Trustee For A City

In a new book, History's Gelfand says Ralph Lowell built bridges that transformed mid-century Boston

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

Great changes often occur throughout history, according to Assoc. Prof. Mark Gelfand (History), simply because of "the right people at the right time." For Boston, he said, Ralph Lowell was such a person.

Lowell was able to bring about positive change at a pivotal point in the city's history, he added. A member of one of the region's most influential Brahmin families, Lowell was a critical player - both in public view and behind the scenes - in Boston's re-emergence as a "world class" city in the tumultuous 30-year period following World War II, said Gelfand.

In his recently published book, Trustee for A City: Ralph Lowell of Boston , Gelfand paints a revealing portrait of Lowell, while providing an inside view into the boardrooms and backrooms of a socially and economically changing mid-20th century Boston.

Energetic, innovative and extremely devoted to his beloved Boston, Lowell's ability to interact effectively with the city's many separate interest groups - Yankees, Irish-Catholics, labor unions, business leaders and educational institutions - made him eminently worthy of the title, "Trustee for A City," Gelfand maintains.

"Not many people were born with the opportunities Lowell had," said Gelfand, who had access to Lowell's personal diaries and conducted interviews with many other activists from this critical period in Boston's history. "But he had a deep sense that given these opportunities, he had a responsibility to the community.

At the 1962 Commencement Exercises, Ralph Lowell received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Boston College President Michael P. Walsh, SJ. Lowell brought together Boston's Yankee bankers and Irish-Catholic politicians, a key development in the creation of the "New Boston."

"Lowell was an effective instrument in bringing Boston into the future," Gelfand said, even as the city's "political power rested with one group of people and the economic power rested with another - and the two did not get along."

Lowell went out of his way to reach out to these interests, Gelfand said, and used his status as one of the city's leading bankers to open economic and social doors for Irish-Catholic, and later Jewish and African-American residents - doors that had previously been closed.

He represented development interests as well, and was able to gain the attention and eventual trust of Irish-Catholic city politicians who had taxed commercial interests heavily in lieu of less popular homeowner property tax levies.

The result was a resurgence in commercial building in the Hub, resulting in such landmark developments as the Prudential Center, Government Center, and the second John Hancock Tower.

Lowell was active on dozens of charitable, civic and business boards and committees, including the wartime Greater Boston Soldiers and Sailors Committee (now known as the USO), Museum of Fine Arts - of which he was board president - and the Harvard University Board of Overseers. He used his many connections to support goodwill for all Bostonians, such as the occasion when he persuaded Harvard President Nathan Pusey to allow a professional football game to be played at Harvard Stadium to benefit Cardinal Richard Cushing's Catholic charities campaign.

Lowell also served on a blue ribbon committee that studied racial imbalance in the Boston Public School system in the early 1960s, Gelfand notes.

Boston College, Lowell's childhood neighbor, played a significant role in several of his key public service accomplishments, Gelfand said. In the late 1940s, he saw the opportunity to establish an educational, non-commercial radio station in Boston, and enlisted the support of several area colleges and universities to form the station's broadcasting council. After Lowell's repeated urging, Gelfand said, BC joined the venture, which helped raise the University's profile while providing the new station, WGBH-FM, a link with the region's large Catholic population.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Lowell was an active participant in Boston College's Citizen Seminars, a highly acclaimed "think-tank" series which brought together leaders from all parts of the Greater Boston community and is credited with developing a number of ideas that eventually led to the "New Boston."

In 1962, Boston College awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree to Lowell, referring to him as "the beloved first citizen of Boston" in the accompanying declaration.

One of the most fitting tributes to Lowell, Gelfand said, played on the popular, but often-misquoted rhyme about Brahmin Boston, "[where] the Lowells talk to the Cabots and the Cabots talk only to God." During a Goodwill dinner at a Brookline synagogue, Lowell was introduced as "a Lowell who talks to Cabots," Gelfand said, "and to Cohens and Kellys, too."

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