Gloucester High School in the Fifties

Gloucester Gone By © Laszlo Kubinyi

The McCarthy Debate

Peter Anastas           

In the spring of 1953, our Gloucester High School history club held a debate about the anti-communist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy. As a sophomore, I had little understanding of politics and I knew less about communism. Yet, I voluntarily argued on the side that favored the junior senator from Wisconsin’s red-baiting tactics.

At the time of the debate Dwight Eisenhower was president, the Cold War heating up. We had recently concluded Harry Truman’s unsatisfactory “police action” in Korea, a prelude to the war in Vietnam, both in terms of the way the war was fought and the manner in which it was sold to the American people. After Korea, the sense of relief and victory that swept through the nation following the Second World War had turned into a mood of defeat, if not outright paranoia, as our leaders pressed upon us the need to combat “the Communist menace,” at home and abroad.

My parents had once voted for FDR, whom my father idolized; but like many immigrant families, who began to prosper in their new country, they were inherently conservative. They favored Eisenhower for president over the urbane and sophisticated Adlai Stevenson, not only because they were enthralled by Eisenhower as the great general and father figure, who had played a major role in winning the war for us, but also because they didn’t want to seem out of the mainstream of this new American life they believed had been good to them.

Peter and parents

Eisenhower was the hero in our family, as he was in many middle-and working-class homes. But McCarthy was a different phenomenon. You couldn’t turn the TV on without seeing his scowling face and slicked back hair, his snarling insistence on “point of order” in any congressional debate or committee hearing.

Although the upstart senator soon proved to be a drunken bully, many Americans of goodwill fell for his anti-communist crusade, as McCarthy attempted to “rout out” putative communists and “communist sympathizers” in the government, feeding a national hysteria, during the course of which teachers, who were thought to have held “subversive” opinions, or to have been “card carrying” members of the Communist Party, or even “fellow travelers,” were driven from their jobs, while Hollywood instituted its infamous Black List, under which many actors, writers and film professionals, who were believed to have had a left-wing history, were prevented from working in the industry.

One of the ways this hysteria played out in small towns like Gloucester was that our parents would constantly be asking us if we had any teachers we thought might be communists. They demanded to know what we were being taught and, especially, if our teachers expressed any “extreme” or “radical” opinions, which they might be trying to impress on their students.

Anti-communism was in the air when I was fifteen years old and McCarthy had not yet taken on the Army and been silenced, if not humiliated, by their attorney Joseph Welch during a famous exchange in which Welch commented, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never gauged your cruelty or recklessness…You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn

That hearing concluded on June 30, 1954, after which the country, having tolerated McCarthy’s scurrilous behavior on TV for several years, began decisively to turn against him. On December 2, 1954, the senate voted to censure McCarthy, effectively terminating his influence and his career.

All this happened after our history club debate, so that when the debate occurred McCarthy was still a powerful figure, at least in the popular mind. Among many other students, our classmate Bob Stephenson was known for his anti-communism. Bob’s father had been a member of the diplomatic corps. After his death, Bob’s mother, whose family had been lighthouse keepers along the New England coast, brought Bob and his brother home to Gloucester. The Stephenson’s lived in a small, yellow 19th century house on Mansfield Street, with a green picket fence and an ample backyard. Over their front door was a green-painted sign in the form of a metal circle around the inside of which were positioned three legs. Bob described it to us as being a “triskelion,” the official symbol of the Isle of Man, having its origins in Medieval Sicily.

His parents had obtained it while vacationing on the British island. It became one of many artifacts his mother showed Bob’s friends when they visited, including beautifully woven red and white striped Central American serapes and a gourd with a silver straw from which yerba mate tea was sipped in Paraguay, where Bob’s father had once been stationed. These artifacts, along with a number of landscape paintings and photographs of places where the family had traveled during Bob’s father’s postings, lent an exotic atmosphere to Bob’s house.

Bob’s mother Cora was a woman of strong opinions to whom my mother deferred because, as she’d say, “the Stephenson’s have traveled a great deal.” She disliked Democrats, even finding Eisenhower too liberal, and would be constantly on guard lest her two sons be indoctrinated by what she called “free-thinking teachers.”

Bob echoed his mother’s views, along with his own brand of subtle but extremely mordant humor, while his quiet brother chose the sea as his calling. It would be convenient to claim Bob’s influence in my choice of sides in the McCarthy debate; but in reality I came to my own decision about McCarthy, having discovered a book in pulp format among the magazines on my father’s newsstand. It was McCarthyism: The Fight for America, published in 1952 by Devin Adair and written by none other than the senator himself.

No McCarthyite, my father offered me the book to read, when he saw me flipping through the cheaply printed edition. I took it upstairs to my room and by the end of a summer afternoon I had read all of its 101 pages, interspersed with grainy newspaper photographs of the senator in his characteristic stance, before a microphone, a sheaf of papers in his left hand, presumably containing the names of the requisite number of communists he had lately discovered to be in the employ of some department of the United States government. The numbers seemed to change from week to week, if not daily.

However, it wasn’t the numbers that attracted me to McCarthy’s crusade; and it certainly wasn’t the man himself in his oily, rumpled-suited presence. It was the stories the book contained, stories of how the American Communist Party, under the alleged control of Soviet Russia, had “infiltrated” every level of national life. This was also the era of the televised Cold War anti-communist series “I Led Three Lives,” the presumed story of Herbert Philbrick, who by day was an advertising executive in Boston, while by night he doubled as an undercover agent and a counter-spy.

Philbrick had infiltrated the American Communist Party on behalf of the FBI in the 1940s and written a bestselling book on the topic— I Led Three Lives: Citizen, ‘Communist’, Counterspy (1952). The series premiered in 1952, a year before I read McCarthy’s book, which influenced the stand I took in our history club debate. So for me there was a certain amount of intrigue in the drama of those who operated secretly, both on behalf of democracy, as I then believed, and against what I also assumed to be the dangers of communism.

I didn’t know a great deal about McCarthy as I entered the debate, and I understood far less about Marxism (it wasn’t until a year later that I read The Communist Manifesto and found it compelling, as workers were exhorted to throw off their chains and transform the world). Before the debate, my head was filled with slogans and with arguments I’d heard from Bob and his mother. As for myself, I couldn’t even define “totalitarianism.”

None the less, Bob and I volunteered to present the case for McCarthy. Our opponents were Laszlo Kubinyi and Bruno Modica. Laszlo’s parents were ceramic artists, who owned a gallery at the opposite end of Rocky Neck from Dad’s luncheonette.  While the Kubinyis had lived for some years in Gloucester, Bruno and his family had recently arrived from Genoa. His father was an engineer in a fish processing plant on the waterfront, and his mother, once Bruno and his sister had gone off to college, began to teach Italian at the high school’s adult education center. Laszlo played drums, and Bruno, like most young Italians I would come to meet nearly a decade later, had a passion for current events, especially for politics.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


All four of us sat at a long table in front of the history classroom in which the club met monthly. The debate was monitored by the club’s president, Lincoln Higgins. Our faculty advisor, the department chair, Miss Hammond, stood by to see that we all observed the proper debating procedure.

I was wearing a gray tweed sport jacket, a starched white dress shirt and one of my father’s Haband neckties; Bob was dressed similarly, except that he favored a maroon corduroy jacket. Bruno, whose coal black hair was always beautifully cut, wore tailored Italian suits that we would die to have owned, while Laszlo, though he obeyed the dress code of jacket, tie and slacks for boys, wore his hair longer than most of the boys, even those who slicked theirs back into DAs.

The question up for debate was whether McCarthy’s tactics were acceptable and whether or not they served the purpose of exposing those who were thought to be a menace to American democracy. Bob and I argued in favor, while Bruno and Laszlo argued against us. They were far better prepared than we were, and they argued more soundly. As the debate progressed, I knew that Bob and I had lost because we really didn’t put forth cogent arguments based on carefully articulated critical distinctions. Instead, we relied on exactly the kinds of pat slogans, clichés and emotional outbursts that the McCarthyites employed—“Well, how do we defend ourselves against those for whom everything is a means to an end?” “Would you like to wake up one morning and find the country taken over by communists?”

In contrast, Bruno and Laszlo quoted from magazine and newspaper articles and editorials, and from the testimony of those who had suffered under McCarthy. They recounted the story of Owen Lattimore, a leading American scholar of Asia, who had been slandered as a “top Russian spy” by McCarthy; and they described Richard Nixon’s attack on congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, against whom Nixon ran for the senate in California, calling her “The Pink Lady” for her supposed communist friends and supporters. They spoke eloquently about First Amendment Rights, about free speech and freedom of association. They particularly stressed that, as of the moment of our debate, not a single one of McCarthy’s allegations had been found to have substance.

But when it came time for the club members to vote on which side had prevailed, the students overwhelmingly chose Bob and me. Once the debate was over, I knew I’d been mistaken in taking McCarthy’s side. My position in the debate and the club’s vote against Laszlo and Bruno created a chill in our friendships. Miss Hammond said nothing; but when I later studied American history with her, I could tell from her teaching and the texts she selected for us to read that she was no right-winger.

