“Whoever you are, you’re one of us.”
I don’t typically write about events involving my wife, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. But Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast in South Boston, it seems to me, merits some comment from this space.
I’ll leave it to other journalists – those unencumbered by a certificate of marriage – to weigh in on my spouse’s performance. Instead, here are some observations from the “green room” offered up in the spirit of historic preservation.
First, a little background: I’ve been going to the Southie breakfast since the mid-1980s when Bill Bulger – the legendary Senate president – was at the height of his power. I remember being about the age of my oldest son John (10) and climbing the old fire escape at the Bayside Club to get a coveted corner perch near the stage. My father, Ed Forry, had worked for Bulger briefly in the 1970s and had helped him and others organize the breakfast.
Our family’s connection to the roast dated back even further than the Bulger era: My father’s aunt, Kathleen Forry, was a South Boston native who for decades served as the Boston secretary and chief gatekeeper for US Rep. John W. McCormack, who finished a lengthy Congressional career as Speaker of the House. She kept the Dorchester side of the family plugged into all things political – Southie included. So, three generations of Forrys made the yearly trek to the waterside slope of Dorchester Heights for what became known – in my youth – as the Bulger breakfast.
In those days, the event was held in a noisy, frenetic sweatbox that was built for 250 people; somehow at least twice that number crammed in each year. The fire escape was the only way that dignitaries could access the stage once the crowd had packed into the Bayside. I liked to stay close to the fire door because it offered a chance to gulp some fresh air and a close-up look at the political stars of the day.
Later, now-Congressman Steve Lynch wisely moved the event to the Ironworkers Hall on Old Colony Boulevard where he could welcome a larger crowd more comfortably and have room for more television cameras. Sen. Jack Hart eventually re-located the festivities to its present home, the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
I expected last Sunday’s whole experience to be surreal. But, mostly it just felt familiar. As others have noted, there was a continuity to the event that was carefully choreographed. The salute to veterans, the wonderful house band Curragh’s Fancy, the prayers offered up by Fr. Joe White, and the Irish and American national anthems sung by Pauline Wells. The traditions of the breakfast, for better or for worse, were left intact.
The cooperation of Southie’s political leadership was critical, up to and including the first-ever cameo (on video) of former host Bill Bulger. Even Council President Bill Linehan – the frequent target of one-liners, including several zingers by Linda – sent in a funny video featuring comedian Steve Sweeney that fit in just right.
The modern-day breakfast is a beast that takes scores of volunteers and a core group of talented people to tame. Linda’s efforts benefited from a few key folks who proved indispensable: Doug Hurley, president of the St. Mark’s Civic Association and a longtime friend, who enlisted and coordinated volunteers at the convention center; Dusty Rhodes, the outstanding head of Conventures, the event planning company that produced the event; and a team of people from New England Cable News (NECN) who produced the broadcast, but also assisted in many elements of the event itself.
Ed Forry, my father, was essential in the creation of a foundation that raised the necessary funds to pay for the event. Southie’s own Tom Timlin, who for years helped Mayor Tom Menino write his routines for the breakfast, was a huge help as Linda worked out her script.
There are many, many others who were key. But no one – other than Linda herself – was more important than Sean Pierce, her legislative aide who lives in South Boston. Sean coordinated all things breakfast over the last several months. It was he who enlisted the Emerson College team— students and faculty— that produced the video sketches featuring Linda and her Southie colleagues at various locations across the neighborhood. (Pierce also made a hilarious cameo appearance at the end of Linda’s “getting her Southie on” sketch.)
Many have asked me what my favorite moment was during Sunday’s breakfast. To explain, I need to flash back more than 20 years, to a cramped corner of the old Bayside Club.
One year, as a college student, I watched a new, unfamiliar black woman as she carefully navigated the rungs of the fire escape (in heels, no less) and confidently shouldered her way onto the stage. It was Dianne Wilkerson, newly elected as the state senator from Roxbury. She got a warm welcome from Bill Bulger and gamely offered a greeting to the almost all-white room. I think she might have joined in for a song. It was a relatively brief, but memorable, cameo.
Who would have thought that the next black woman elected to the State Senate in Massachusetts would one day host the whole event? I think it’s safe to say that no one – myself included – could have conjured up such a thought back in 1992.
It was, then, a big gulp moment for me, and, I suspect, for most native Bostonians when we watched Linda take the stage on Sunday, cheerfully belting out the Irish-American anthem, “If you’re Irish, come into the parlour” to the cheers of hundreds.
“Whoever you are, you’re one of us.”
It wasn’t always the case. And perhaps it still isn’t fully realized. But on Sunday it was as real as it gets for this Bostonian.
As Congressman Steve Lynch said on Sunday, the breakfast is more than just a St. Patrick’s Day roast; it has become a chronicle of our political history. Sunday marked a memorable new chapter and I was thrilled that my family could be a part of it.