They had a time for Fred Kalisz this past Saturday.
Ostensibly, it was a celebration of the dedication of the Sea Lab marine education center in his memory.
It was indeed all of that but it was also like the public funeral that the former mayor never had.
Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. died tragically and unexpectedly at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in late January 2021. He was just 63 years old.
Lest we forget, it was not just the little-known and the powerless that went without final goodbyes in those first years of COVID-19. It was nearly everyone who succumbed, and Fred Kalisz, who had led New Bedford for eight years just at the beginning of the city’s 21st century revival, was no exception. He never had the wake and funeral he deserved and his family and friends certainly needed.
So one might forgive the two-hour plus somewhat over-the-top ceremony held at the Taylor School at Sea Lab in the South End on this sunny Saturday on a perfect August day, which would itself have been Kalisz’s 65th birthday.
The proceedings were typical Kalisz: big on ceremony, long on talk, brimming with emotion and charming in the sentimental way that Fred himself was.
Some of the political wags around town would often make fun of Kalisz when he was mayor. He was famous for chasing fire engines to the scene, no matter how small the blaze. And he would break into tears at the drop of a hat, especially when talking about his upbringing in one of the poorest of the city’s neighborhoods in the near North End. He was both authentic and oblivious, charming and out-to-lunch, a sometimes easy mark for would-be competitors who in reality were mostly not his equal when it came to vision and ambition for the city.
Fred’s family and friends followed his example at the Sea Lab naming celebration, crying frequently and emotionally in a way that was worthy of Kalisz himself. It seemed like a long-needed resurrection for how this unusual man, both genuine and deeply ambitious, had touched them.
Current mayor Jon Mitchell paid tribute to Kalisz as a mayor whom he had always supported (the implicit criticism of Scott Lang, who ran against Kalisz and who served as mayor between Kalisz and Mitchell, was obvious to every political insider in the room). Mitchell also lauded his fellow Polish-American mayor’s emphasis on both economic development and personal kindness. But it was former city solicitor George Leontire who best captured the Kalisz years, even channeling Fred’s penchant for blubbering through a speech with tears.
Leontire, of course, was and is everything Fred Kalisz was not. He’s a tough, savvy, aggressive bulldozer of a man. When he was solicitor — and in fact, Kalisz’s de-facto deputy mayor and chief economic development strategist — the former was famous for bombastically rolling over everyone and anyone in his way.
The bad cop to Kalisz’s good cop, Leontire acknowledged he was as much during his remarks, recalling that when he and Fred were kids growing up in the Collette Street neighborhood where Fred lived and Leontire’s father had a pharmacy, the late mayor always had to be the good guy when they were playing cops and robbers. It was Fred’s nature, he said, so he himself always ended up being the bad guy. “That continued on right ‘til Fred asked me to be his city solicitor,” he said. “I could see where that was going.”
Leontire and Kalisz got into more than a little bit of trouble with some of their plans and schemes during the eight years Fred was mayor, but the former solicitor — long a successful businessman in his own right — asserted that that is the nature of politics. Someone has to be the good cop, and someone has to be the bad. “There has to be a yin and yang in government,” he opined, or your opponents will destroy you.
Kalisz and Leontire, of course, made plenty of questionable moves during Fred’s four consecutive terms. Apparent conflicts-of-interest over development plans at Fairhaven Mills, eyebrow-raising awards of city contracts to Fall River Ford, among them.
Leontire, however, seems to have deeply believed the two were doing good for the city by doing well for themselves. He actually took a page from Jackie Kennedy and described the Kalisz years as “Camelot,” which of course would come as news to Lang, and even some of the pols sitting in the room who had once opposed Kalisz. Including longtime Councilor Brian Gomes, who ran against Kalisz in a bitter 2001 campaign, centered around the crime rate in the city and Kalisz’s management of city finances. Gomes evidently made his peace with Kalisz, or at least Leontire (who is representing him in his wrongful termination suit against Southcoast Health). Gomes was in attendance Saturday, but Lang was not. And though most of the School Committee and City Council were there, most of the legislative delegation was not. State Sen. Montigny and Rep. Tony Cabral sent commendations.
Interestingly, though Kalisz first ran as a “reform” mayor against Rosemary Tierney, and opposed the political insiders when they tried to muscle in the politically connected Mike Longo as school superintendent, he eventually went over to the insider and patronage crowd that everyone called “the Machine.”