Graduating from high school, Bob studied art in Boston before initiating a career in military intelligence that took him over most of the world. He mastered several languages, including German and Arabic, returning to Gloucester after his retirement to resume work as an artist in a Zen-like studio just off Main Street, overlooking the harbor.  His magic-realist paintings of the city and the waterfront seemed to incorporate the imagery of the cultures he’d come to know intimately.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

He never lost his fine sense of humor, which, if anything, had become darker over the years. Nor had his politics changed—he once visited me in Florence, claiming to friends back home that he’d come to save me from Italian communism.

Peter and Bob in Florence.  1959

Bruno went to Brown University, after which he entered the world of international business, serving in executive capacities for multinational corporations in Italy, France and Belgium. Laszlo played drums in my brother Tom’s big band during their final years of high school, and later in New York. Tom and I were invited to some lively parties in the rambling family house near Cressey’s Beach, gatherings at which Laszlo’s parents danced Hungarian folk dances and served delicious food.   After high school Laszlo attended the Museum School in Boston, followed by a career as a prolific illustrator, artist and author of children’s books.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As for me, I became an activist in the 1960s, while the war in Vietnam raged—going to teach-ins with my students and attending anti-war demonstrations. In a word, everything that McCarthy would have abjured.

In Memoriam

Bruno Modica passed away on Tuesday, December, 11, 2012, in Sun City Center, FL. from complications of Parkinson’s disease.  Bob Stephenson died on Sunday, August 9, 2015, in Seacoast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Gloucester, after a brief illness.

(This is a chapter from Peter Anastas’ recently completed memoir, From Gloucester Out.)


Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucesteris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.








Toward a Vision for the City’s Future

Peter Anastas

Peter Anastas and Sefatia Romeo Theken. Gloucester Mayoral Inaugration. January 1, 2016.

Peter Anastas and Sefatia Romeo Theken.
Gloucester Mayoral Inaugration.
January 1, 2016.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines inauguration as “to induct into office by a formal ceremony” or “to cause to begin, to dedicate, to consecrate.”  Our Gloucester High School Latin teachers, Josephine P. Ray and Vincent Elmer, would have taken pains to point out the Latin root “augurare,” “to presage, to foretell, to look ahead.”  This gave us the Italian “augurio,” “to wish, to be of good omen, to give one’s best wishes,” as in auguri.   So, in effect, we are here today not only to celebrate the induction of Sefatia Romeo Theken into her first full term as mayor of Gloucester, we are also gathered to look ahead, to consecrate ourselves and the city we love to a future of good omen, to wish our new mayor and her administration, our new city council and school committee—the community itself— tanti auguri for the New Year ahead and for our hoped for future.

Before I speak of that bright future we richly deserve, I’d like to look back for a moment, to pay tribute to those who have made it possible, particularly our parents and grandparents; and for Sefatia, her mother and father, Rosalia and Enzo Giambanco.  Enzo Giambanco, was president of the Board of Directors at Action, Inc., Gloucester’s antipoverty agency, when I first went to work there in 1972.  I found in Enzo not only a mentor but a person of deep compassion for the low-income families we were serving, including out-of-work fishermen, children who needed a pre-school education their parents could not afford, people who did not have health insurance, and elders who were torn between paying rent and utility bills and eating.  As an immigrant he understood what it felt like to be on the outside, whether you spoke a different language or your customs differed from those of the community.   Along with Executive Director Bill Rochford, Enzo helped to steer the agency through some of its most challenging times, while never abandoning those who depended on our services, whether it was help with fuel bills, home care, or after-school care for the children of working mothers.

I will never forget the time when, after the construction of the O’Maley middle school, the city was deciding what to do with the suddenly empty Central Grammar School with its beautiful WPA murals, where many of our parents had gone to high school and my generation had spent our 7th and 8th grade years.   Action proposed a reuse of the stately building for apartments for the elderly; but there were questions about the need for such housing and the ability of an agency like Action, which had never done bricks and mortar, to undertake such a project.  A public hearing was to be held at City Hall to determine which direction the city would move, and it was necessary to show support for the agency’s plan to create quality housing for our senior citizens.   Enzo told Bill not to worry.  And that night he arrived with 500 elders and their families, filling city hall auditorium and convincing the council of public support for the project.   The present Central Grammar Apartments not only met a crucial need in the city, it became a pioneer project in the regional movement to adapt former schools into much needed housing.

Sefatia learned these innovative and caring ways from the cradle.  She has spent her entire life helping the people of Gloucester as one of the city’s hardest working councilors and as a health care advocate and human services liaison at Addison Gilbert Hospital.  During her tenure as interim mayor, Sefatia again demonstrated her skills at reaching out to citizens across the entire social and economic spectrum of the city, listening compassionately to their concerns, hearing the ideas they shared, and making decisions in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, while relating to all of us in an open, caring and humane way.  When you are hugged by Sefatia you know she means it.

Sefatia has roots that run deeply into the community and its history.  She’s gone to school and raised a family here.  She can walk down the street and recognize everyone she meets.   She can tell you who lived on which street, who worked where, and what happened to them if they got laid off.  This kind of knowledge that comes from growing up in one place and feeling it in your blood is indispensable when it comes to understanding the needs of neighborhoods and their residents, no matter which part of the city they are located in.  A public official who is not deeply in touch with the culture of the community he or she hopes to serve is already at a disadvantage.

We need a mayor who encourages our community to engage in the kind of constructive dialogue that is the cornerstone of our democracy, a mayor who will lead us toward a more vital sense of community in education, civic responsibilities, historical awareness, fiscal prudence, economic and social self-sufficiency, and love of place.  We particularly need a mayor who understands and cares deeply about our fishing industry and the importance of our working waterfront and the innovative Blue Economy.  I believe that Sefatia will be this kind of mayor.   Just as we need to move ahead, we equally need to maintain our roots as a city of families and neighborhoods, where everyone has a place at the table and everyone’s  voice is listened to and respected.  There is a yearning all over America for the sense of place, of shared history, of belonging, that we in Gloucester are fortunate to enjoy in abundance.

Gloucester has always been a city of ethnic and economic diversity—and this diversity has been one of our greatest strengths.  We live in dangerous times and we need the peace and comfort that a community like ours affords.  It is through community that we learn together and grow together, as we help our children and grandchildren grow and prosper.

Concretely we must address the following issues as we look to the city’s future.

–We need a revised and updated Master Plan so we can best manage growth and know where to build and what to preserve.

–We must recommit ourselves to our embattled fishing industry and to the working waterfront itself, continuing our long history of adaption to change with the creation of a strong seafood innovation cluster economy and the good local jobs it will create.   We are also a great boating community and while we work to make our waterfront a more welcoming place for recreational boaters, we must not forget the importance of community boating facilities for our own residents.

–We will need to look newly at tourism and its impact on the city’s life and infrastructure (traffic, the harbor, the beaches, the land), with a special conversation about the role of a smart,  human-scale visitor-based economy, the corner stone of which should be cultural and eco-tourism.

–We need to continue our conversation around the development of a public arts policy with added discussion on the place of the arts in local life and the visitor-based sector.  Essential to the future of the city as a magnet for the arts is the development of live-work housing for local artists, who constitute a bridge between the life we all enjoy here and what we want to offer to those we welcome into our community.

–Essential also is an initiative to involve more citizens in public life, volunteering for boards and commissions.  We must especially nurture a new generation of engaged citizens: our democracy will depend on it.

–As for schools, plant is important, but what happens in the classroom is paramount.  We must transcend the tyranny of standardized testing, reasserting the primary role of the imagination, critical thinking and creativity in art, music, drama, science and the humanities.

–We must do everything to keep our city beautiful, not only for those who wish to visit but for those of us who live here year round.  The restoration of Stacy Boulevard, Gloucester’s crown jewel, is long overdue.   Dogtown is our refuge for hiking, cross country skiing, berry picking, and the exploration of nature.  Let us continue to support the work that volunteers are engaged upon in preserving this treasure and keeping Dogtown unspoiled for future generations.

What we especially need, along with careful planning to account for inevitable change, is a land ethic, a way in which we view the land and its uses beyond mere profit-taking and commercial development.  We must build what we need, but we must do it in a way that does not destroy the unique character of neighborhoods or disrupt human and natural ecologies.

We must plan regionally as well as locally, always with a sense of preserving the character and integrity of particular communities; for I believe that only those places which are sensitive to their uniqueness will survive.  Without an informed, coherent and humane vision of ourselves in relation to our environment we will not survive as a community, let alone as a planet or a species.

So as we inaugurate our new mayor and congratulate the city councilors and school committee members we have elected to represent us, let us re-commit ourselves to working together, to building “not only for today alone but for tomorrow as well.” If we expect it of ourselves, those who come after us will thank us for our vision, our imagination, and especially for our commitment.

Thank you e tanti auguri a` tutti for the New Year and for Gloucester’s future.

(This speech was delivered at City Hall, on January 1, 2016, at the inauguration of Sefatia Romeo Theken as Mayor of Gloucester)


Peter at Museum (1)Peter Anastas, EG editorial directoris a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.


