Salem's New Court House Honors More Than a Politician's Long Hold on Office

Monday, November 7, 2011

Naming public buildings and facilities after elected officials has always made me a little queasy.

Popularity is not reason enough to carve a man's name in stone on a state or municipal office building, a school or a court house. (Such honors, it seems, almost always go to men.)

Priority in naming public properties should be given, instead, to those who have done something truly significant and courageous for the public good: enlisted men and women in the military who have fought or died heroically, practitioners of the healing arts, scientists and inventors who have advanced the quality of human life, philanthropists who have given away their fortunes, and leaders of social causes who have accepted little or no compensation.

I have a friend, for example, who has dedicated his life to building and directing a non-profit organization that protects vulnerable senior citizens from exploitation by lenders and family members when they take out reverse mortgages on their homes to pay for health care and other essentials. This person has accepted low pay in a low-profile organization, and has frequently gone without a paycheck to keep it afloat. His family has suffered because of his decision to serve others rather than to maximize his income, something he could have done as the holder of two advanced degrees. A school should named after him some day, but it will never happen.

The worst example of the abuse of public naming privileges can be found in West Virginia, where there are more than 50 government buildings, roads, highways, bridges, schools, clinics, hospitals, court houses, prisons, office complexes, research and scientific centers, and other facilities named after the late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd.

"I lost no opportunity to promote funding for programs and projects of benefit to the people back home," Byrd once said in a fit of understatement.

This man's drive for self-aggrandizement was actually unlimited. His poor, unassuming, elderly spouse had to share in the spoils, too: there are no less than nine facilities in West Virginia named after the late Erma Ora Byrd!

The "Prince of Pork," as some taxpayer groups dubbed the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, never got over his childhood insecurities.

So when I saw the other day that they are getting ready to open the $109 million J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center in the historic city of Salem, Massachusetts, I reacted first with a groan.

Combining the operations of four state courts in one big, new building, the center is named in honor of the late Mike Ruane, who served as Salem's representative in the Massachusetts House for 30 straight years and died of cancer in 2006 at age 77, two years after retiring from politics. No one else in Salem ever held that position for three decades.

I did not personally know Rep. Ruane, but I saw him in action lots of times, and can attest that he was a force of nature, an old-school politician who instinctively understood political power and how to use it. And use it he did. With intelligence, passion and relentless determination.

"I had to win. I was a hard-nosed kid, and I took things seriously," he once said.

No one ever took Mike Ruane lightly and did not regret it.

Recounting some of his accomplishments when he died, the Salem News said, "Above all, Ruane was devoted to Salem, friends say, and fought for funding for almost anything to do with the city. He lobbied for Salem State College, Riley Plaza reconstruction, Salem Willows policing, the Veterans Memorial Bridge, and local schools, housing, road projects and the courts. He is credited with securing Cat Cove for Salem State's aquaculture program and earmarking $18 million in a seaport bond bill for a new Salem pier and other waterfront projects...Ruane was stubbornly and proudly parochial. He opposed naming the Salem-Beverly bridge -- he never called it the 'Beverly-Salem bridge' -- for a Beverly veteran, and insisted it be called 'Veterans Memorial Bridge.' "

That obituary accurately described Ruane as "an emotional public speaker with a fiery temper, which sometimes got the better of him." In 1979, it said, Ruane "got into a dispute with Marblehead officials over closing the Forest River tidal gates to allow summer swimming in a Salem neighborhood. It ended in a free-for-all at a State House hearing. Ruane's ear got bloodied and, when he tried to retaliate, he mistakenly punched his chief of staff, Sharon Armstrong, in the shoulder. After he apologized profusely, they laughed about it."

Ruane always brought the state bacon home to his town, he was a dervish of constituent services, and he never coasted. He never concealed a lack of action behind a regular barrage of press releases, as some have been known to do at the Massachusetts State House. Ruane, in fact, rarely issued a press release.

But those acts and attributes alone would not justify putting his name on that new judicial center, in my opinion. What could justify it, I have come to conclude, were three things:

One, Ruane's total satisfaction in, and total dedication to, his role as a representative of the people of Salem in the Massachusetts House;

Two, Ruane's refusal to exploit the political fundraising potential that came his way when he became vice chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, (the committee that reporters are obligated to put the word "powerful" before every time they type it); and

Three, Ruane's rather unique place in the history and culture of his community. (Will there ever be another one like him who so thoroughly embodies the characteristics and aspirations of the citizens of Salem and who plays such a prominent role in its politics for such a long period?)

By giving his heart and soul to the job he had for each of the 30 years he had it, and by never scheming to attain a higher, more powerful position, Ruane honored the ideal of public service for its own sake. By declining to build an intimidating campaign treasury when he could have done so with minimal effort, Ruane displayed a sense of restraint and humility that all office holders should emulate. And by immersing himself in the life of the community for so long and by leading countless political battles for his fellow citizens, he came to personify his era in Salem.

Those are reasons enough to look at the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center without groaning.

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