For sure he’s in his 70’s now. Still lean and strong. He  was one of the founders of the program many years ago. Its manager for decades. The one who taught me to sail! The guy I worked with when I was president!

            He had retired years ago. but he loved the place so much that he came back often to do this and that.

            And he recognized me. What a nice chat we had.

            At one point, I told him, “Alan, you built this program. Everybody knows that. The boathouse has never looked so good. They should have put your name on it!”

            He laughed. “John, follow me!” He took me outside and pointed to the top of the building. His name was up there, in big letters!  I hadn’t noticed that. All I could say was, “Well, finally! I’m so happy. Congratulations!”

            As I skipped around the city, I looked at properties I’ve owned in the area. Six of them.  Some I made extensive repairs to,  a couple I modified greatly. I sold them off one by one. Now two looked neglected. Very sad. Two looked very good, which pleased me.     

         One of these was a striking four-story brick building at 5 State Street. Quite substantial. State Street was an elegant street at one time. . A hundred years ago, the building went up as a gracious apartment  house, one large apartment on each floor, each with two  beautiful fireplaces.       In late years it had fallen on hard times. In fact, it got boarded up. It was being sold at public auction. I attended and put in the winning bid. Without knowing exactly what to do with it.

            Then I decided. I’d convert it into nine condo units, including a large one on the bottom floor. You have to see the building to understand how I managed that. It would be a new and bigger office for myself.

            I hired an architect. Put a crew of workers to work. Had them rip out all the old plumbing and wiring and strip the building of its plaster right down to the bare walls. Built everything inside fresh and new.

            It was on a hill. One  day up on the flat roof to inspect it, I was delighted with the fine view of the big downtown, with the city stretching out behind it. I built a nice deck up there. Residents could lounge up there, sunbathe, read the Sunday paper.

            With the huge renovation finished,  I talked Worcester’s finest furniture store, Coghlin’s, into decorating and furnishing one of the units as a demo. The pay-off  for Coughlin’s would be new customers hopefully.  For me, it would demonstrate how beautiful my condos could be. Convince lookers to buy a unit. 

            Oh, State Street is a short street. It was impressive in its early days. On the other side from my building was the big Worcester County Courthouse, a magnificent structure. But by the time I came along, the street had declined greatly.  My restoration led to numerous improvements by others.  The building next to mine was nearly its twin. Meaning elegant at one time. It was still being lived in, but was in a neglected state. A new owner did as I did. I like to think he was inspired by my building.

            The beautiful leafy trees along State Street that I had seen in ancient photos had disappeared long ago. I got new trees planted.  

           As you can see, that big project was an interesting chapter in my life.  So, I was  pleased now to see my former building and all State Street in good shape. My nice office is now a lawyer’s office. Now those small trees  reach up  nearly to the third floor! State Street has a fine new life. I felt so good beholding all this. Yes,  coming to take a look was important to me.

            By the way, that furniture store, Coughlin’s, is now gone. So sad.

            I got a good look, too, at Assumption . I spent eight years getting through its prep school and then the college–a boarder all that time. Some years after I graduated,  I taught at Assumption in the evening program now and then. That’s while I worked full-time on the editorial side at the Telegram & Gazette.  

            Later I resigned from the T & G  to become the director of public relations at Assumption. In a couple of years I moved up to director of public affairs. Nearly five years in all.  It was an exciting time.

            Assumption was a fine and beautiful school back then. It is so much larger now and even more beautiful. I’m not exaggerating. What a pleasure to behold all this. Take a look if you ever get close. 

            I also got a look at the new Telegram & Gazette. You may have read the big news a couple of weeks ago. The New York Times had bought the T&G for $299 million a dozen years ago or so. Well, the Times  just sold it as part of its Boston Globe package. The Red Sox impresario bought the whole package for a mere $71 million. Incredible!  Can’t think of his name. (It will come back to me tomorrow, I’m sure.) He must have picked up the T&G for a song!

            Quite recently, the T&G had moved out of its building of more than a hundred years right on Worcester Common. It had moved into the handsome office tower on the opposite side of the Common. One of the newest and nicest buildings in the city. The T&G had gotten its name posted in bold letters way up there at the very top of the building.  It was the only name up there. You can’t miss it. I liked what I saw. Took a picture of it.

            But that big name up there is a bit misleading. It makes you think this is the T&G Building. The building has a dozen floors or so. But the T&G occupies only two of those floors.  The T&G says that economic difficulties and high-tech efficiencies had convinced it to make the  move. The same thing is happening to every big paper, as we know. I do hope the dramatic change has given the T&G a new lease on life.

            I did have one very sorry experience.  I visited big, old Saint Francis Home on Thorne Street. For years and years, it took care of old people in their difficult final years as an excellent “old folks’ home.”   

            It was lovingly founded and run by nuns, the Little Franciscans of Mary. Saint Francis Home had been one of my clients for 15 years. I went every week and provided Sister Jacquelyn Alix, the administrator, an assist in making the place appreciated and helping it prosper.  

            I hadn’t been there in many years, so I stopped by. I found it busier than ever with inpatients and day patients. But all the nuns were gone! It’s now operated by a corporation! What a shock. I never imagined such a thing could  happen. I’ll certainly look into that when I get home. How are those dear  nuns who worked so hard for so many years?

            I got to see some of the big changes in the city that are very good. How the magnificent old train station, Union Station, has been rebuilt so stunningly. How beautiful Worcester Common is thriving. What a big sprucing up historic Elm Park is undergoing. It was near my State Street office and on my lunch hour I’d walk there for exercise on nice days.

            I was amazed by the big and impressive technology park that has sprung up around the Medical School and Medical Center. Impressed by other things, too. And of course I saw some things that needed fixing.  That’s expected, of course.

         As I said, smart cities keep renewing themselves.  Worcester is an inspiring example. If only we could do that, you and I—renew ourselves and keep going!

            Yes, I had three fine days in Worcester. What a fine start on this new trip. Now on toward Montreal!




  1. Lucie Fradet says:

    Happy to read about State St.. Talk about a walk down memory lane! I remember your projects; you had many great ideas. I went to Assumption when it was small. Thanks for the update. Hugs, Lucie

  2. jim davis says:

    don’t you and didn’t you have a wonderful life?!! :):)) jim

  3. Pete Quinn says:

    John, nice to meet you the other day during your visit with Al Fearn. Hope the photos of you two old friends were successful. I’ll be following your tracks into QC over the upcoming Labor Day weekend for a four day bicycle tour on Parc Lineare Le P’tit Train du Nord. We’ll travel from St-Jerome to Mont Laurier. Wouldn’t it be capital if we reconnected… any help translating a French dinner menu would be truly appreciated. All the best, and keep your spokes tight. Pete

  4. Nancy Simonds says:

    Hey there, John!

    Don’t worry about renewing yourself. Don’t you see that’s what you continue to do? You’ll easily make it until 97 – like your friend Rev. Oliver, too. Keep that mind and body going and you’ll be just fine and dandy. Also, hold on to that smile and your sense of humor. Those traits, along with a postive attitude most likely will keep you alive and traveling until you’re 100 or older. AIN’T that a grand notion?

    Kindest regards,
    ~ Nancy

  5. Joan Perrone says:

    You amaze me, John! I think you will live longer than Father Oliver…you’ll hit 100 easily! Your zest for life, and your adventurous spirit will keep you going. You will never say “I have done it all.” There will always be something else you want to see or try, and that will keep you young. Have a great trip to Montreal.

  6. John,

    Give Worcester another compliment. It is now the second largest city in all of New England. It is second only to Boston.

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