Our Great Marsh



Plum Island

Plum Island photo by Judith Walcott


Plum Island Revery


Peter Anastas

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…”

plumpannes (2)

Salt Pannes, Plum Island photo by Judith Walcott

Gazing beyond the dunes of Plum Island at the Great Marsh, bronzed in late summer light, I thought of that evocative first line of Keat’s poem, “On Autumn”.

It was the last weekend of August.  Each year at summer’s end I love to walk the barrier beach of the Parker River Wildlife Refuge.  There are no dwellings nearby; and except for those who fish the ocean’s edge for striped bass, few beachgoers after Labor Day.  It’s a place where one is up against nature in the raw.  I make it a point to visit the beach often during the year, observing the seasonal changes—-the piping plovers as they propagate, the redwings that arrive by the end of February, the tree swallows who begin their pre-migratory flocking in mid-August, and the purple martins who leave by summer’s close.

The approaching autumn is a special time for me.  It’s a time for reflection.  It’s also a time when one prepares for the year’s declension into winter, a time of mellowness in the air, the light, as Keats’s poem suggests; a time of actual and spiritual harvest.

Stretching from West Gloucester to the borders of New Hampshire, the Great Marsh is a wonder.  As I contemplate its vast fertility from the silent dunes of Plum Island, I think of those early settlers, who gathered beach plums here (hence its name) and took the shellfish.  I think particularly of Judge Samuel Sewell, who in 1697 gave us this description of Plum Island:

“As long as Plum Island shall faithfully keep the command post, notwithstanding all the hectoring words and hard blows of the boisterous ocean; as long as any salmon and sturgeon shall swim in the streams of Merrimack, or any perch or pickerel in Crane Pond; as long as the sea fowl shall know the time of their coming, and not neglect seasonably to visit the places of their acquaintance; as long as any cattle shall be fed with the grass growing in the meadows, which do humbly bow down themselves before Turkey Hill; as long as any sheep shall walk upon Old Town Hill, and shall from thence pleasantly look down upon the River Parker and the fruitful marshes lying beneath; as long as any free and harmless doves shall find a white oak or other tree within the township to perch or feed or build a careless nest upon, and shall voluntarily present themselves to perform the office of gleaners after barley harvest; as long as nature shall not grow old and dote, but shall constantly remember to give the rows of Indian Corn their education by pairs; so long shall Christians be born there…and shall from thence be translated to be made partakers of the Inheritance of the saints in light.”

Those words were written three-hundred and eighteen years ago, yet they describe with perfect clarity what can still be seen and enjoyed today.  Whether or not we share Judge Sewell’s prophetic religiosity, we can still marvel at the acute sense of place evoked in his description of Plum Island and its surrounding forests, hills and wetlands.  We can marvel at this early ecological vision, at its appreciation of nature’s bounty.

Years pass as if they were days, places change and the people who inhabit them disappear.  Thanks largely to the vision and commitment of organizations like the Essex County Greenbelt Association and the Trustees of Reservations, numerous town land trusts, and preservation-minded property owners, Essex County has retained much of its austere beauty.  There is no present without a past, as Judge Sewell understood.  Yet today’s destroyers act as if they were the only people on earth, as if no one had been here before them, preserving what they cherished for us today.  They act as if their greed were a right, instead of a sin against each of us and the land itself.

Tasteless “trophy” houses and out-of-scale McMansions spring up in fields and meadows once husbanded with meticulous care by our colonial forebears.  Signs dot the oceanside warning natives, who have always had access to the shore, that the property is now “private.”  Gates appear where once we all walked with impunity; and greed reigns.   The sense of Commonwealth our puritan predecessors bequeathed us, the belief that the land and sea were ours to use and enjoy together, to preserve for the next generation, has eroded vastly since Judge Sewell’s time.  More than ever, it is our responsibility to secure this covenant once again.  Otherwise, those who come after us may never enjoy the seasons “of mists and mellow fruitfulness” we have accepted as our birthright.


Peter at Museum (1)

Peter Anastas, EG editorial director, is a Gloucester native and writer. His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.




Remembering Bob Stephenson by Peter Anastas, Ernest Morin & Bing McGilvray

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

PeterABobS Florence1959

Peter Anastas and Bob Stephenson – Florence, Italy 1959

In Memoriam: Robert Douglas “Bob” Stephenson (August 21,1935 – August 9, 2015)

With the death of painter Robert Stephenson on August 9, Gloucester lost one of its most distinctive contemporary artists.  We also lost a great character, a trait that is in short supply these days.

I knew Bob from the Hovey School, where we met in Miss Courant’s fifth grade class in 1947. Even then Bob was drawing and painting constantly.  He was also a wit, who kept us laughing when we should have been concentrating on our studies.   As befits someone as creative as Bob, he was  able to turn both his art and his wit into activities that gained him academic credit.

One of our first projects together was a play we co-wrote for our unit in American history about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, for which Bob designed the costumes, or rather, adapted them from clothing we borrowed from our mothers—today you might call it “colonial drag.”  Bob’s mother, Cora Douglas, the daughter of New England lighthouse keepers, had a house full of the most interesting artifacts, many of which she and Bob’s late father, Charles Francis Stephenson, had collected during his tours of duty in the diplomatic corps.  In fact, much of Bob’s sophistication, which made him seem so much older and more mature than the rest of us, was the consequence of the family’s having lived abroad.  I suspect these experiences may have played a role in Bob’s becoming an incredibly accomplished linguist during his military career.  It is said that he was proficient in twelve languages, including several dialects.

Once we were in Central Grammar for 7th and 8th grades, our dramatic activities did not cease.  We wrote a play about Julius Caesar, which we performed with an Italian accent, followed by a Nativity play in Yiddish inflected English.  How we got away with what today would be considered politically incorrect behavior is still a mystery to me; but those plays, and others we did together, including a British murder mystery, in which we played Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson with the appropriate British accents, were performed in the school auditorium in front of the entire school body.

During 7th grade Bob and I also initiated an activity that we would pursue well into high school.  We spent every Saturday walking all over Cape Ann.  Beginning with Ravenswood Park, where we explored every trail in detail, we branched out to Dogtown, which we crossed to Rockport many times.   There was not a single Gloucester neighborhood we had not traversed on foot, or any place on the waterfront that we did not come to know intimately.   One of our signal achievements was to have walked entirely around Cape Ann, beginning in downtown Gloucester and walking to Rockport, Pigeon Cove, Lanesville, Bay View, Riverdale and back to Bob’s house on Mansfield Street.

We did it in a single day, carrying water in canteens and packing lunches that our mothers had prepared for us.  There were no cellphones or public phones from which we might report our progress.  Always during these walks we observed nature carefully, gathering specimens of plants and wildflowers or marine life that we examined by microscope in the laboratory I had set up in the basement of my house on Perkins Road.

Looking back on Bob’s artistic career,  it is my belief that his minute depiction of Gloucester places and objects, his grasp of buildings, wharves, rocks, beaches, tidal eddies, surf, trees, bushes, flora and fauna originated in part from the experiences of those walks during which nothing was lost on either of us.  Our early walks resulted in a lifelong habit of my own of walking all over the city of my birth and writing about it in my weekly column for the Gloucester Times, “This Side of the Cut.”

Bob’s artistry was nurtured at Central Grammar by our art teachers, Jean Nugent in 7th grade and Edna Hodgkin’s in 8th.  Both were practicing artists, as was the city’s art supervisor Hale Anthony Johnson, who had taught us all the rudiments of art since first grade, along with the history of the visual arts on Cape Ann.

But it was at Gloucester High School, that amazing WPA modernist building we had the privilege of attending classes in during the 1950s, where Bob came under the influence of Gloucester’s greatest art teacher, the native-born painter Howard Curtis, who was head of the art department.  Comprising an entire wing of the school, the art department had state of the art equipment and the benefit of northern light, because Howard and the preceding art teacher, Muriel Spofford, had insisted to the architects that the original siting of the school be rotated to take advantage of the light itself.

It would be an understatement to say that the influence of Howard Curtis on Bob’s art was profound.  Curtis, a distinguished artist who had exhibited widely, along with painting or restoring earlier murals in city buildings, was a remarkable teacher.  Learned, articulate and engaging, he held sway in his two-room classroom-studio from before school in the morning until late in the afternoon.   In those classrooms, whose walls were hung with the finest examples of world art, you could find students, some of whom did not even study art, in deep conversation with “Mr. Curtis,” as we all respectfully called him.   The subjects were wide and diverse, from the forms of Medieval and Renaissance  painting and questions of perspective to abstract philosophical issues about the origins and fate of man.  Curtis himself was a deeply meditative spiritualist, a mystic, in some ways, as I look back on him.   This part of his nature and his teaching must clearly have had an impact on Bob’s future art, which has a profoundly spiritual dimension, influenced as well by Bob’s immersion in Buddhism, prompted by his time spent in the Far East during his military service.

Taken together, Bob’s encyclopedic knowledge of Gloucester terrain and his spiritual vision, in part the influence of Howard Curtis and in part his Eastern knowledge and practice, provide a lens through which we can view and understand the astounding production of his paintings.  Many were completed in his first studio on the top floor of Brown’s former department store, later in the studio he occupied at the Fitz Henry Lane House, and finally at his remarkable studio on Parsons Street, just off Main, a former garage, which Bob, with the help of friends, converted into a living and working space that took advantage of a marvelous view of the waterfront and wonderful light throughout the day.  It was a studio, like those of the Florentine masters, that was open to all during Bob’s working hours.  It was not unusual to find friends visiting while Bob painted, or a conversation ongoing about the state of the world, about which Bob had many opinions, pungently expressed.

