It’s fair to say that most people hope they can make a difference in their lifetimes. John K. Bullard can safely say that he has, particularly for New Bedford and the environment.

The historic preservationist, former mayor, federal bureaucrat, fisheries manager, Sea Education Association administrator, climate activist, and renewable energy advocate has written a memoir, “Hometown,” that chronicles his life and career and delineates the principles that guide it.

As a descendant of whaling merchant Joseph Rotch, Bullard’s roots are sunk deep in New Bedford. He acknowledges in the introduction to “Hometown” that he benefited from a privileged background.

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Apt in light of Bullard’s history is a familiar Bible verse that states “… from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded.” Less well known is its conclusion: “… and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Bullard writes that in all his endeavors through the decades, improving New Bedford has been his North Star. But in the end, as he writes, “… I don’t proclaim this to be a history book. It’s just a grandfather’s collection of stories about caring for my hometown …”

In this conversation with The Light, Bullard reviews the chapters of his long career, what drives him, and why “retirement” isn’t in his vocabulary.

New Bedford Light: It seems to me that “environment” is a thread that runs through your professional life, whether the built environment, the marine environment, the global climate environment. Would you agree?

John K. Bullard: Yes. Yes, I would. And I don’t think it was something that I would have known at the beginning, but it’s something that organically happened in my life. And I’m glad of that.

The first step in the process was, I wanted to fix up my hometown. What is wonderful about New Bedford is, I can spend my whole life wanting to participate in the ongoing development of New Bedford, and I learned something almost every day. Because this city is so complicated, and so rich, that you don’t get it in a year. You don’t get it in 40 years. You’ve got to dig down deep to understand New Bedford, and it rewards you for that digging.

Hometown, a memoir by John Bullard

So the first thing was, I just wanted to look at New Bedford because it seems to have more than its fair share of challenges and less than its fair share of resources. And I was looking at a range of issues from civil rights, to economic development, to low educational attainment — I mean, there’s a long list. (Community activist and author of “Rules for Radicals”) Saul Alinsky said, in his advice to young people, don’t take on the toughest problem first. Build up a little momentum, get some victories.

And so, when I looked at the waterfront historic district — it was for my thesis — it was the worst 15-block section of the city by any definition of urban blight: vacant buildings, bad utilities, substandard building stock, whatever. … of all the other challenges — drug abuse or educational attainment — it wasn’t necessarily the toughest problem there was, but it was a place to start. …

And then when I was mayor, in my inaugural address, I said, “We’re going to address affordable housing. We’re going to address drug abuse, which is the cause of crime. We’re going to address the need for more jobs.” Those three things were, I’m sure, in every inaugural address from every mayor going back in time, but I said we’re going to address the need for a clean environment. The people of New Bedford have as much right to clean air and clean water as our neighbors in the richer suburbs. We should be able to swim in the water, we should be able to breathe clean air just as much as the people in Marion and Dartmouth, and no mayor had said that before. So as mayor, I introduced the environment because in New Bedford we had, as a working-class city, succumbed to this cruel, false choice that you can either have jobs or a clean environment, but you can’t have both.


NBL: Do you think it would be possible in today’s climate to save the historic district, as you did back then?

JB: Wow, what an interesting question. Yes, I do. Well, yeah, I think so. I think in some sense it might be easier because I think people see the value of historic buildings now a lot more than they did back then. In the early ’70s, historic preservation was pretty new, and it was tougher to convince people why you should save old buildings. I mean, you want to save Monticello or Mount Vernon, but why other old buildings? And the concept that a neighborhood full of old buildings could bring back a city — there were a few examples of that, but just a few. So, it took vision, and it took guts by people like Mayor (John) Markey to say, “Oh, I’m going to bet the public’s money that this can happen.” …

We found that revitalization can be as contagious as blight, that if you establish a beachhead, people see it and they want more of it. … You do a little bit of it, and people say “Wow!” People recognize quality, and they like it. That’s what we’ve always tried to do, is to do it the best, and then say, “Here’s the best. What do you think?” People aren’t dumb. They say, “Oh, yeah. Wow.” That’s why when we did the Zeiterion,  and put (renowned cellist) Yo-Yo Ma onstage, people said, “Yeah, I like that. Are you kidding me? Can we do more?” Just like our fishing fleet. Or like Joseph Abboud, Polaroid, like Titleist. We’re capable of the best.

