John O'Toole received quite a shock on May 13 when he discovered that neighbors, fellow civic leaders and even his family had been plotting behind his back. The former president of Cedar Grove Civic attended Tuesday's meeting to receive a Good Neighbor award as a thank you from his peers. Instead, O'Toole got a surprise visit from Mayor Thomas Menino, city councillors Maureen Feeney and John Connolly and State Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, who packed into Saint Brendan's Church basement alongside more than 120 residents to thank O'Toole for "being the rock" of his Cedar Grove community for the last 14 years.
O'Toole, 44, is credited as the driving force behind a litany of key accomplishments over the last decade, including the transformation of a Granite Avenue junk yard into what is now the waterfront Neponset II park and helping to keep the doors of Saint Brendan's School open. O'Toole stepped down from his post as president last January to spend more time with his family, including his wife Rose and the couple's three children, Jack, 13, Ronan, 11 and Danny, 8.
"For over a decade this man has kept our community from falling apart," said Sean Weir, O'Toole's successor as the Cedar Grove Civic president. "He's always been a major activist for the children and 'til this day continues to fight for a community youth center. He has also worked closely with the police to keep our streets safe. He has made our neighborhood a neighborhood, and for that we honor him."
O'Toole left Tuesday night's meeting with a chair from Mayor Menino and a captain's chair from fellow civic members. He was told,"John, you can finally sit down and rest."
Menino also presented O'Toole with a certificate of recognition from the city. With his mother, Mary, and his wife, Rose, standing his side, the Cedar Grove Civic presented O'Toole with the first ever Ray Donahoe Outstanding Citizen of the Year award. Donahoe, who passed away in 2006, was also a president of the civic association and a highly-regarded youth sports coach and organizer.
"Ray dedicated over 40 years of his life to Dorchester and was one of the main factors why our civic - and community - is so successful," said Weir. "Ray's passion lives within John O'Toole so we wanted to do something to honor them both. We created this award in Ray's memory and dedicated the first to a man who couldn't be more deserving."
"This was completely overwhelming, like hearing your own eulogy," O'Toole told the Reporter after the ceremony. "I'm honored to be surrounded by so many great people, my friends and family. But this is not about me, it is about the people around me. Making this a community we can live in."
Though deeply touched by his community's gratitude, O'Toole says the greatest part of the night was hearing news of a $50,000 donation from Adams Corner property owners Arthur and Susan Murphy p announced during the ceremony - which the civic group will put towards Saint Brendan's School. Another $150,000 for the school is expected to come soon from ClearChannel, O'Toole said, through an agreement he has forged with the advertising company in conjunction with Mayor Menino. The money will be used as the foundation of a larger capital campaign for the parochial school.
"Of all our accomplishments, one of my proudest is getting this money for the school. It's a viable school and the money comes at a critical time. We swore we would do this and we did. I am so proud and I look forward to helping making many more changes and improvements in our community," O'Toole said.
John's sister, Beth Emery, says O'Toole's passion for the Dorchester community has been a part of him since childhood.
"Our father (Kevin O'Toole, who passed away last December) had a great love for this neighborhood and that is a love we have all grown up with," said Emery. "My brother does what he does not for himself, but because he truly enjoys the happiness of others. He's committed to making a difference and he has had the greatest impact on so many lives."
City councillor Maureen Feeney also took the opportunity to voice her appreciation for O'Toole's service.
"The same way Ray Donahoe gave his entire life to the Dorchester community, John O'Toole has given endless years to us. These are two extraordinary leaders," said Feeney. "Ray has set us in traditions we will keep forever and John has created new traditions that have changed us forever," she said, referring to a Christmas tree lighting in Adams Corner and a family skate night in Neponset which draws over 300 kids. "Two extraordinary men who have demonstrated total commitment, quality and time deserve to be recognized. We are pleased to honor John tonight. His father would have been so proud."