Everyone has a story about Bob, and I will conclude with one of my own.

It was late in 1959.  I was living in Florence, studying Medieval literature at the university and about to begin teaching English at the International Academy.  Bob was stationed in Germany with the US Army.  He wrote to tell me that he had some leave coming and wished to visit me in Florence.  I had not seen Bob since I was in college and he was attending art school in Boston, prior to his induction into the army, so I jumped at the opportunity.  Bob was due to arrive on the Brenner Express, so I went to meet his train at the railroad station.   As I stood on the platform, I observed a group of Germans getting off the train, all of them speaking excitedly in their own language.  Bob was among them, conversing in what I later learned was perfect German.  He was also dressed in German clothing, a gray Loden jacket and a dark green Alpine hat with a feather in it.

Bob stayed in the Pensione Cordova in Via Cavour, where I had been living since early fall.  His room had a marvelous view of the Duomo from its window.  Soon Bob set about drawing everything he saw as we walked (of course) over every inch of the fabulous city that was to become my home for three years.   From his study of art history Bob was familiar with the storied buildings and monuments, and his knowledge of the art was extensive.  As we walked through the galleries of the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace, Bob paused to explain what artists like Botticelli had in mind as they concentrated on the placement of figures or the overall structure of the work.   We explored the interiors of the great cathedrals and churches, from the Duomo to San Miniato, adjacent to which was a vast cemetery which fascinated Bob (my friend Paul Hamilton, who was studying art in Florence took some pictures of us in that cemetery, one of which is posted here).

Back in the pensione, I introduced Bob to another resident, Carlo Cirelli, a young artist from Ferrara, who worked designing shoes for a local company.  When Carlo saw Bob’s drawings and watercolors of Florence he asked Bob if he would ever consider designing shoes.

“I’ll take a crack at it,” Bob said, setting to work with his pencil and watercolors he borrowed from Carlo.   We left him alone for a while, and when he said the design was done, Carlo and I went to look at it.  Instead of an elegant Italian shoe, Bob had painted what looked like a worn out work boot, brown, scuffed and with turned over heels.  Along the edge of the boot he had painted a wooden match stick, inserted between the shoe and the sole.  The match was on fire and would naturally have resulted in a “hot foot” for the wearer of the shoe.  This was Bob at his best, using art to make a point about the vanity of fancy footwear.

I did not see Bob again until his retirement from the military when we were both again living in Gloucester.  From time to time I would visit his Parsons Street studio to see what he had been up to.   When I reminded him about his visit to Florence and the shoe, his eyes twinkled.   “I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d started a fad,” he said.  “You know how clever those Italians are!”

​Peter Anastas​


The Most Original Native Artist of His Time​

by Ernest Morin​

Bob Ste​ph​enson, like F​itz Henry​ Lane​, ​ was a Gloucester boy.  He also shared with Lane a real sense of light and love of the harbor and city. I met him when he had his studio in Lane​’​s house.

Bob Stephenson Photo Courtesy of Greg Cook

Bob Stephenson
Photo Courtesy of Greg Cook

When it came to subject matter however Bob Stephenson was not a realist. His canvas would be a place to situate dream, myth, reality, symbols and spirituality. He would combine an eastern sensibility towards use of space and western techniques of painting with scenes that were both drawn from local reality and greatly fabricated to fit artistically into the Stephenson paradigm, a very original paradigm.

His skill and technique with paint was extreme, he was a master at use of glazing, applying hot near cold color of designing a series of spaces within spaces that had strong push pull, repetitive form, harmony culminating in complex compositions that were layered with meaning.

He also did this in a way that was simple and abstract at heart – in the way an Edward Hopper is real yet truly abstract.

Stephenson labored intensely over 6 or 8 canvases at a time. ​ ​They were works to be pondered, to be massaged, to be coaxed into life one nuance at a time once they were cohesive. His art wasn’t rushed; he didn’t produce product.

Continue reading

Sefatia Announces: “Gloucester for Gloucester!”


sefatia (2)

Photo by Louise Welch



Sefatia Announces: “Gloucester for Gloucester!”

Peter Anastas


Today, I announce that I am a candidate for Mayor of Gloucester.

I do so because I love this city and all of our people. And, during the past six months, my team and I have demonstrated that government can be run openly and honestly to serve every citizen in Gloucester fairly, and with respect.

When the City Council elected me Mayor, I didn’t know how much my team and I could accomplish—I had no idea what a difference we could make. While I was humbled and honored to serve as Mayor, I thought then that the best way for me to help the people of Gloucester was to return to my seat on the City Council.

But by working closely over the past few months with Gloucester’s business and community leaders, private industry, and most importantly, the citizens of Gloucester, my team and I have made progress in a number of important areas, including economic development and tourism, the arts, and the health and well-being of our citizens. I believe that great things can be achieved as long as we keep working together.

Every day, I talk with people across the city and test my approach. They tell me that open and honest communication, teamwork, and a sharp focus on what Gloucester needs will move this city forward. That’s my style.

I am committed to Gloucester and all of our people. I am proud of what we have accomplished but I realize that there is much more to do, and I want to continue the work we have started. That is why I’m a candidate for Mayor.

                                    –Sefatia Romeo Theken, July 13, 2015


Though I respect the other mayoral candidates for their service and commitment to the city, I feel a special affinity for Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken.  Her father, Enzo Giambanco, was president of the Board of Directors at Action, Inc., Gloucester’s antipoverty agency, when I first went to work there in 1972.  I found in Enzo not only a mentor but a person of deep compassion for the low-income families we were serving, including out-of-work fishermen, children who needed a pre-school education their parents could not afford, people who did not have health insurance, and elders who were torn between paying rent and utility bills and eating.  As an immigrant he understood what it felt like to be on the outside, whether you spoke a different language or your clothing was not in fashion.  Along with Executive Director Bill Rochford, Enzo helped to steer the agency through some of its most challenging times, while never abandoning those who depended on our services, whether it was help with fuel bills, home care, or after-school care for the children of working mothers.

Sefatia learned these caring ways from the cradle, and she has spent her entire life helping the people of Gloucester as one of the city’s hardest working councilors and as a health care advocate and human services liaison at Addison Gilbert Hospital.  During her tenure as interim mayor, Sefatia has again demonstrated her skills at reaching out to citizens across the entire social and economic spectrum of the city, listening compassionately to their concerns, hearing the ideas they have shared, and making decisions in a thoughtful and intelligent manner, while relating to all of us in an open, caring and humane way.  When you are hugged by Sefatia you know she means it.

Sefatia has roots that run deeply into the community and its history.  She’s gone to school and raised a family here.  She can walk down the street and recognize everyone she meets.  She knows who their aunts and cousins were, and they, in turn, know her.  She can tell you who lived on which street and who worked where, and what happened to them if they got laid off.  This kind of knowledge that comes from growing up in one place and feeling it in your blood is indispensable when it comes to understanding the needs of neighborhoods and their residents, no matter which part of the city they are located in.  A public official who is not deeply in touch with the culture of the community he or she hopes to serve is already at a disadvantage.

The previous administration, though it helped to move the city in some positive directions, especially regarding our fiscal status, was, in my mind, largely technocratic, corporate in its approach to governing and in its client preferences.  As such, it was often out of touch with the people, especially those whom its policies adversely affected.  Considering the fault lines left in the wake of the Beauport Hotel controversy, Gloucester needs a mayor who does not seek to impose his or her will upon the community, but rather one who respects the will of the people and is not tone deaf to the diversity of local voices.  We need a mayor who will not attempt to manufacture consensus or claim it exists when it does not—a mayor, especially, who will not dismiss a neighborhood’s fight to preserve its own culture as NIMBY, or consider citizens who exercise their right to speak in opposition to projects they feel are inappropriate as “obstructionists.”  Rather, this mayor would listen to their objections and engage them in the kind of constructive dialogue that is the cornerstone of our democracy.

I believe that Sefatia will be this kind of mayor—she has already demonstrated these qualities as a much respected city councilor and during her tenure as interim mayor. We need a mayor, who will advocate for “Gloucester for Gloucester people,” who will lead us toward a more vital sense of community in education, civic responsibilities, historical awareness, fiscal prudence, economic and social self-sufficiency, and love of place. We particularly need a mayor who understands and cares deeply about our fishing industry and the importance of our working waterfront.  I believe that Sefatia will be this kind of mayor.  That is why I am endorsing her candidacy and urging all those who want our city to move forward without losing sight of the heritage that has made us what we are to join me in voting for Sefatia.

