Remembering: “The Community Wants a National Park”

I was the “talker” at stop #2 on today’s final tour in the 2016 Lowell Walks/Summer Series. This “History of the Lowell National Historical Park” walk was led by LNHP Superintendent Celeste Bernardo. With “The Community Wants a National Park” as the theme, I was asked about organizations that I belonged to in the 1970s and (if there had been time) I would elaborate on how I saw the support for the Park evolve. I never got to the second part. Dick invited me to share my experiences and memories of those pre-Park days. So “walk” down Memory Lane with me.

There were three organizations that I was a part of in 1970s that were in my opinion critical to the idea of a National Park in Lowell and seeing the idea to fruition:

HUMAN SERVICES CORPORATION – HSC  was formed in 1971 out of the Model Cities Program and AMNO – the Acre Model Neighborhood Organization – they were federal programs connected with LBJ’s Great Society programs. HSC’s focus was on education, urban planning, children’s services and the community. The roots of the national park and defining Lowell’s culture in the broadest sense can traced to HSC and all the very dedicated leaders and volunteers that started it – Peter Stamas, Sr. Lillian Lamoureaux, Kay Georgalos, Fr. Belley, Pat Mogan, Jack Kirwin and many more. There were many HSC programs through the years but all those involved would certainly agree that HSC’s greatest achievement is that of keeping the notion of the “Urban” National Park alive and being part of bringing it to a reality… to a kind of rebirth of Lowell! After all these years, I still have a HSC connection!

THE LOWELL HISTORICAL SOCIETY – The Society was actually incorporated in 1902… but its root were in the 1868 Old Resident’s Historical Association.  The LHS mission was/is to collect, preserve and publish materials related to Lowell and to encourage and promote the study of the city’s history. The Society then and still sponsors lectures and workshops, has many books and other publications to its credit and it became a resource, collaborator and partner with the Park Service over the years. The Society’s extensive collection of artifacts, documents, letters, books, clothing, painting, etc. gathered and protected over the years was exactly “the stuff” that the Park Service would need. I joined the LHS Board of Directors in the mid-70,  was the President from 1980 to 1982 and served as Clerk until a few years ago and I remain on the Board.

THE LOWELL MUSEUM. The Lowell Museum was opened in 1976 in part of the Wannalancit Mill owned by the Larter family. (For many years the mill produced parachute material and was still a working mill in 1976.)  The Lowell Museum was a collaborative, city-wide effort with the Lowell Historical Society and HSC playing a vital part in its creation. A cross section of donors, granters, activists, partners like Lowell Tech now UML, the Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, the City of Lowell, banks and businesses, scholars, historians and more made it possible. But it was also supported beyond Lowell by those interested in the Industrial Revolution, Water Power, the Canals, the Mills, Mill Girls, Immigration, ethnic heritage… they all came to the table.  Its importance vis-a-vis the Park was that in the beginning it was an actual place to bring congressional staffers,  wary Park Service and Department of the Interior types to “show” them the working loom, the tenement kitchen and boarding house bedroom exhibits and more – to have them see the history and possibilities. Later the Lowell Museum had a co-operative agreement with the park… and worked closely to create the story, the exhibits, to translate the themes. Committed locals like John Goodwin, Lydia Howard, Lew Karabatsos, Mary Noon, Pat Mogan, Bill Lipchitz, Bob Malavich, Eric Thompson and many more were very important players.

Setting the stage….
From the mid-1960s to later in the 1970s, I was a English teacher at Lowell High School… that’s why I asked to make my comments here in Lucy Larcom Park – for the props! Look around… what’s behind you (St. Anne’s Church, the Masonic Temple, The York Club (now Cobblestones), Lowell High School – Coburn Hall and the 1922 building), those building were all there… but  across the canal the office building, the high school addition and walkways were not!

In 1965, my sensibility to historic preservation had a jolt as from Room 216 I watched the Dutton Street Row houses demolished… not an easy task… by wrecking ball but also brick by brick. The demolition shocked many people…  and even though City Councillor Brendan Fleming, my friend Lowell teacher and community activist Lydia Howard  and even Sun publisher Clemmie Costello tried to stop it.  It was in vain – the times were of Urban Renewal, take down and build new.

The attraction, the times…
I was interested in history and with my deep roots in the Acre and elsewhere – Lowell History, in particular. My Irish heritage and culture and the broad spectrum of cultures in the city reflected in my own classes with my students were also an interest.  I had a deep admiration for Dr. Patrick Mogan as an educator and as a thinker…. so I was naturally drawn to Human Services and their mission. I was a political animal… it was part of my nature and upbringing – my great uncle was a state rep and a Lowell Mayor and my maternal grandfather was a Lowell City Councillor in the 1930s… politics was dinner table talk. So the machinations that swirled around getting support for the goals HSC – Pat Mogan’s projects – Lowell: the Educative City, the City as a Classroom and, of course, the creation of the Lowell Urban Cultural Park had politics 101 written all over!  It was a local and state as well as a federal government push-pull. I was fully-into Congressional politics and knew the players, the pitches, the necessary partners and just how close the political play would be! Pat Mogan got the attention of Republican Congressman Brad Morse.  Morse laid the foundation with his colleagues and the very skeptical Dept. of the Interior/Park Service but it was the vigorous research and follow-through of Democrat Paul Tsongas and his talented and dogged staff that created a bipartisan coalition of supporters in DC. At home the skeptics were everywhere but so were the believers…  many of the believers were people of influence and just as dogged.

I couldn’t say that everyone “got it” or really understood Dr. Mogan’s vision – sometimes he needed an interpreter… a Peter Stamas for instance – who had become my boss and Headmaster at the high school by the mid-70s. I remember having Dr. Mogan speak to one of my English classes – they were Sophomores and were charged with using some aspect of the History of Lowell as a term paper theme – he talked, drew diagrams of the Educative City on the blackboard…. they were entranced and respectful … some caught on but others not so much! Pat spoke wherever a group would listen – even to high school Sophomores – because it was for EVERYONE to be in and committed and affected. The thing is – Pat’s visions were all tools – the Park was to be a tool … his real goal was that all Lowellians see their worth and the value of their city…. and that the experience of the citizens, the immigrants, the mill workers, the ordinary person…. was important to the country and to the world… they had worth!

The other thing that’s important to remember is that we were all abuzz about history in the mid-1970s. The county was celebrating the Bicentennial and Lowell was celebrating the Sesquicentennial of the founding of the town of Lowell back in 1826! The Lowell Historical Society committed to and did publish Cotton Was King – the first history written in decades… we celebrated with events, a ball, exhibits, the Lowell Museum opened, kids were focused on this in the Lowell Schools – they had there own celebratory exhibit right here in Lucy Larcom Park in 1975.

So history was on our plate… the Lowell National Historical Park was to be about Lowell’s history and its place in the history of the United States… yes, the Industrial Revolution but also as an Immigrant City and all that implies.

I was at JFK Plaza on that June day in 1978 when the LNHP legislation signed by President Carter was brought home…. thousands, including many school kids  – celebrated… I cut that huge cake made by the Voke School for all to enjoy…. that day began my 38 year and still ongoing relationship with the Park Service… I could write a book…

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