Civic watchdog Joe Chaisson dead at 83

Joe Chaisson: Civic watchdog was an important voice for decades in Columbia-Savin Hill.Joe Chaisson: Civic watchdog was an important voice for decades in Columbia-Savin Hill.

A Savin Hill native whose name became synonymous with opposition to the proliferation of billboards across the neighborhood died on Aug. 26 after a lengthy fight against pancreatic cancer. Joe Chaisson, 83, was a lifelong Dorchester resident who became deeply involved in civic association activism in the 1970s. This week, his passing was mourned by a wide array of neighbors, including the mayor of Boston.

“Joe Chaisson’s legacy and all that he stood for will forever be part of the Savin Hill community,” said Mayor Martin Walsh in a statement to the Reporter. “He was a civic leader who fought hard for the people of Dorchester, making significant changes in our community that will benefit many generations to come.”

“We’ve lost a local hero and it is our hope that those who know him continue to keep his values and dedication alive through building up the neighborhoods and staying unified,” said Walsh, who worked closely with Chaisson through the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association.

Congressman Stephen F. Lynch was among those who visited Chaisson’s wake on Monday evening at Murphy’s Funeral Home on Dorchester Avenue.
“Joe was with me in the Bulger fight,” said Lynch, recalling his 1996 campaign to win a state senate seat once held by former Senate President William M. Bulger. Lynch competed with Bulger’s son, William, for the open senate seat. “Joe was with me ninety percent of the time, which if you know Joe, wasn’t too bad.”

Chaisson had an easy smile, but was also known as a tough customer— someone who stood up often on matters of civic concern facing Dorchester. He was often the first to take the floor at monthly civic association meetings in the Little House, where Columbia-Savin Hill neighbors convene on the first Monday of each month.

Annissa Essaibi-George, a former president of the association, said Chaisson mentored her and many others who are now civic leaders in the community.

“It is Joe who I would turn to in a times of uncertainty,” said Essaibi-George. “Some would interact with him and wonder “Why is that Joe Chaisson against everything?” To that I would answer, ‘He isn’t against anything, he is defending something else. He is for Dorchester.”

On Monday inside Murphy’s funeral parlor, Chaisson was surrounded by momentoes and photos gleaned from his years of civic engagement. The lapel of his suit was emblazoned with a pin featuring the “Parade Guy” symbol of the Dorchester Day Parade. Chaisson was a longtime member of the Dorchester Day Celebrations Committee and organized the annual “Salute to Seniors” luncheon that has been a staple of the Dot Day season for decades.

Chaisson was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012 and was the guest of honor at a testimonial dinner that fall.

In an interview with the Reporter in November 2012 at his Auckland Street home that he shared with his wife Carol, Chaisson reflected on his decades of civic association activism.

“My feeling is that I’ve tried to do what’s right for the neighborhood as a whole, not just Columbia-Savin Hill. I like to feel that I’ve done some positive, but I know I’ve been wrong, too. I’d say the changes here have mostly been for the positive,” said Chaisson, who lived in the same house that his mother bought in the 1950s.

He recalled the construction of the southeast expressway, that slices through the Savin Hill community, as a formative event in his life. Chaisson was a youth when state engineers built the highway that cut parts of his neighborhood off from the sea. The interstate also became a magnate for outdoor advertising. Billboards became Chaisson’s primary focus of concern as a civic leader.

Asked in 2012 why he despised outdoor advertising, Chaisson barely contain his contempt: “They serve no purpose whatsoever. They’re dangerous, because you take your eyes off the road.”

“Joe Chassion was a watchdog, historian and father to and for Dorchester,” said Eileen Boyle, the current president of the civic association. “He wanted people to work together and create a neighborhood were everyone knew each other and listened to each other.
Joe taught many of us how to fight for what is right, whether the cause was political or private. He touched so many lives and never expected anything in return.”

A funeral service for Joe Chaisson was held on Tuesday morning in the Gilman Chapel at Cedar Grove Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, donations in Joe’s memory for cancer research may be made to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Attn: Dr. Bullock, 330 Brookline Ave., Boston, MA 02215.