Would It Have Ended Differently for My Friend If He Had Never Been Bitten by the Political Bug?

Monday, April 4, 2011

It has been more than 35 years since the Sunday morning when I met Jim DiPaola at the police station in Malden, Mass. Our mutual lack of experience put us in the same place at the same time. He was a young patrolman, new to the force; I was a young reporter, covering the police and the courts for the Malden Evening News. Guys with more seniority could duck Sunday assignments, both in police and newspaper work. We couldn't duck it, nor did we want to.

Police officer and reporter were good jobs in those days. Both paid union wages. I don't want to suggest that the other officers on duty at that time were unfriendly, but Jim stuck out because of his friendliness and approachability. He had a great smile, a good sense of humor, was polite, listened well, and could talk with anyone. "When are you going to be the editor of that paper?" he'd ask. "When are you going to be the chief of police?" I'd answer.

Talking with him about this or that weekend incident, a big party that had ended in a brawl, for example, you could see that he had judgment, too. His inclination was to calm a situation down, not rough a person up. Jim was a Malden kid who had grown up, married a girl from the neighboring city of Everett, settled in Malden, and won a coveted spot on the local police force. Now he was patroling the streets where he grew up, and where so many people knew him and the members of his large, extended family. He was popular before he was on the force and worked to remain popular when he put on a badge and gun. It was important to him to be respected in the right way. In a few years, he was promoted to sergeant and was not around as much on Sundays. Our paths crossed less often.

I remember being a little surprised in 1992 when I learned Jim was running for state representative. The more I thought about it, though, the more it added up: he was a natural politician. Jim genuinely liked all kinds of people. He particularly liked hanging out with politicians. And he was ambitious. Jim waltzed into office and took the State House by storm. His peers elected him president of the incoming class of reps, a job without actual duties, but one that every freshman wishes in his heart to have because it's a sign of popularity, status, and potentially bigger things to come.

The bigger thing for Jim turned out to be the sheriff's job in Middlesex, the largest county in the Commonwealth. He was in his second term in the House when he entered the sheriff's race in 1996. Because he was known and loved in heavily populated, politically robust Malden, he started with an advantage. On top of that he had a legion of ready campaign volunteers, a strong background in law enforcement, (including a stint as an undercover narcotics detective), boundless energy and gregariousness. Jim became the guy to beat. He won that election, which was to serve out the remainder of the term of the last elected sheriff, and was re-elected, easily, in 1998, 2004 and 2010.

I'd see Jim at public events, a banquet or awards dinner, or at one of his political fundraisers at the Montvale Plaza in Stoneham, or Sissy K's in Boston. He had more friends than he knew what to do with by then and I waited in line to shake his hand and chat for a minute or two. Gladly. We never had the time to talk about old Malden days until his very last fundraiser in Boston this past May. I came up the stairs to a crowded function room and by a fluke bumped right into him. Spontaneously, we gave each other a big hug and started a real conversation. As we were talking, a young man we both knew from different parts of our lives came up and said, "I didn't know you guys knew each other." "Oh, yeah. Malden!" Jim boomed, putting his big arm around my shoulder. "We go way back." To me he suddenly seemed a much younger, less burdened man.

Some six months later, on the evening of Nov. 26, Jim checked into a hotel in Maine and killed himself. It was reported at the time that he and others in the sheriff's office were under investigation for alleged fundraising improprieties. This was a tragic end, a devastation and heartbreak for his wife and family, a terrible loss for his friends. Now, I can't help but wish the political bug had never bitten him.

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