Isaac’s First Fiesta

Peter Anastas

St. Peter’s Fiesta, which opens its 88th year with music on Wednesday, June 24, at St .Peter’s Park and concludes on Sunday night, June 28, with a procession through the Fort, is Gloucester’s most meaningful celebration of our collective identity. Watching the lights and the altar go up this week and feeling the excitement in the air of impending carnival, which so many of us have experienced since childhood, I couldn’t help but remember the first time I took my grandson to Fiesta…


Isaac and Papou.St. Peter (2)

Isaac and “Papou” go to Fiesta


 It was June of 2009.  My son Ben and I were taking his 19-month-old son Isaac to his first St. Peter’s Fiesta.  My mother had accompanied my brother and me when Fiesta started up again after the war, and I, in turn, took Ben and his two siblings, beginning in the 1960s.  If you count the fact that my mother, who was born in Gloucester in 1910, had attended the earliest Fiestas, beginning in 1927, four generations of our family have been celebrating the Feast of St. Peter with our Italian friends and neighbors.

Though a bit overwhelmed by the crowds along the midway, the music from the rides, and the amplified voices announcing games of chance, my grandson seemed to take to Fiesta.  Eyes shining with wonder, he refused to be carried by his father or me, rushing instead among the legs of those on their way down Beach Court to where we could watch the seine boat races and greasy pole contest from the shore.


Isaac at greasy pole (2)

Isaac with “Papou” and his dad watching the greasy pole contest


Returning to Commercial Street, we decided to walk to Fort Square for a better view of the events and so that Isaac, who loves to play in the sand boxes of Brooklyn’s city parks, where he lives, could fully enjoy Pavilion Beach.  On the way there I pointed out the old Birdseye plant with its iconic white tower to Ben, where, from 1928, his grandmother had worked as Clarence Birdseye’s secretary.  On our way back to Fiesta we walked around Fort Square to Charles Olson’ house, where we took a picture of Ben, Isaac and me in front of the commemorative plaque to Gloucester’s great poet.


Isaac at Olson house (2)

Isaac points to the memorial plaque for Charles Olson at 28 Fort Square


That afternoon we covered the entire Fort, from Beach Court to Fort Square.  We shared fried dough and Ben shot a few baskets to see if he could win a stuffed animal for Isaac.  What came home to me during our walk, along with the powerful sense of attraction I’ve always had for Fiesta and for the Fort itself, where I once worked on fish, was an increased concern that if a proposed hotel were to be built at the Birdseye there could be unforeseen consequences.  Prospective developers had already expressed reservations about this traditional marine industrial neighborhood (one was quoted in the Gloucester Times as having said, “When our guests arrive we want them to know they’ve arrived somewhere”—as if the historic Fort were nowhere!); and one wondered how many of their guests would spend a lot of money to stay in a busy neighborhood full of trailer trucks and early risers. What would be the impact of the new hotel on Pavilion beach, which was public and protected as such?  And while I could imagine some hotel guests enthralled by Fiesta, would others on vacation be annoyed by the noise, the crowds, or the smells from the working waterfront—the engines of the fishing vessels, the early morning activity of taking on ice?



During our walk I tried to envision the Fort with a fancy upscale hotel in its midst.  All I could think of was that the hotel might ultimately displace the neighbors, the neighborhood, the Fiesta, and all the traditional kinds of single and multi-family housing on the Fort.  Once the hotel was in place, there was certain to be greater pressure for upscale housing or condos.  Then, quite covertly, we would have the beginnings of Newport right in the heart of the waterfront.
I was especially concerned about the potential for “collateral damage” in the neighborhood as a consequence of outsize development, especially if traditional fishing industry businesses were pushed out, and long-term residents with them.  These thoughts troubled me as I walked with my little grandson and his father—three generations of Anastases enjoying Fiesta (and a fourth if my mother, who first took me, were still alive)—and suddenly a great sadness came over me, followed by a profound sense of loss.


What should ultimately have been an occasion of joy with my family, my grandson’s first Fiesta, prompted a bittersweet reverie, in which I could imagine all that has meant so much to our family and every other Gloucester family of Fiesta and of the Fort itself, taken from us were we not vigilant about protecting our heritage and the very places in which it lives and breaths.


Today the hotel, so utterly alien to everything the Fort has stood for, is fast becoming a reality, and we can only hope that Fiesta, along with the Fort itself, will not be swept away by this new wave of urban renewal called gentrification.

Viva San Pietro!



Photo courtesy Document/Morin

Peter Anastas is Editorial Director of Enduring Gloucester

Gloucester for Gloucester

What I’m Looking for in Gloucester’s Next Mayor

by Peter Anastas

Slide 1

Gloucester Humoresque ~1920 William Meyerowitz (1887-1981) Cape Ann Museum

” First, I want a mayor who understands that communities exist primarily for those who live in them, not for transient visitors, or developers who wish to exploit their resources: a mayor who believes that Gloucester and its future belong to those of us who live and work here. “

Gloucester is a multi-million dollar public corporation and should be managed as such.  For that reason, I would prefer a return to the city manager-council form of government.   Having a city manager would also depoliticize the role of mayor and eliminate the necessity of hiring an additional administrator, thus saving taxpayers a second layer of salary and benefits.

Since there doesn’t seem to be a current initiative toward changing our form of municipal administration, and such a process, if initiated, would take several years, beginning with the formation of a charter commission, rewriting the city’s charter and holding special elections, we will clearly be facing a regular municipal election next November.  In fact, we already have candidates who are actively running for mayor and city council.

What, then, will I be looking for in Gloucester’s next mayor?

First, I want a mayor who understands that communities exist primarily for those who live in them, not for transient visitors or developers, who wish to exploit their resources: a mayor who believes that Gloucester and its future belong to those of us who live and work here.  To put it bluntly, I want a mayor who will refuse to sell our city out from under us to the highest bidder.  In order to achieve this goal, a mayor should not be influenced by or beholden to special interests but to the citizens themselves.

Gloucester is a community full of imaginative and creative people in all walks of life; people, for example, who have conceived and built businesses that manufacture locally-based products, like the organic fertilizer Neptune’s Harvest, which carry the city’s name and reputation abroad while creating good jobs with benefits for local workers.   An ideal mayor would grasp the value of these indigenous enterprises and work to encourage the development of more of them, rather than seeking to attract out-of-town businesses or entrepreneurs, who have no connection to or understanding of the community.   The mayor I’m looking for would equally support and advocate for the entire city’s locally owned and operated businesses.

Gloucester has one of the highest populations of visual artists.  Inspired by the city’s natural beauty and legendary light, they have created works of art to enhance the lives of those of us who live here as well as art-lovers everywhere.

Our local writers have been a major asset to the community, sharing their knowledge and talent, while bringing honor to the city.

One can say the same for our musicians and all who participate in what is now considered “the creative economy.”

This is equally so for those institutions like the Cape Ann Museum, the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library, the Sargent House Museum, Maritime Gloucester, the Rocky Neck Cultural Center and the North Shore Arts Association—all local, all celebrating local history, local art and local culture.

It should be a major responsibility of our next mayor to recognize and support our creative community and these essential institutions, not as window dressing or tourist attractions, but as valuable components of the city’s living, breathing, cultural, educational and aesthetic fabric, without which the whole life of the community could not exist.

In addition, I want a mayor who will fight to keep Gloucester’s civic center the heart of the community’s governance and municipal life, retaining City Hall as our centrally located administrative facility and preferred public meeting place for all city bodies.  To lose this vital center of the community, or to convert City Hall to non-civic uses, would run counter to the vision of those who created Gloucester and made the city what it is today.

What I am looking for is a mayor who understands that the preservation and enhancement of what we already enjoy here, in terms of our indigenous life and rare natural beauty—what, in effect helps to attract visitors—is more valuable to our culture and economy than cheapening ourselves to attract ephemeral tourism.

We don’t need a Harbor Walk in Gloucester with kiosks that impart trivialized versions of maritime history.  Instead, we need to maintain our working harbor that for centuries has given jobs to residents and brought visitors to experience the real thing and artists to depict it.

With respect to tourism, too many previous city officials have chased the chimera of the “visitor-based economy,” leaving us with a hotel we agreed we needed but not where we wanted it; eviscerating, in the process, an iconic neighborhood and leaving fault lines in the community that could take years to heal.  Tourism has always been a part of the city’s economy, but it should not dominate our future or be allowed to diminish the quality of our daily lives, as it has in so many communities that have ended up as “tourist traps” rather than authentic places to live and work.

Considering the damage left in the wake of the Beauport Hotel controversy, I want a mayor who does not seek to impose his or her will upon the community, but rather one who respects the will of the people, instead of attempting to manufacture consensus or claim it exists when it does not.   A mayor for all the people will not dismiss a neighborhood’s fight to preserve its own culture as NIMBY, nor consider citizens who exercise their right to speak in opposition to projects they feel are inappropriate as “obstructionists.”  Rather, this mayor would listen to their objections and engage them in the kind of productive dialogue that is the cornerstone of our Democracy.

I want a mayor whose first initiative will be to bring the entire community together in a planning process that will help to create a new Master Plan for the city’s orderly growth and development, a plan that will address the crucial questions of where we wish to go as a city and how we intend to get there—a plan that will protect our neighborhoods and historic  properties—our “sacred places”—and that will designate where it will be appropriate to locate new developments and where such projects will not be allowed.  At the very core of such a plan should be a vision of Gloucester’s future that incorporates the very best of our past.

