James E. Milano Didn't Have to Be in Office to Be THE Leader of His City

Friday, November 11, 2011

Life had been good to Jim Milano, a former mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts, who died Nov. 2 at the age of 102, covered in honors, as the ancients would say. And Jim Milano had been good to life. He was a giver, not a taker.

Milano had been a lawyer for the old Boston and Maine Railroad and a long-time member of the Melrose Board of Aldermen when he was elected mayor in 1972. He went on to serve 10 consecutive, two-year terms as the city's chief executive. When he retired in 1992 at age 83, most Melrosians wished he wasn't leaving. If he wanted to, he could have won another term or two on autopilot. A few years later, they named the city's new senior citizens center in his honor, the Milano Center.

I remember once asking him, "Of all the things you've done and accomplished, what brought you the most satisfaction?" I thought he would say something about the new high school built early on his watch or the rejuvenation of Melrose's downtown, which he instigated.

"The war," he said. "Those years in the Pacific, serving with so many great men and women, that was the best thing I ever did."

Milano enlisted in the Army before Pearl Harbor and served until the end of the war, in 1945, as an artillery officer in such dangerous locales as Guadalcanal, Bougainville, the Fiji Islands and the Philippines. He was in Yokahama, Japan, on Aug. 14, 1945, when Emperor Hirohito signed the surrender documents on the deck of the nearby USS Missouri. He didn't get home once during World War II, five long, lonely and risky years. Yet 60 years later, his voice would choke as he spoke of the "privilege" of serving with his fellow Americans in the worst war ever known to mankind.

I don't think I will ever know a person of greater fundamental decency, empathy and honesty than Jim Milano. It's hard to be in the rough-and-tumble of public life for two years and not have someone suspect you of trying to deceive or mislead him, but Milano managed to be in public office for 30 years, 1962 to 1992, and never once have his integrity questioned or challenged.

"You were always honest with people," I once declared to him. In reply, he took no bow. Instead, he told of how he learned honesty from the example of his father, Joseph Milano, who had also been an alderman and had represented Melrose in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
One time, when he was a boy and his father was in the legislature, Jim Milano told me that a man stopped him on the street, gave him a carton of cigarettes and told him to give it to his father because his father had done him a favor.

"I remember thinking how nice it was of him to give my father a present and how happy my father would be when I got home with it," Milano said. "But my father wasn't happy at all. He was angry. He told me he could never take anything for doing his job, and ordered me to go to that man's home and give him back his cigarettes. It was almost supper time and I was hungry, but my father made me go right away. It was a mile walk, but of course I wouldn't say no to my father. It made a lasting impression."

After Jim Milano left office, he stayed active in the community and seldom left town. He went to Mass and Communion every day at St. Mary's Church, he faithfully attended the weekly meetings of the Melrose Rotary Club and pulled his weight in every Rotary activity and philanthropy, he tutored students at Melrose High who were struggling in reading and civics, and he socialized almost every night. A lifelong bachelor, Milano had friends of all ages and persuasions: true friends that he ate and drank and shared stories with, attended birthdays, christenings, wakes and funerals with.

You would see him around Melrose every day -- on the sidewalk outside Bread 'n Bits of Ireland, a Main Street coffee shop; waiting in line at the post office on Essex Street; or visiting a friend at the Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. And you'd see him tooling by in his big, old Chrysler, forever "Mr. Mayor" in the motorcade of life.

Only in recent years did you notice the dents that kept appearing, like shark bites, on that Chrysler and realize that age was finally catching up with him, slowing his reflexes a bit, but leaving his memory, a wonder of nature, intact. About a year ago, he had to forsake his long-time home, the interior of which was an immaculate snapshot of the Fifties, and move to Oosterman's Rest Home, less than half a mile away.

Like a bishop, Milano was waked before the altar at St. Mary's for six hours on Monday, Nov. 7. The next morning, they held a glorious requiem for him, with beautiful hymns from a full choir, ("Jesus, Remember Me, When You Come Into Your Kingdom"), an honor guard of Rotarians, and a church filled with people of many faiths and no faith at all. The burial, with full military honors, took place at Melrose's Wyoming Cemetery.

For a man who never lost an election, it was fitting that Jim Milano was brought to his rest on an election day, and that his eulogy was given by the current mayor, Rob Dolan, who idolized him while growing up.

Dolan recalled that, at the age of five or six, he went "to a political rally in late-October in the courtyard of the YMCA and holding Mayor Milano's black sign with orange letters. It was the first political sign I ever held in my life. And I liked it. It was a cold night, and others complained, but I liked it." So I guess you could say Mayor Dolan caught the political bug from Mayor Milano.
Dolan noted that, "Jim Milano was mayor from the year I was born to the year I graduated college. That is over half my life. There are tens of thousands of men and women that can say the same, living in cities across the country and across the world. If it truly takes a village to raise a child, then we were raised in Jim Milano's village. Jim Milano, together with our teachers, educated us. Jim Milano, together with our parents, taught us right from wrong. Jim Milano's character set the tone in the community, and his heart and his warmth were the foundations of our character. We are, in a very real way, Jim Milano's children. Although he had no children of his own, my generation of Melrosians are Jim Milano's children, and on behalf of them, I say thank you. We can never repay that debt."

Our country was built by givers, not takers.

Jim Milano gave and he gave and he gave, becoming ever larger in the eyes and hearts of his townsmen until he reached the status of living legend.

Mayor Dolan is right: Melrosians can never repay the debt they owe Jim Milano. But like his father, Jim Milano did not want or expect to be rewarded for doing his job.

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