Serving with Al

By Francis H. Duehay, 2013

I served on both the School Committee and the City Council with Al Vellucci, much longer on the City Council. Al seemed to many to be unpredictable, brash, quixotic, divisive, wily, loud, dominating, and self-centered. And he was, but he was a lot more than that. He often addressed the public at City Council meetings on the issue he knew they were there for by standing and speaking to them when the council rules of procedure required him to be seated and to address his colleagues. But he should be remembered not just for his sometimes quirky behavior but more for his substantive accomplishments, especially in health care, services for the elderly, and affordable housing – these were the issues that affected the working-class constituency that voted for him.

I learned valuable lessons from Al. One of the most valuable came during his first term as mayor and chair of the School Committee in 1970-71. I was the vice-chair and ran the committee for several months until the council finally settled on Al. These were turbulent times: urban unrest, the interminable aftermath of the Vietnam War, assassinations of national leaders, and racial turmoil. These national issues spilled over to Cambridge streets and neighborhoods. School Committee meetings were often confrontational. Al was perfect as chair in dealing with an angry public. He could absorb the heat, occasionally letting speakers know loudly that he agreed completely with them and that the School Committee would do whatever necessary to solve the problem (whether or not it was possible). He permitted the testimony to go on interminably until the public finally got worn out and left late in the evening and the normal business of the School Committee could continue. Other chairs of public meetings in other jurisdictions often called the police, adjourned angry meetings, or allowed them to get out of control. But Al believed that the public should be heard and demonstrated that in his behavior. There were times years later when, as mayor, I adopted the very same strategy, and it worked in just the same way.