Finally, I seek a mayor who will advocate for “Gloucester for Gloucester people,” who will lead us toward a more vital sense of community in education, civic responsibilities, historical awareness, fiscal prudence, economic and social self-sufficiency, and love of place.  I want a mayor who will wake up each morning, as so many of us still do, taking delight in how wondrously green our trees are after such a harsh winter, how extraordinarily beautiful our harbor continues to be, how important our fishermen are to us, even as they struggle to keep their industry and our maritime culture alive, how incredible our people are in all they represent and do, and how blessed we are to live in one of the most estimable places in the world.  For without this connection to place—what Charles Olson called “the geography of our being”—there is no point in wanting to be mayor or carrying out the work necessary to sustain a vital community.

 Peter at Museum (1)    

Peter Anastas, editorial director of Enduring Gloucester,  is a Gloucester native and writer.  His most recent book, A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester, is a selection from columns that were published in the Gloucester Daily Times.



Fifty years of ACTION

Fifty Years of Community Action in Gloucester: 1965-2015

Peter Anastas

Action celebrates (2)

On Thursday, May 28, 2015, Gloucester’s antipoverty agency, Action, Inc., celebrated its 50th anniversary with a reception and concert at The Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.  The following remembrance of my three decades of involvement in Community Action for Cape Ann is dedicated to the caring professionalism of those with whom I worked and to the extraordinary people we served, all of whom enriched my life immeasurably.

Peter at Action

Peter Anastas, 1992, at his desk in Action’s original offices at 24 Elm Street, formerly the Red Cross, and before that, the Rogers School, where his mother attended first and second grades.


“Social work, especially as we practiced it at Action, can be seen as opposition to arbitrary power.”

When I was growing up in Gloucester during the Second World War, I experienced how some of my schoolmates lived in sprawling, rickety tenements, crowded in with parents and grandparents, as the war raged and most of the men were overseas.  But it wasn’t until I went to work at Action, in 1972, that I began to understand the true extent of poverty on Cape Ann.  It was then that I was forced to confront the potential consequences of this condition in terms of family violence, substance abuse, alcoholism and crime. That was the real poverty, I came to understand, not simply the fact that people didn’t have money or jobs or decent places to live.

At first the agency didn’t want to give me the job I’d applied for as “home visitor” in a new research and demonstration program called “Home Start.” The purpose of the program was to explore a home-based option for the popular and extremely effective Head Start preschool programs, which soon became the signature of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Home Start concept considered mothers to be the primary educators of their children. What the agency hoped to create for the group of mothers who entered the program (there would eventually be a total of 300 families enrolled) with their one- to five-year old children was a base of support that centered on the home visitor, a teacher and resource person, who would visit the family on a regular basis, providing the mother with educational materials, personal and moral support, and parenting skills enhancement. The program would also provide mental health counseling and family therapy for those who needed it, comprehensive health care, nutritional information, further education for mothers who wanted to re-enter the workforce (many were on public assistance), and a steady, helpful, friendly presence in the person of the home visitor for normally young single mothers, who had become isolated as a result of poverty, abuse and abandonment. Most of our client families lived in public housing, which, if more affordable to them, presented its own problems, not the least of which was isolation, as poverty became increasingly ghettoized in the nation.

In reviewing my application for the position of home visitor, the board of directors found me suitable for the agency; but some members had reservations about hiring a newly single man, who would be entering the homes of what they considered to be vulnerable young women. Wouldn’t it be better, they suggested, for me to be given the job of family services coordinator, along with an office of my own, where the mothers could come to me if they wished? On the surface it seemed a good compromise, though I had no experience in social work or counseling and the position paid less than that of a home visitor.

As it turned out, the job was a good fit. I loved the program and its new staff which, like me, had been recruited entirely from the community, based largely on our knowledge of Gloucester and our experiences living in the city. For several months we were trained together in the principles of child development and early childhood education by professionals from the Harvard School of Education and other institutions that offered cutting edge approaches to working with parents and children. I was also given training in basic counseling and social work skills. Later, as I took on more responsibilities in the agency, Action paid for social work courses and professional enhancement seminars at the Boston University School of Social work and at several area hospitals that offered intensive training in mental health issues.

As much as I provided referrals and direct services for the families in our program, including visits to the pediatrician for families who had no means of transportation, I also began to advocate for them if they faced eviction, residential health code problems, or issues with public housing. I learned how to deal with the welfare and Social Security systems, with health insurance providers, skills I had never previously developed but that were indispensable in helping us to educate our clients , about the services and benefits they were entitled to by law and by virtue of their poverty.

There were those in Gloucester who felt threatened by Action or who disliked the agency’s presence in the community.  Some city councilors ludicrously insisted that there had been no poverty in Gloucester until the federal government declared its presence here under the guise of Community Action.

Although we received a significant portion of our funding from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, which was established in 1964 to administer the nation’s antipoverty programs, we were a private, non-profit educational and charitable organization, with its own board of directors, consisting equally of members from the public sector, the private sector, and clients of the agency. This tripartite structure was unique to the War on Poverty, allowing maximum feasible participation of the poor in the agency’s program planning and the implementation of its policies. Local agencies were not only allowed but encouraged to set their own agendas, so long as they came under the broad mission of Community Action, which was to advocate on behalf of the poor, while addressing the root causes of poverty in each community.  (Enzo Giambanco, father of Gloucester mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, was president of Action’s board of directors during my early years in the agency, and our mayor has long been one of the agency’s staunchest supporters.)

It was a noble mission, one that has scarcely wavered in the half century of Action’s life and the life of Community Action in the nation at large, even in the face of obdurate legislators and the onslaught of an anti-government ideology under Ronald Reagan and his heirs in the Tea Party.  And while it may have seemed ironic that an antiwar activist like me, who had railed against the federal government for taking our country into an illegal and unnecessary war in Vietnam, was working in an agency much of whose funding came from that same government, those of us who became soldiers in the war to liberate the poor (another irony) felt that our mission was part of what government should be doing, in its role as intervener of last resort.

I went to work each day feeling good about my job and about myself.  I believed in what I was doing. I could see daily the results of working with mothers and their children, to empower the mother and help the child with learning and socialization skills. There were mothers who entered the Home Start program as high school drop-outs on welfare. Today they are teachers with master’s degrees or practicing law. Some started their own businesses. Others became social workers themselves or directors of early childhood education programs. And in almost every case, their kids finished school and went on to college. Some who were three years old when we started the program in 1972 are married today and raising their own families. None of them live in poverty.

Statistics exist to prove the value of Head Start and the Home Start option, which is still offered by many Head Start programs. It’s an option that I still feel good about having helped to create, along with fifteen other R&D programs nationwide (for several years, ABT Associates in Cambridge conducted an in-depth evaluation of Home Start, which showed the program to have been both highly beneficial educationally as well as extremely cost-effective). Our philosophy was to offer our families the broadest range of options so that they could choose freely among those which they most needed to free themselves from the privations of the welfare system. Instead of perpetuating poverty, our mission was to end it. Though we were ultimately unable to eliminate poverty, and there is a higher percentage of impoverishment in the United States today than when Lyndon Johnson declared war on it, and less money or will to impact it, those of us who spent our lives in Community Action continue to believe that the successes of the program have outweighed its failures.

Peter Anastas, Action, Inc.  12-23-76.  photo by Charles A. Lowe, Gloucester Daily Times.

Peter Anastas, running Action’s Christmas drive, December 23, 1976. Photo by Charles A. Lowe, Gloucester Daily Times.


From 1966 until 2002, the agency’s central offices were located in a former elementary school building on 24 Elm Street, in the heart of Gloucester’s downtown. Built in 1820, the yellow clapboarded building with Italianate windows had housed the Red Cross after it was closed as the Rogers School.  For years all the agency’s program managers and staff, including the receptionists, secretaries, bookkeepers and community organizers, were crowded into tiny offices on both floors of the old schoolhouse, separated sometimes only by room dividers that were hung from the ceiling by wire. Before the advent of the Xerox machine we used fluid duplicators; and before the agency could afford electric typewriters or computers, before even the advent of the PC, we wrote our reports and composed our correspondence on antique manual typewriters. The furniture consisted of dark green military surplus desks, file cabinets and metal desk chairs of nondescript design. We liked to joke that it had come to us directly from the Philippines, though in actuality we often requisitioned what we needed from the Portsmouth Naval Base. The city of Gloucester had given us the building for one dollar a year in rent, though its upkeep was the agency’s responsibility.

A Neighborhood Youth Corps program provided after school tutoring and part-time work for teens. Jobs 70, a precursor of the CETA employment and training programs, helped out-of-work parents. Head Start was run out of the agency with classrooms in several local church basements, while Home Start was housed in the former Gloucester Daily Times building on Center Street, where we had offices on the first floor and a day care center with state-of-the art educational materials on the top floor. The agency provided legal assistance to low-income families and home care for elders. There was family day care for working parents with children and an after-school program for school-age kids. Soon after I came to work, in 1972, a volunteer program for retired elders called RSVP would begin, along with programs providing fuel assistance and weatherization to eligible individuals and families. For several years, after the demise of the Gloucester Auto Bus Company, the agency also ran the city’s public transportation system, calling into service a fleet of military buses that we painted blue.

