All Hail that Unique Incubator of Politicians: Your Humble Local Funeral Home

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

I’m surprised more funeral directors don’t run for the legislature.  It seems like a perfect meshing of private and public occupations.

Many funeral directors are well suited and well situated for the life of a public office holder.  They have endless, albeit sad, opportunities to forge strong relationships with local families. They get to greet hundreds of their townsmen on a typical night “working the door.” They have no fixed work schedules, meaning they can dash off in the middle of the day for, say, a social at the senior center or a meeting of the Kiwanis.  And they often find themselves with big chunks of downtime, which are ideal for doing favors, making phone calls, schmoozing at the coffee shop, or coaching youth sports teams.
Young Joseph Ruggiero of the Ruggiero Family Memorial Home in East Boston obviously believes this is a recipe for success.  He’s running for the state rep seat vacated by Carlo Basile when Carlo became chief secretary to our new Governor, Charlie Baker.

In this race, Ruggiero has the zesty support of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.  “He worked morning, noon and night for my campaign (in 2013),” Walsh told the State House News Service last week when proclaiming his endorsement of Ruggiero.  “I’m a loyal person and I also know he’d make a great state representative.”
Walsh carried East Boston by 66 votes, so the mayor has to be thinking, without Joe, I might have bought the farm over there. Do not be surprised if the rep election is similarly close.  There are four other Democrats besides Ruggiero in the race, two of whom have strong ties to East Boston legislators.  Another candidate has worked for the E.B. city councilor.

It’s a time-honored American tradition, especially in our cities:  funeral directors use their businesses as springboards to public office, while office holders use funeral homes to keep their political stock high. 
That phenomenon was nicely illustrated in an obituary published January 9 in the Chicago Sun-Times and picked up by other news outlets around the country: “Celene Siedlecki, Ran One of Chicago’s Oldest Funeral Homes.”  The late Mrs. Siedlecki was in the third generation of the family that continues to run Thomas McInerney’s Sons Funeral Home, founded in 1873. 

“The family funeral home was so well-known,” the obituary noted, “that Mike Royko singled it out in ‘Boss,’ his biography of Mayor Richard J. Daley, when he wrote of the mayor’s devotion to evening wakes, ‘part of political courtesy and his culture.’ “
Mrs. Siedlecki’s son, Charles, was quoted as saying, “It was very common to see Mayor Daley here, the first Mayor Daley.  He would never miss a wake.  He would buzz in with his entourage and bodyguards, and he wouldn’t stay long, but he never missed a wake.”

You should look up this tribute to Mrs. Siedlecki, and to McInerney’s, not least for the pleasure of reading the poem in it that begins, “Bring out the lace curtains and call McInerney; I’m nearing the end of my life’s pleasant journey.” It may be found at:
One funeral director who was dear to me, the late Joseph A. Curnane of Everett, was active in politics his entire life, serving for years on the local school committee, as well as on the housing authority.  (As the publisher of the Everett Leader Herald and News Gazette, he was also known to practice an occasionally lethal form of political journalism.)  

Curnane possessed a political mind of extraordinary breadth and sharpness, a fact recognized by no less an authority than John F. Kennedy, who had him manage his 1960 presidential campaign in Maryland.  This entailed uniting the warring Democratic factions in Baltimore, a nearly impossible task for a carpetbagger from Massachusetts. (Curnane succeeded; Kennedy carried Maryland.)
Once, when he was reminiscing with me about his years with JFK, Curnane smiled and recounted the time he was in a gathering of Kennedy hands and someone mentioned that more than a few of them had gone to Harvard.

“Not me,” Curnane piped up.
“Why, where did you go, Joe?” someone asked.

“New England Institute of Embalming,” he answered.  Everyone had a good laugh, of course.

There’s no formal schooling that could have produced or diminished my father-in-law’s genius-level political IQ -- although funeral home downtime undoubtedly played a part in the flourishing of that gift.   







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