Birmingham Completes Historic Journey: the Streets of Chelsea to a Shrine in the Senate Reading Room

Friday, May 13, 2011

I went up to the Senate Reading Room today to see the new portrait of Tom Birmingham, the pride of Chelsea, Harvard University and Harvard Law School.

The Reading Room is a large, ornate, high-ceilinged affair in a good corner of Bulfinch's original State House building. It is on the third floor, across from the Senate Chamber.

Sunshine, undimmed by any cloud, flooded in through the big windows and made me feel like I had happened upon the most cheerful old mansion on earth.

The portrait of Birmingham, who served as President of the Massachusetts Senate from 1996 to 2002, sat on an easel in the middle of the room, behind velvet ropes like the kind used in theatres, backlit dramatically by the spring-morning light. Soon it would join the other portraits on the walls there: the Coolidge, the Donahue, the Harrington, the Bulger and the Travaglini.

I was the only one in the Reading Room when I visited, and had plenty of time to study the handiwork of the artist, George Nick.

I can tell you now it is an accurate rendering of the former Senate chieftain because it captures the man's intelligence, reserve and ambition. Nick's Birmingham doesn't smile, and he does not demand to be noticed. Rather, he pulls you in by the gravity of thought. In this likeness, he is a scholar-politician with a serious, churning mind -- a guarded, analytical soul who would have no trouble figuring you out, if he cared to try.

The background also has much to tell, with its smaller portrait-within-a-portrait of Horace Mann, one of the greatest public figures in the history of our nation and himself a former Massachusetts Senate President (1836-37), on the left, and its view of the golden-domed State House, framed by a window, on the right.

Nick, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, told the State House News Service at yesterday's unveiling that the split background was meant to depict Birmingham's dual status as "an insider and an outsider."

Through the person of Horace Mann, Nick developed this theme cunningly, for Mann was a revolutionary in so many ways, an intellectual and an activist who fought for the abolition of slavery, women's rights, the compassionate care of the mentally ill, and, most of all, for free and universal education, which is how he came to be regarded as the father of public education in this country.

Mann struggled against the currents of his era and, at the same time, stood for, and won, public offices. His peers sent him to the Massachusetts legislature and later to the Congress, where he initially filled out the term of the deceased (once President) John Quincy Adams. Mann also held appointive office as secretary to the state Board of Education for a long spell.

More than a century separates Senators Mann and Birmingham, but the cause of education binds them close.

In his first term, Rhodes Scholar Birmingham was named Senate chair of the Joint Committee on Education and set about drafting, together with former Rep. Mark Roosevelt, the comprehensive Education Reform Act, which has had, since its enactment in 1993, a tremendously beneficial impact on both the physical quality of our public schools and the quality of the instruction offered therein.

Birmingham was a driving force in getting education reform through, and was a major guarantor of the funding for the bill when he became, successively, chair of Senate Ways and Means and Senate President. The Massachusetts economy was booming in the 1990s, and Birmingham helped direct literally billions of boom-related revenue to education. This endeared him to many constituencies, but others complained he was lavishing money on schools and catering to the teachers' unions. Birmingham brushed aside the critics and kept the money flowing, year after year.

On a Saturday morning in the Fall of 2000, I attended the dedication of the new Lafayette School in Everett, a densely populated part of Birmingham's district. I went to support my sister-in-law, Rosemary Catterson, who was the principal of the Lafayette, and to see the school.

Birmingham was on the dais, a star of the show because of his crucial work in securing state construction dollars. Speaker after speaker that day, everyone from the mayor and superintendent of schools to the construction foreman and rookie school committeeman, extolled the vision and effectiveness of the Senate President.

And when the outdoor ceremonies were over and the audience was at last invited to inspect the "new Lafayette," I approached the dais where Birmingham tarried, while everyone else headed inside.

"Going on the tour, Mr. President?" I asked. "This is your crowd. You should soak up the praise."

Birmingham, in full outsider mode, put a cigarette in his mouth, lit it, smiled faintly and said, "No. I think I'll go along."

Maybe that was where his power came from, I thought: he didn't crave the approval.

No comments:

Post a Comment