Bill Walczak used to look outside his window at sunrise and see shards of broken glass everywhere. Savin Hill Park, with its expansive views of the rest of the neighborhood, the gas tank and Dorchester Bay, was often a “total wreck” when he first moved to Rockmere Street some 30 years ago.
The first year he lived there, he would head out the door with a rake because he was tired of seeing all that glassy trash. Soon, a neighbor joined him in the clean-up and today, three decades later, a group of volunteers goes to the park every year, sweeping away debris and overgrown thorn bushes.
“Some of my neighbors ‘round here used to say, ‘Geez, I wish they would just close that park,’ because it was so filled with problems,” Walczak said in an interview with the Reporter. “But now it’s a huge asset and it’s people coming together that did that, the neighborhood coming together. I just was the guy that put the sign up that said, ‘Hey, we can clean this park.’ ”
Cleaning up his neighborhood park is a small part of Walczak’s lengthy resume, which he’s hoping will help vault him into the mayor’s office. He has worked as a probation officer, a member of an advisory panel overhauling the city’s student assignment system, the head of a local hospital, and the co-founder of the Codman Square Health Center.
“I love getting things done,” Walczak said in the sit-down on the second floor of his home on a muggy day in May as young campaign volunteers bustled around in the first floor dining room. “That’s the core element of me. I love being involved in things.”
A New Jersey native, he was drawn to Dorchester by his wife Linda, whose father worked at the Baker Chocolate Factory in Lower Mills. They were married at St. Gregory’s Church and moved into an apartment in the St. Mark’s area, not too far from Codman Square.
Walczak recalls attending civic association meetings in Codman Square before the health center was built. “The meetings tended to be very depressing because it was all about how bad things were getting in the community,” he said. For him, launching a health center was something positive. “I’m a really optimistic person at heart and I like to think that all of our problems, everything that we need to do, can be done because there is such great energy in our neighborhoods.”
Codman Square was a community that was “literally burning down in the 1970s,” according to Walczak, but a mix of people, including immigrant groups, African Americans, and whites, decided to stay and “made a stake. It has worked in a way that produces both entrepreneurship and opportunity,” he said.
Ever restless, in 2011 Walczak took the top job at the struggling Carney Hospital, which had been bought by a for-profit company named Steward Health Care. Its officials had come to him. It was a bad marriage, and he left after 14 months on the job due to what he calls a “philosophical dispute” over the hospital’s strategic plan. He received a severance, and an agreement with Steward prevents Walczak from going into too much detail about his leave-taking.
Soon after, he signed up to handle community relations for Shawmut Design and Construction, a local firm that took its name from the MBTA station in Dorchester, but Mayor Thomas Menino’s decision not to run for reelection provided another opening, and after some thought, Walczak jumped into the race. He said he has chatted with Menino, and the five-term mayor has offered him advice for the campaign trail: “Make sure you have fun.”
“Fun for me has always about meeting people, getting my energy from those folks; just listening to people and listening to their ideas is just really energizing for me,” Walczak said.
Asked about his path to victory, he said it will be “unique for our times.” The city and its neighborhoods are radically different from what they were in 1993, the year of the last mayoral race. “So the question comes down to who’s going to vote and what are they going to vote for?” Walczak said. “And the ethnic aspects of it are very different. The notion of people voting based on ethnicity seems like an anachronism in many ways.”
Voters will be focusing on issues like education, public safety, and whom they can trust, he said. “So my path to victory is about making my case that I’m a person who is worthy to run the city of Boston, partly because of my experience as a CEO for most of my life, I’ve been a CEO for 34 years, I think, and I have great experience in leadership and in management. I certainly know how to manage money and I certainly know how to build teams of people that allow for real management to occur.”
He hopes to run well out of Dorchester and snap up progressive votes elsewhere – though he isn’t the only Dorchester-based candidate to wish for that in the Sept. 24 preliminary, which will winnow the field to two candidates who will face off on Nov. 5.
“I think this election will prove a lot of things about the future of Boston,” Walczak said. “One is how well-engaged are Bostonians in this. Is it going to be certain groups of people who get out and vote in large numbers and dictate who are going to be the choices in the final, or is it going to be a much broader population? And that’s the big question. Because they certainly came out for the governor’s and the president’s race. Bostonians came out in huge numbers. That question – will that continue – will be answered on September 24.”