The chief probation officer at Dorchester District Court recently retired after 42 years of public service that started when he joined the probation department just out of college. Born and raised in Mission Hill, the oldest in a large Irish family, Bernie Fitzgerald brought dedication, compassion, and strength to a job that requires those qualities every day. He also brought a sharp wit that made him fun to be with.
When things were tense, you could always count on Bernie to lighten the load with an amusing observation. He took his responsibilities seriously, but never himself. That quality endeared him to the beleaguered probation staff at the court.
All too often those jobs that affect lives like probation officers, social workers, and teachers are not highly compensated or appreciated. We tend to put a higher value on selling products than on helping others. Bernie Fitzgerald knew the importance of helping young people in trouble get back on track. He saw the value in lives that had gone astray, often for reasons beyond the control of those born into poverty or dysfunctional families.
I had the pleasure of working with him for many years and looked forward to his hulking but amiable presence. He was a big guy, not just in stature but by virtue of his expansive personality. He introduced me to the books of Robert Parker, author of the “Spencer” series. I told Bernie that when I read those books (and I read them all), I imagined him as the lead character -- tough, irreverent, funny, and smart, but a softy when it came to people in trouble. A talented actor, Bernie performed with a Mission Hill theater group in a number of their productions. His comedic roles were particularly memorable.
He touched a lot of lives in the over 40 years he worked in Dorchester and often went beyond the call of his normal duties to provide guidance, support, and encouragement to those in distress. While his loss will be felt, he had the opportunity over the years to train many young probation officers who will continue his legacy of hope and perseverance.
In a culture where success is measured in the accumulation of things, Bernie and those like him leave their mark in the lives of the people they touch, using whatever it takes to rehabilitate, including advice, help, motivation and, when necessary, coercion. Success may be a direction changed or even a life saved. Such achievements too often go unnoticed.
Bernie has a great family and had an outstanding career. He was honored for his achievements the other night at Venezia’s. At 63, he now has the time to enjoy family and friends. Knowing Bernie, I suspect he will also find a way to continue to influence the lives of those less fortunate. You see: For him it’s a labor of love.
In the interim, he’s off to Paris. Bon Voyage!