John Bullard cuts the ribbon at a celebration outside the Zeiterion. WHALE was instrumental in saving the Z from the wrecking ball in the 1980s. Credit: Courtesy of the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center.

NBL: New Bedford voter turnout was 72% in the election that put you in the mayor’s office. Recently, it’s been in the teens. Do you see any solution for turning that around?

JB: What a difference —  teens to 72%. What is going on?

I think that’s a long subject. I don’t know whether it’s an example set at the federal level of people just destroying democratic institutions, and, therefore, ramping up cynicism in government. So why should I participate? There’s an increasing gap between people and their government. Government is made up of people who say they’re either Democrats or Republicans. Now more and more people are unenrolled. They don’t want to be either Democrats or Republicans. …

There are a number of examples in the book about how government at the local level seems to be more trusted, more pragmatic, more able to solve problems, less ideological. Therefore you can get a 72% turnout. But if even at the local level you get 16%, maybe that’s a casualty of what’s going on at the federal level.

I mean, we used to be able to solve big problems at the federal level, putting a man on the moon, or an environmental issue, dealing with closing the ozone hole. But now, people don’t listen to each other. They talk past each other. People get their news from more and more specified, articulated news sites that agree with their already formed points of view. So you don’t have the Walter Cronkite who creates a common body of knowledge. People don’t trust facts anymore. What is a fact anymore?

In the many talks I have given on global warming, I would say “It doesn’t really matter what you think about the law of gravity, you’re still subject to it.” Climate change is not about what you believe. It’s not a religion, just physics and geology and chemistry. It’s about the laws of nature, and nature always bats last, and always bats a thousand. It doesn’t care what you believe in. …

When I was mayor, I always went to nursing homes and senior centers, because seniors always voted. And I always would tell young people, if you don’t vote — or as Lee Charlton (former president of the NAACP branch in New Bedford) always would say, in all the talks he gave — if you don’t vote, you forfeit the right to bitch … But that doesn’t seem to motivate people. They don’t care, they’re gonna bitch anyway.

But you get the government you deserve. Ben Franklin said, “We have a Republic, if you can keep it.” So I no longer take our democracy for granted. I used to, but I don’t anymore.

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NBL: There have been many turning points in your professional life. What would you say was the most consequential twist along the way?

JB: I guess the most consequential twist … would be a telephone call from (U.S. Rep.) Gerry Studds when I was working for the seafood co-op in the basement of what’s now The Black Whale. He said, “So, John, you should join the Clinton administration.” Before that phone call, I was working on my third iteration of carrying out my thesis: How do I work for my hometown? I had done historic preservation (with the Waterfront Historic Area League), I’d been mayor, and now I was working for the seafood co-op for the fishing industry. So I’d said in my thesis, I’m going to work for my hometown. I’m going to vary my technical skills, depending on what my town needs — historic preservation, politics, fishing — and it was going OK.

And then Gerry Studds calls and says, “You need to join the Clinton administration and get involved in NOAA and fisheries.” At first I told him, “I think you’re nuts. I’ve been working for the fishing industry for six months. I mean, I can’t be the best person in the country to do this.” But he said, “You know how to make tough decisions. That’s what they need, not someone who knows a lot about fishing.” And so, because I had an enormous amount of respect for Gerry, and because he was one of the guys with Warren Magnuson who dreamed up the Magnuson-Stevens Act (which governs marine fisheries management in U.S. waters), I started thinking, “Should I change my scale from New Bedford to the United States?” …

So I ended up working in Washington and dealing with fishing and sustainable development around the country, and in some ways, in different parts of the world. It’s still related to New Bedford in a number of ways, but it definitely changed my definition of “hometown.” So that was a significant departure.

John Bullard in the national park visitor center with a whaleship model. Credit: Joanna McQuillan Weeks

NBL: What would you say is the most challenging thing you’ve had to deal with?

JB: There’s no question that in my career there’s a lot of decisions that didn’t make people happy. I mentioned in (writing about) the sewer plant decision (on siting it at Fort Rodman) that the reason that I lost the (1991) election was that I said, “We’re going to have clean water,” which everyone said was an applause line. “We’re going to build a sewer plant” is not an applause line. It’s a political loser of an issue. Because everyone knows about NIMBY — not in my backyard — but more powerful than NIMBY is NIMTOFF — not in my term of office — and that applies to anything that is important to do but is something that no one wants to pay the political cost of.

