Mass has lost an incredible guy and one of the state’s great institutional memories
Massachusetts lost a great one last week. I don’t mean that in the way one superficially laments the passing of a shifty politician, or anyone who’s feared and perhaps even respected but not exactly trustworthy. Rather, today a lot of us mourn a man who was as ethically antithetical to the common politician as a participant in the perverted political order could possibly be.
When I say the Bay State lost a great one, I mean it’s a literal loss for us all. As I am certain other hacks will recall in their own words and thoughts about George Cronin, who passed at 81 years old last Friday, he was a public servant in that rare legitimate sense, in it for the greater good. For the common wealth, if you will. As his obituary noted:
In 1963, he began a long and rewarding career at the State House, working for Governor Endicott Peabody. In 1964, George was elected to the Governor’s Council, motivated by his belief in the role that government plays in assisting the disadvantaged. He served with distinction until 1982, when he resigned his seat to become the Governor’s Council’s Administrative Secretary, a position that he held and was deeply committed to until his death.
The Governor’s Council, for those who are lucky enough to not have jobs in which you have to be around and interview these people and as a result aren’t aware, is simultaneously extremely important and the laughingstock of Beacon Hill. Given the power to vote on judicial nominees, parole board members, and other gubernatorial appointments, the body of eight electeds is best known for infighting or rubber-stamping questionable noms. A lot of the time it has seemed that George, along with his esteemed colleague, Executive Secretary Valerie McCarthy, has been alone in maintaining some semblance of sanity in the asylum.
I have spent several hundred hours over the past 15 years in the back room behind the hallway where George watched over the Governor’s Council, his face always being the first mug you saw upon entering. In the way that Boston men of his era (and all eras, really) are obliged to bust balls, he never fully smiled when I popped in, but instead shot me a smirk chased with a smart remark about the last piece of mine he saw in print (his preferred method of consuming news) or regarding a scoop I landed that had echoed loudly underneath the Golden Dome. George didn’t just know where the damn bodies were buried, he knew which dirty birdies called the hits.
It was always a complete and utter honor to be recognized in such a fashion by a habitual headline consumer of his caliber, for I am but one of innumerable reporters who came to George for assistance. He was kind to every one of us, even interns I sent to dig through files for hours on end; if they weren’t from the area and needed background info, George would load them up with homework assignments. As Patrick McCabe, a civilian who extensively documents Governor’s Council proceedings on volunteer time, told me on the phone the other day, George’s “interest in postcards and books was absolutely fascinating. He always had a book to give you if you were looking into something.”
I was going to wrap up my memories with something about how I actually planned to visit George in the next couple of weeks. Specifically, I wanted to ask him about the extensive records on Massachusetts judges that have been kept organized by him and his hard working co-administrators, but that aren’t digitized and which the state does not seem too keen on preserving. But while the cliche that I planned on seeing him and didn’t make it to his office before he passed is reality in this case, what’s even truer is that—whether the first time we met back in the aughts, or the last time we chatted earlier this year—I don’t think that, after any of our encounters, George or I ever thought we would see each other again. After all, I’m a journalist; he may have been an octogenarian, but George was always more pleasantly surprised that I still had a job than I was about the fact he was still working on Beacon Hill.
Finally, while a part of me feels badly about outing George as the best source I ever had, on the other hand, it is hard to imagine that people did not already know about some of the gems he led me to. From his informing a marauding ruthless takedown of the Governor’s Council that I did for the Boston Phoenix in 2009 to an article I wrote about how lawmakers were drinking several hundred thousand dollars worth of bottled water every year, George was at the genesis of multiple inquiries that yielded results (or at the very least pissed off a lot of powerful people). None, of course, more notable than when he egged me on to document the artwork and ephemera that has gone missing from the State House over the past few centuries.
In the process, I wound up identifying dozens upon dozens of flags, portraits, arrowheads, and more that had been pilfered. I even tracked one item down, a bust of 19th-century Mass education reformer Charles Brooks, which is currently in storage at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. If it’s the last thing I do as a journalist, I plan on retrieving the marble statue and returning it to Beacon Hill, where it belongs, in the caring company of the spirit of George Cronin.