The morning began with dark purple clouds bumping in the sky lanes above a sherbet-rinsed sunrise of raspberry and peach. Wind kicked the brittle leaves every which way, and the frigid air made you feel extra alive in your skin. All good for a big day in Lowell. Spirits were up for an event that doesn’t come often in a lifetime: the dedication of a permanent bridge over a serious river.
It was no ordinary time at 10 am at the northernmost curb on Merrimack Street. These folks could have been gathered for the launch of spaceship. The scene turned majestic when the milling-around crowd of hundreds was signaled forward by the construction workers who waved everyone ahead towards the middle of the span where a podium was set up for the ceremony. What a collection of people: political figures, public administrators, writers and reporters, photographers and filmmakers, ardent citizens and family members of the honoree, university personnel, neighbors from the Acre and Pawtucketville, the bridge builders themselves, state transportation agency officials, the kids kept out of school, along with the proud, the curious, and the devoted locals.
City Manager Lynch said this bridge has been coming for decades. Decades. He reminded us that former City Manager John Cox and his team outlined a vision for this bridge at the head of Merrimack Street. It was fitting that the man who in January is expected to be the community’s next mayor, City Councilor Rodney Elliott, had made the motion to name the bridge for Richard P. Howe. History was cycling in the wind.
Today we honored a man who became a kind of monument in front of our eyes as Chancellor Meehan praised his courage and integrity, describing how he had saved local control of the city’s school system at a critical moment, Rep. Kevin Murphy extolled his legal acumen, Rep. Golden brought congratulations from state Sen. Donoghue and saluted him as the true dean of city’s political brotherhood and sisterhood, Rep. Nangle thanked Mary Howe for sharing her husband with us and counted out the 2,000 Tuesday nights on which he made “government” an action word in the Council chamber, Mayor Patrick Murphy spoke for every citizen in recognizing the contributions of an uncommon man, Congresswoman Tsongas sent a flag flown over the dome in Washington DC—and his daughter Martha called him a living bridge for the public work he had done as a representative of the people and a leader of the people. She said his example illustrates how politics can be a noble profession. All this was said about a high-grade baseball player, honorable family man, and dedicated attorney who made time in his life for civic duty. A record of 40 years of service, including four terms as mayor of his city, shows up about as often as a new huge blue bridge across the Merrimack.
In my mind I keep coming back to the crowd. What a tribute in the form of showing up. Not only quantity, but quality. Talent attracts talent, and the senior Dick Howe brought out a highly enriched collection of admirers. None of us there today will probably ever stand again in the middle of that bridge, which for its first few open hours was a scenic overlook. We feasted on spectacular views of the rushing rocky river, the new Saab building for emerging technologies on the north campus of UMass Lowell, and the glassy University Crossing under construction on the opposite bank. At our backs was the long stretch of Merrimack Street as far as we could see. On the open roadway, we, the people, occupied the structure, railing to railing, lingering a bit to remember what it felt like as a pedestrian way. Once the cars and trucks get at it, the vehicles will shape the experience of going over the water. This is something new for Lowell. We have been cutting a lot of ribbons these past few years. Historians will notice the beginning of the 21st century in this city. We got a new bridge today. We dedicated it to Mr. Howe of Lowell.