Cut from American Cloth (4)

Cut from American Cloth (4)

     Congresswoman (“Mrs. Rogers”)  Rogers was in the middle of a line of Republican U.S. Representatives from the Lowell area who controlled the seat from 1859 to 1974, with the exception of a single two-year term for Democrat John K. Tarbox (1875 – 1877). It took a man who grew up on Highland Street to break the Republican streak.

     Sitting at a desk in his father’s dry-cleaning shop on Gorham Street in June 1968, just days after Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated, 27-year-old Paul Tsongas wrote a letter to the editor of the Lowell Sun:

     “I read with dismay your editorial attacking foreign reaction to the tragedy of Robert Kennedy. Your advice for them to ‘keep their stupid mouth shut’ is not the kind of reasoned awareness for which these times call. No one has much patience with those who allege conspiracy in the murders of President Kennedy, Medgar Evars, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and whoever should follow them. Certainly many foreign capitals wish us ill and will resort to misrepresentations. This however should not obscure the fact that the world beyond our borders, including our closest friends, stands horrified at our shoot-em-up mentality.

     “I was in a small village in Ethiopia with the Peace Corps when President Kennedy was slain. My grief and agony were shared by the Ethiopians among whom I lived. They shed tears over the senseless death of such a ‘Tru Sew’ (good man). They felt that he belonged to the world and the promise of a brotherhood, and his death did indeed diminish us all. This was at the time when Time magazine would arrive with graphic pictures of Bull Conner and his dogs brutalizing Southern blacks. We did what we could to defend America. It became very difficult when four of my Ethiopian students came to the United States and received the stinging backlash of racism. They returned to Ethiopia forever disillusioned with a nation that professes to believe that ‘all men are created equal.’ “

     The next year he won a seat on the Lowell City Council and set out on his own “journey of purpose,” to quote the title of a book of his speeches and essays.

     He and his fellow Democratic members of the “Watergate Class” dominated the 1974 election and took office the following January with a mandate to reform the government. The son of a Harvard-educated small-businessman, Tsongas was raised in a large white house on the corner of Highland and Thorndike streets. He caught the public service fever from President John F. Kennedy and, ultimately, as a former U.S. Senator challenged Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton one-on-one in the 1992 presidential primaries, winning New Hampshire and eight more state contests before an empty war chest forced him to withdraw. Through his Washington years he had a red-phone connection to Lowell’s City Hall and made the city’s rebirth his passion. It became an article of faith with him that one must honor the toil of past generations and respect the potential of future generations.

     The reclaiming of Lowell came to symbolize that faith. Tsongas embodied the “Don’t Quit” character of Lowell that explains in part the community’s resurgence. He wrote the legislation that created Lowell National Historical Park in 1978, adding his hometown to the list that includes the Grand Canyon and Statue of Liberty. The cradle of the American Industrial Revolution would be preserved. The renaissance sparked by the Park made Lowell a model of urban regeneration. In the last 13 years of his life he was as well known for his high-profile fight against cancer. He died of pneumonia in 1997.  . . .

—Paul Marion (c) 2007