“Yes, we need to balance the budget — just not in my term of office.”

“Yes, we need to lift the debt ceiling — just not in my term of office.”

“Yes, we need to build a sewer plant — just not in my term of office.”

“Yes, we need to solve the immigration problem — just not in my term of office.”

I mean, anything that’s difficult is something “Yes, we need to do it — just after the next election.” So things always get kicked down the road. And inevitably, they get more expensive and harder. And so I said “No, we’re going to solve the problem now.” And they get kicked down the road because there is a political price to pay. I mean, that’s not an illusion …

NBL: What person made the biggest impact on your professional life?

JB: I think Sarah Delano. I was going to say either Ben Baker or (WHALE President) Sarah Delano. Ben, because early on, in graduate school, he advised me on papers and New Bedford, but I think Sarah because of her fearlessness and optimism and the way she worked with people. At an early age in my career, I think she had the biggest impact on me.

What a great example for a young person to have in leadership: This diminutive, elderly lady who was not cowed by any challenge and could inspire others to get behind anything, never raised her voice, led by example, always the first, never asked anyone to do anything that she didn’t do, set a very high standard of excellence, and shared the credit. Soft-spoken, humble, steely eyes, wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was just a model in how you get ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Never broke a sweat.

I just feel really lucky to get exposed to her early on in my career, when you’re malleable. Later on I would see people like (Commerce Secretary) Ron Brown in action, who had a lot of the same qualities, or (President) Bill Clinton — amazing leaders. But to be early in your career and see someone like Sarah Delano and work under them and watch them in action — really early in your career, when you’re still being molded — that was a real privilege.

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NBL: What are you most proud of achieving?

JB: What I’m really proud of achieving — Laurie and I have a family that is really amazing. And I feel on the one hand very lucky. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s luck, but I don’t take it for granted … all our kids and grandkids get along. They all talk to each other. They all have fun together. They’re all doing well in school — I mean our grandkids — and I relish our time with them. And I don’t take that for granted because I know it’s not a given. I know how hard Laurie has worked to support my efforts, which are very demanding, how hard she’s worked in her own career, and how hard she’s worked to bring up our kids and to then see that reflected as our kids bring up their kids — because that’s what this book is about. It’s about future generations, right? It’s about leaving the world a better place. But for whom? For future generations, right?

So to see the love and laughter and industriousness, that character passed on, that’s what I’m most proud about.

Now, I get a kick walking into the Zeiterion Theater, out of walking around the waterfront historic district, of knowing that there’s a health care program for fishermen. Various things I helped create. But it’s about family.

I couldn’t have done any of this without Laurie, and the role my kids have played. When I gave talks on global warming, the first slide was a picture of my grandkids. What’s the world going to be like for our grandkids? That’s the motivation. What’s the world they’re gonna live in? … Saying “proud” means that I’m taking credit. I’m not taking credit for it. But that’s what I’m happy about.

NBL: It seems every time you try to retire, a new challenge, like leading the New Bedford Ocean Cluster, comes along. Do you think you’ll ever really retire?

JB: Well, I hope not, because I like to keep my brain engaged, and I’d like to keep working for the City of New Bedford. So the New Bedford Ocean Cluster is a great way to do that. I’m on the board of the Buzzards Bay Coalition. There are a number of other things, like being involved in The New Bedford Light, that keep me active and keep me contributing. I love doing that, and I hope I never stop.

John Bullard in the historic district. Credit: Joanna McQuillan Weeks

Editor’s note: John K. Bullard is a co-founder of the New Bedford Light. Its newsroom is scrupulously independent. Only the editors decide what to cover and what to publish. Founders, funders, and board members have no influence over editorial content.

The 454-page book from New Bedford’s Spinner Publications, illustrated with 375 photographs and illustrations from Bullard’s collection, the Spinner archives, The Standard-Times collection, and other sources, costs $30 until the official publication date, June 6, and $34 thereafter. An ebook version will be available soon. A book launch and reception at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on June 1 is at capacity. A signing at Gallery X is planned for sometime in July, and others may be scheduled.

Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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