But at the heart of the agency were the community development, community organization and advocacy programs. L. Denton Crews was executive director when I first came to work. An ordained minister with years of experience in the civil rights movement, Denton was a bright, articulate manager, who guided Action from its inception, primarily as the grantee for Head Start, to its expansion into a multi-purpose agency addressing a range of community needs. When Denton left to become an aide to Rep. Michael Harrington, community organizer Bill Rochford took over as executive director. Bill had a degree in social work from Boston College, and under his direction Action moved in two significant directions, community development and advocacy. Community Development director Dr. Carmine Gorga made a study of the fishing industry with a view to enhancing its sustainability as the city’s primary industry. He and the community organizers helped to create the United Fishermen’s Wives, a group of women who became fierce advocates for the industry. Carmine also started the first worker-owned business in Gloucester, a small company that made finger foods and other hors d’oeuvres from fresh fish that were flash frozen and distributed nation-wide.  It was at this time that the agency also took over from the city the former Gloucester High School and Central Grammar building on Dale Avenue to develop, under the direction of architect Kirk Noyes, the community’s first private elderly housing complex. Many natives soon found themselves living in rooms in which they’d gone to school.


What was equally important for me and for our mission was what went on behind the doors in that little yellow schoolhouse on Elm Street.  The staff met often to critique our programs and to speak about the grants we wanted to apply for. We discussed questions of poverty and how we hoped to address them. All of our program activities were driven by a rigorous planning process, the main document for which was an annual work plan, which laid out exactly what we hoped to achieve with each initiative, how we meant to reach our goals, and how much money and staff participation were required to fulfill our objectives.

After three and a half years in the Home Start program, Bill Rochford asked me to join the advocacy and housing program, which I would later come to direct.  Settling into my new assignment, I began to participate in the daily excitement of an agency that had survived an attempt by the Nixon administration to destroy Community Action. Conservative Republicans, adamantly opposed to the War on Poverty, managed in 1973 to force the closing of the Office of Economic Opportunity. However, after friends of Community Action in both parties lobbied strenuously for its continuation, the opponents succeeded only in transferring the Community Action programs to a newly created Community Services Administration, thus preserving pretty much intact the nation’s flagship antipoverty programs like Head Start, along with agencies like Action that administered them.

Just when we most needed an attorney to help clients file answers to eviction complaints or to appeal welfare terminations, Marshall Williams arrived.  Newly retired to Rockport and anxious to serve, Marshall was in his early sixties, a native of Maryland and a Princeton graduate with a law degree from the University of Virginia. He’d served in the military for more than thirty years, first as a fighter pilot and later as a member of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.  Marshall prepared his cases so meticulously and argued them so relentlessly that he became the bane of existence of the administrative law judges in Boston, who heard disability appeals, the welfare claims adjudicators, or the magistrates, who sat on eviction cases. More than once he was commended from the bench for his preparation. He won thousands of dollars in retroactive benefits for elderly clients, who’d had their Social Security Disability applications denied or their payments terminated, or for mothers on welfare, who had wrongfully lost their benefits. Always fair and never judgmental, Marshall took on seemingly intractable cases for disabled veterans, who often addressed him as “Sir,” some even saluting when they appeared at his office door, though Marshall, who had held the rank of Colonel, was the most deferential of people and had long laid aside his military career. He represented women, who had been beaten mercilessly by drug-dealing boyfriends, and little old ladies, who were being evicted from their apartments because they had to make a choice between paying for food and rent or heating oil during severe winters.

I did the intake on all the cases before we were able to hire our intake counselor and associate advocate, Mary Adams. Those who needed legal help were directed to Marshall whose office was next to mine. The rest Mary and I worked with personally, though there were many cases we all shared. Mary and I would find families money for back rent while Marshall drafted their responses to summary complaints for eviction, defending them himself, or preparing them to mount their own defenses with the help of legal services attorneys. Part of our philosophy included a strong self-help provision. Wherever possible we encouraged and trained our clients to represent themselves, arguing their own cases. Most found the experience empowering, even exhilarating, especially if they prevailed, which they often did.

Marshall Williams retired from Action in 1988, succeeded by Ken Riaf, a young attorney, who had also been a fisherman. Ken brought a unique perspective to the agency, as we became more deeply involved with the fishing community, which was then entering the protracted crisis it still faces today, with declining stocks and restrictive federal regulations that have reduced Gloucester’s fleet to a shadow of its former greatness. We were also forced to address the deepening housing crisis in the state, as real estate prices rose and landlords were converting apartments into condos, thereby squeezing out low-income families and elders and adding to a burgeoning homeless population. In response to homelessness, the agency joined with Ron Morin, executive director of NUVA, the city’s primary substance abuse and mental health agency, and Bill Dugan, executive director of the Gloucester Housing Authority, to create the Cape Ann Coalition for Housing and the Homeless. Ron, Bill and I produced a study of the problem, “Homelessness on Cape Ann,” with recommendations for its solution. Two new homeless shelters were created, NUVA’s for women with children and Action’s for homeless men and women eighteen and over. A number of programs, including counseling, case management and substance abuse treatment, were also initiated to impact the problem, along with recommendations for the creation of more affordable housing. Of great help to us in this effort was Dr. Damon Cummings, a naval architect and former MIT professor, who had become one of Gloucester’s leading advocates for the fishing industry and a fighter to preserve the city’s working waterfront.


My last ten years at the agency were years of intense lobbying for funds to implement these housing programs. In concert with the responsibilities of managing an expanded advocacy and housing program and seeing clients on a daily basis, I also directed the Action Homeless Shelter. We spent hours at city council and planning meetings advocating for the new shelters, and for a soup kitchen and food pantry, which were independently created. New funding regulations from Congress required the adoption of more stringent and sophisticated planning and management tools and an automated information storage and retrieval system, as the agency entered the digital age and we all had to learn how to use computers.

Losses in the fishing industry and fluctuations in the economy made it clear to us that Action had to expand our employment and training programs to include those who had been downsized out of jobs or who had lost them in industrial consolidations and takeovers. With the support of Varian, a high-tech consortium whose corporate offices were located in Gloucester, the agency opened a computer training center in downtown Gloucester, at Brown’s Mall, the former site of the city’s largest department store. Expanding our client base, we trained homeless men and women at the site along with those who had once had well-paying jobs. We added training for medical secretaries and hospital workers, while offering GED and Adult Basic Education courses, including ESL classes for new Hispanic and Brazilian immigrants.

By 2001, after I had been at the agency for 29 years, the need for our services continued to increase. And the landscape of human services had been shifting for some time, confronted, as we were, with the rising animosity of conservative politicians and once compassionate voters toward service agencies and the people we were committed to helping. Constrained also by shrinking government funds and more onerous reporting requirements, agencies found themselves in competition for charitable dollars as a way of ensuring their independence.

Under Bill Rochford’s leadership, and with the experience, political savvy, and commitment of Action’s veteran program directors — Deputy Director Tim Riley in administration, Gerry Anne Brown at Homecare, Ronna Resnick in Employment and Training, and Elliott Jacobson at Energy — Action charted a cautious passage through these perilous waters, arriving not only safely to port in new headquarters in the former Woolworth building on Main Street, but winning support and funding for innovative youth programs and housing for AIDS patients, while creating public-private partnerships that offered new employment and training opportunities for local residents.

Retiring on November 15, 2002, I left Action with a sense of new expectations but also with great sadness. I knew I was bidding farewell to an important part of my life.  When Bill Rochford retired in 2009, Tim Riley took over as executive director, and has continued to lead the agency in ever creative directions.

Social work, especially as we practiced it at Action, can be seen as opposition to arbitrary power.  It seemed a fitting segue for me, as a former anti-war activist in the 1960s, to have become a social worker in the 1970s; indeed, natural to my temperament and my politics. Just as I had helped to organize opposition to the war in Southeast Asia, I helped to bring neighbors together to encourage local government to remedy conditions in their neighborhoods, or mothers on welfare to fight iniquities in the welfare system. Our agency empowered citizens to speak out against slum landlords, who withheld heat, or to demand that the city’s regulatory agencies enforce health code regulations that made their apartments unsafe for themselves and their children. We provided legal assistance, family counseling and one-on-one assistance to help low-income families overcome poverty. We created education and training programs for fishermen, who were driven from the sea by onerous government regulations; and we helped displaced workers retrain in digital technologies.

Our work was motivated by the need for social change and for self-determination on the part of those who felt powerless — to help the disenfranchised find good jobs and obtain affordable housing, and to make government accountable to those whom it was designated to serve; indeed to change repressive legislation where we could. We didn’t win every battle, and not everyone we tried to help overcame poverty; but we forged partnerships between citizens and interest groups and we brought the public and private sectors together in many instances to build new housing or rehabilitate older stock. We helped formerly homeless men and women create their own businesses and we provided services to elders that allowed them to remain in their own homes with dignity rather than entering nursing homes. Perhaps our greatest success was in helping those we worked with to understand the systems in which their lives were enmeshed — how those systems operated, what their internal dynamics were, and how to overcome the enmeshment. And in the process, we ourselves felt a greater liberation.

Peter Anastas is the editorial director of Enduring Gloucester.

