Facing a possibly dangerous situation when I was still young, I wrote a letter to my parents to be read posthumously. (How the young are attracted to drama!) In that letter I explained to my parents that I was going to an event where I might die and yet I had decided to go because I did not want to die a bystander. I preferred to face down my fear and do what I felt was right. It was a decision that stiffened my spine for life and it was a characteristic that drew me to others in whom I found this attitude.
Dave Barry died last Nov. 20, of renal failure after a long and dreadful fight with cancer. In a final act of defiance on his deathbed, he said to his nephew: “At least the cancer didn’t get me.” Dave Barry was never a bystander. He was always willing to join a fight even if it was in a losing cause.
In fact, Dave spent his whole adult life not being a bystander. Right out of college, he took a job at the old Boston City Hospital cleaning floors so that he could help low-wage employees start a union. I met Dave in 1985 just after I had moved back to Dorchester. He was living on Percival Street, across from Ronan Park, and around the corner from my apartment on Fox Street. He had discovered that the Meetinghouse Hill Civic Association had ceased to operate and he was recruiting residents to revive it. He organized a meeting, which also attracted the “old school” residents who had let the Association die. Rather than let this upstart take over “their” group, they voted themselves back in. But the Aasociation was revived and functions vigorously to this day.
Dave got to know in many ways people he considered “opinion makers” on just about every street in Dorchester, and he made it his business to keep in touch. He was Mayor Flynn’s Dorchester liaison for several years, was a board member at Dot House, worked for the Fields Corner CDC, chaired the Ward 15 Democratic Party Committee, served on the board of Dorchester Gardenlands, went into writing mortgages and other real estate ventures, and along the way he earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Tufts University. He was famous for calling and asking folks, “Do you want to catch a cup of coffee?” whenever he had some time on his hands. Ashley’s Breakfast Shop on Bowdoin Street (now the One Family Diner) owes him a thousand thanks.
I knew Dave best through our favorite sport: local politics. When the Fifth Suffolk House District was reconfigured, Dave brought me to the first meeting of what would become the Nelson Merced campaign. Nelson won that election and became the first Latino to sit in the Great and General Court. When, later, Althea Garrison won that seat, she was reviled by Howie Carr in his columns over two days in comments so vile that her friends feared that she might hurt herself. Dave helped gather ten people from the Fifth District (none of us had voted for Althea) and we sat down with the Herald’s editorial board to upbraid them for allowing this hateful attack. Carr never wrote about Althea again.
Dave asked Charlotte Golar Richie to run for the Fifth Suffolk seat and she went on to write some history. To follow Charlotte, Dave worked day and night to elect Marie St. Fleur, the first Haitian elected almost anywhere in the United States. In every election cycle Dave was an intrepid door-knocker, sign-holder, polling day worker for many other candidates in whom he believed: Kevin McFadden (openly gay candidate for Second Suffolk Senate), and Linda Dorcena Forry, just to name a couple.
Dave was compulsive about working on public things but always below the radar. He never sought recognition but was always putting others forward. He was fiercely loyal, driven by an internal sense of fairness and values that were hard-wired in his heart. He was hard-headed, opinionated, stubborn and sometimes a bit of a cuss. But always in a cause, always for what he thought was right, and always for others. Dave Barry was never a bystander, and he died a fighter. As so many others in Dorchester can say, “He was my good friend,” and I will miss stepping off the sidelines with him and fighting by his side.