He accepted contributions from political boss William “Biff” MacLean and former City Councilor John Saunders, Biff’s eyes and ears in the city. Mike Kalisz, the late mayor’s brother, even called the two out by name for special thanks during his remarks. To be fair, he also called out my own name for my positive news obit of Kalisz, though perhaps he may regret it by the end of this column.
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Though many would find it almost absurd to claim the late President John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot” myth for the Kalisz years, it clearly was the way Leontire and other Kalisz supporters genuinely felt. “Fred never thought anything was impossible,” Leontire said, recalling that any number of big-name politicians came to the city when Fred was mayor. “He had no problem picking up the phone and getting ahold of Bill Clinton and saying ‘You need to come down to the city.’”
People seemed to love Fred Kalisz or hate him.
New Bedford native Joseph Costa, the director of the Buzzards Bay National Estuary Program and another friend of the late mayor, delivered a “keynote address” at Saturday’s celebration. Yes, there was a keynote address, as grandiose as that might seem.
But again, that was the way Kalisz was. He really thought Sea Lab was enormously important in inspiring city kids to learn about the marine science issues that are so tied to the New Bedford economy. He wanted people to pay attention to it, and he always believed the way to punctuate things was through ceremony.
So evidently did the Kalisz family and the School Department’s Arthur Motta who organized the proceedings, and they picked Costa, himself both a Sea Lab graduate and a marine scientist who is an authority on restoring eelgrass, to play that role.
Costa talked some about the importance of marine science to preserving the environment but his real power was in the story he told about how he had appealed to Fred (while the mayor was still a city councilor), to do something about the fact the former Sea Lab building had been demolished when the city built the new sewage treatment plant and created Fort Taber park. The city had promised to rebuild Sea Lab, but nothing was in the works. Costa said that Kalisz told him he could not do anything because of the city’s poor finances. But when Kalisz was elected mayor later that year, he eventually found the money and built the school out of the city’s own unencumbered monies, with no state aid as is typically done for school buildings.
The expense of the structure coming out of the city’s spare funds was not without controversy, and former Mayor Lang recouped much of the cost by expanding the new building and relocating the Taylor Elementary School to it. That enabled New Bedford to be reimbursed by the state for the overwhelming majority of the $8.5 million bill.
Lang, who trounced Kalisz in the 2005 election, ran against him criticizing a spike in murders and the hard line Kalisz took against police and fire union contract demands and the closure of branch police stations.
Lang was also left to clean up the botched development process for Fairhaven Mills, the assembly of the railroad yard for the commuter train, and the cost overruns for a massive cleanup when the new Keith Middle School was sited on a former PCB dump.
The bad blood still lingers.
And the absence of Lang and others from the ceremony offers a peek into the controversial way we name things in the city based on who is in power. And the simmering controversies that seem to go on unresolved for years.
Kalisz well deserves the Sea Lab being named after him, but doesn’t former Mayor Rosemary Tierney deserve to have the art museum named after her instead of just a senior center?
And speaking of honoring great city residents, New Bedford has never named any district school building after Frederick Douglass, its most illustrious resident ever. It has taken Lee Blake decades to get a downtown park built in his honor. New Bedford has also never erected a statue to Herman Melville as Salem has for Nathaniel Hawthorne. That’s a public honor that could actually bring the city business.
No, naming things is more about politics in New Bedford.
They named the athletic field house after School Committee jobs boss Jack Nobrega while he was still alive. The football field was renamed from Sargent Field to Paul Walsh Sr. Field, and they tried to rename Normandin Middle School for a quiet school committee member Carlos Pacheco until someone intervened and renamed the Mount Pleasant School instead.
Naming things after politicians has long been a display of political power in a city that often functions on the basis of not what you know but who you know.
Do not get me wrong. I’m glad they named the Sea Lab for Kalisz.
I do not believe it would still be functioning if it were not for him. In fact, I think his name being on the building will help it survive even now.
But I personally did not need Fred Kalisz’s name on a building to know that he was a good man. I was taken by Mike Kalisz’s story of growing up sharing a bedroom with Fred, and his older brother telling him that he wanted to be mayor some day, not because of the fame or the fortune, but because of the things he could do to help the city. I am taken by the way his son Rick Kalisz talks about his father and his total involvement in his life growing up.
Those are as good memories as any of us could wish for after we pass. In some ways it’s much more important than a name on a building that over the decades and centuries will be lost in meaning to future residents of the city who will not know any of us who walk these streets today.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.