Kenneth Warren (1952-2015)

Kenneth Warren.1

Kenneth Warren by James O-Bryan


Kenneth Warren (1952-2015)


Kenneth Warren was a rare public leader who knew when/how to push the envelope of public discourse, to seek and participate in deep, locally defined values in an era nonetheless when the local is being uprooted in favor of global development. He was a man dedicated to finding the deeper currents that might drive a community, and thus a world, forward into a brighter and more humane future of greater good.

–Daniel Slife


The sudden death of writer, critic, editor, Jungian scholar and astrologist Kenneth Warren has a special poignancy for his friends in Gloucester.  Many of us first met Ken when he and Fred Whitehead were editing The Whole Song, the landmark volume of selected poetry by Lynn native and Gloucester poet laureate Vincent Ferrini, published in 2004 by the University of Illinois Press.

Ken visited Gloucester frequently, reading at the Writers Center, where he was an advisory board member, and The Book Store.

Ken was that rarest of critics, who could write about avant-garde poetry, Punk Rock, the interface of astrology and the arts, and the complexities of Jungian analysis, often in the same review.  To read his 2012 collection of essays, Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch: A Guide to the Homeric Punkhole, 1980-2012, is to gain a sense of one of the most original and capacious minds of our time.

Yet Ken was far from self-involved.  As editor and publisher of House Organ, he sought out a stunning array of contributors, from former Black Mountain, Beat and New American poets to those who  were young and unpublished, to review some of the most exciting experimental writing in print and to submit their own poetry and prose.  To experience a single issue of the magazine that appeared in one’s mail box punctually each season, in its idiosyncratic 4 by 11 inch format, was to have an entrée into some of the most exciting work in poetry and personal and critical prose of our time.

Speaking for myself, it was a privilege to be asked by Ken to submit work he’d heard about, or to have been sent a series of remarkable collections of poetry or prose to review.  His editorial style was supportive rather than intrusive.  He let his writers be themselves, and in the process I believe we all flourished.  In asking me to contribute to House Organ, Ken literally gave me a second career as a critic and essayist, one that I would not have enjoyed without Ken.  Ken also published Enduring Gloucester poet Melissa de Haan Cummings.

Ken and I did not meet frequently, but when we did the talk was incandescent—largely from Ken’s side.   I would always leave with lists of books to read or new writers to discover.  With Ken one did not need to take a post-graduate course in innovative writing; one simply listened to him talk or read his extraordinary study of the work and thought of Ferrini and Olson that had been appearing serially in House Organ.

In writing to tell me about Ken’s death, our mutual friend, novelist and critic Bob Buckeye, described the void created by his leaving:

“We have suffered a great loss.  Something has stopped and I don’t know if it can start up again.”

Andre Spears, a member of the board of directors of the Gloucester Writers Center, wrote:

“Ken Warren departed the planet on Thursday (May 21), as the sun was transiting from Taurus into Gemini. He was, and remains, a beautiful spirit, particularly open to the world, and he leaves behind, in the singular poetic community he made cohere, a terrible absence that only time, sooner or later, will erase.”

Ken loved Gloucester.  He knew the city from his deep immersion in the poetry of Olson and Ferrini and from his own time spent here absorbing the look and feel of the place, its history.  Ken understood community and how it could be uprooted by gentrification and unwarranted development.  As his friend Daniel Slife wrote:  “He was a man dedicated to finding the deeper currents that might drive a community, and thus a world, forward into a brighter and more humane future of greater good.”

Goodbye, Ken.  We will miss you sorely.

Peter Anastas









Sawyer Free Library in Transition

The Sawyer Free Library in Transition

Peter Anastas

 Sawyer_old (1)

“There’s a lot of passion in the community for the library! It’s not that we want to keep the place stagnant for nostalgic reasons. We are open to change; we just expect responsible, thoughtful change.  Isn’t this why we hire professional librarians? “

–A Gloucester citizen, May 6, 2015



Herman Melville’s Ishmael claimed that a whale ship was his Yale College and his Harvard.  I like to tell people that I graduated from the Sawyer Free Library.  While I’ve enjoyed the privilege of an excellent formal education in the Gloucester Public Schools and in college, I’ve always believed that my real education began at the age of six when I first starting visiting my local library. Browsing in the stacks, I discovered many of the books that have meant the most to me, books that changed my life.

I was lucky.  My Aunt Helene Lasley, a beloved elementary school teacher in Gloucester, taught me to read at an early age and helped me to obtain my first library card. This began a lifelong passion for reading and a thirst for knowledge, which the library has amply satisfied during the seventy-one years I’ve proudly held that library card.

But now our beloved public library is about to undergo a radical, though arguably necessary, transition.  Not only are many of the books that have meant so much to thousands of library patrons potentially going to be weeded—the technical term is “deaccessioned”—the physical spaces of the building itself are slated for change.  Many of these physical changes have been mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act and state and local building and fire codes.  But the changes to the library’s historic collection of books (videos and music will also be considered), though undertaken partially to accommodate the planned physical modifications and lack of shelf space, are potentially more worrisome, especially to patrons like me who have benefited from the riches of the current collection.

On Tuesday, May 5, a sizable group of loyal patrons attended a meeting of the library’s Board of Directors to listen to the library director Deborah Kelsey and Board members describe the menu of changes that the library’s new strategic plan outlines   

(You may read the Strategic Plan for 2014-9019 HERE   and the Action Plan for 2015 HERE.)


and to express our concerns and offer our views about what many of us felt could be the deleterious impact of these changes on the library, and the community itself, as we have known and loved it.

At the core of our concern is the concept of “Gloucester Picks,” which asks library patrons to choose books, videos and other materials that are meaningful to them and which they believe should be preserved.  Patrons are asked to place these items in bins that have been provided, from which library staff will assemble a separate collection to be created and maintained as containing the community’s “favorites.”   While on its face this concept may appear appealing, in my view it seems an arbitrary way to manage part of Gloucester’s literary heritage, leading to a potential “dumbing down” of both the collection and the library through popularization.   Libraries should indeed be places where a wide segment of the community can find or discover books and other materials that appeal to them, but they must also be resources where the world’s literary, historical, aesthetic, and philosophical heritage can be at the fingertips of patrons, either through the maintenance of a rigorously curated core collection or access to books and research materials through the inter-library loan system.

The particular concern of many of us who question the Gloucester Picks program is that once the core collection has been picked through, what will happen to those books which were not chosen?  Will they be weeded out; and, if not, who among the library staff will winnow them yet again, using which guidelines?  Indeed, when you consider that only a small segment of the community may come into the library to choose their favorites, will this not lead to a much skewed result?  In the end, will many important works of fiction or non-fiction, books that have potential appeal to browsers, who often discover them serendipitously, simply disappear?

Those of us who attended the board meeting on May 5 also learned that the guiding principles of deaccession are set forth in CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries, a publication from the University of Texas that is meant to guide public libraries in the maintenance of their collections and the management of both their resources and their physical spaces.  A reading of the CREW manual makes clear that one of its guiding tenets is a vision of the public library as a neat, clean physically attractive facility to draw patrons and make them feel comfortable once inside the doors.   To achieve this goal, the manual suggests that there be no books that appear worn or with torn or dirty bindings or covers in the collection, as this would tend to discourage patrons.  It seems almost as if a sanitized collection or environment is the principal goal of attraction rather than the library’s intellectual or aesthetic resources.   A further reading of the manual discloses a certain political correctness in its guidelines for the addition or retention of books.  One particularly glaring example is the suggestion that to maintain historical validity in one’s collection “dated” books, for example, those about the now-defunct Soviet Union, might be discarded.

Nobody argues against judicious weeding.  All libraries must make room for newly acquired books and discard those which have been damaged or are no longer relevant to the permanent collection, such as multiple copies of popular bestsellers, when a single copy in good condition can be retained for patrons who might wish to read or re-read it.  However, a core collection of the world’s classics must be retained, updated and maintained by the addition of fresh editions or translations, along with the acquisition of newly published books.

One could—and will—argue that the Internet provides wide access to materials that would not only supplement but surpass physical resources in politics or history, and that by providing access to the Internet in the libraries themselves, patrons are not only assisted but encouraged to explore beyond the limits of the actual collection.  Nevertheless, there is no substitute for the physical book that can be taken home, read deeply and carefully, and more easily be quoted from by the student or patron than by the use of a digital text, which for many patrons is hard on the eyes and impermanent.

The May 5 meeting was, in my view, extremely productive, not only in demystifying the library’s approach to the coming changes, but also in helping the patrons who attended to gain a sense of what the director and the Board’s approach will be to implementing and managing these changes.   Considering that the details involved in the transition have not been widely reported or understood, the patrons expressed a desire for transparency, about which the Board readily agreed.  Furthermore, patrons were asked by the Board and director not only for their input into the evolving process of transition, but also their active involvement, thus enhancing an important public trust, which I believe has been missing from much of the current public discourse in Gloucester.

If you care about our public library, especially in this important time of transition, please visit it, learn about the coming changes and how they may affect you, and take a proactive role.  It is the only way we can guarantee that the Sawyer Free Library will continue to be a valuable and important part of our community—not to speak of the crucial need to be engaged citizens ourselves.