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The Ubiquitous Talent of Our Small Town (South Boston’s Authentic “Will Huntings”)


Remember Good Will Hunting?–Specifically, do you remember the character Will Hunting? Let me refresh your memory: While at a bar with his loyal Southie friends, he notices a pretentious Harvard student trying to make his friend (Ben Affleck) look stupid in front of a group of attractive girls. Will comes to his friend’s aid. After kicking this arrogant bastard’s ass intellectually, he offers the following bit of wisdom:

The sad thing is in about 50 years you’re going to start doing some thinking on your own, and by then you’ll realize there are only two certainties in life … One don’t do that. Two, you dropped $150 grand on an education you could have received for $1.50 in late charges at the public library

After embarrassing this smug Harvard student, Will adds, “And if you got a problem with that, maybe we can step outside and deal with it that way.” (Damon, Matt; Affleck, Ben; Good Will Hunting: 1997) That scene truly reflects the many talents and virtues of Southie. It says, “Yes, I’m an intellectual, but I’m a fighter too. And my loyalty to my friends is absolute.” It is a loyalty that grows from the empathic-nature of Southie folks.

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Is this character merely a fictional character? Is it possible that the “genius old school Southie kid” has a non-fictional counterpart?

Of course, a lot of outsiders will say no. To these folks, if you have a thick Boston accent, you are an idiot. There are folks who will cite sociological reasons that a non-fictional Will Hunting is a fantasy. They will cite socioeconomic reasons. And they will cite cultural reasons. And they are wrong. Anyone that knows Southie, knows that our culture is the reason why we not only survived, but thrived.

Our founding fathers arrived here thousands of miles from there homeland, to escape the injustices of oppression, to work for food; the English masters deprived the Irish of the food which the Irish cultivated. Despite widespread famine, the English brought the food home to England, and left nothing for the Irish.

Oppressed for generations, many decided to flee their oppressors. Thus is the genesis of the prominent Irish diaspora. The diaspora that took Boston by storm; the diaspora that mastered the blood-sport of Boston politics; the diaspora that within a couple of generations, proudly elected one of their own as President of The United States: President John F Kennedy.

In my office, there is an authentic sign that reads, “No Irish Need Apply.” There is a simple reason I keep that sign on display. It motivates me. Oppression is the great motivator. And the oppression of the Irish, both in Ireland and in America, affected our culture immensely. We had to work harder; we had to study harder; we were inculcated with the belief that education is the key to freedom. And our ancestors, my grandparents, and my parents were right: it is the key to freedom.

With cultural beliefs such as these, one can theorize that Will Hunting from Southie is a non-fiction character. Enough with the theorizing. We do not need to theorize when one can cite the multiplicity of Will Huntings from Southie.

Let’s start with Senator Joseph Moakley: a man from the Old Harbor Housing Projects in Southie (today it is often called Mary Ellen McCormick). A man who grew up in public housing. A man who fought for his country in World War II, even though he did not have to–he lied about his age when he enlisted. He went on to graduate from Suffolk Law School (Suffolk Law School named their new library after The Honorable Joseph Moakley). He was a state representative, a state senator, and then a Congressman who labored his whole career for the working man, never forgetting the oppression in the collective Irish memory.

When The Honorable Congressman Joseph Moakley passed-away, not too many people thought that anyone could fill his shoes. But Southie provided another Will Hunting: Congressman Lynch. Lynch hailed from the Old Colony Projects. He spent the beginning of his career as an ironworker. The cumbersome, physically challenging nature of his job did not stop him from worrying about his union brothers and sisters–a result of the loyalty and empathy embedded in Southie’s culture. He became president of his Local. Lynch’s leadership skills are unmatched. He follows the philosophy “never forget where you came from.” He took the Moakley path to Congress: state rep., state senator, and now he is The Honorable Congressman Lynch.

The talent of folks from Southie is all-encompassing. Although we do have numerous political heroes, we have sports heroes too. For instance, the first winner of an Olympic Gold Medal in 1500 years, James Connolly. He won the triple jump.

Stanley Cup Champion, Brian Noonan, is also from Southie’s housing projects. Never forgetting where he first got his start, after winning the cup, he brought it to Southie’s Murphy Rink. His gesture made every Southie hockey player believe in themselves.

“Wait,” you’re saying, “Will Hunting is an intellectual genius. The people you listed are talented, but not one of them is a rocket scientist.” True. Let’s amend this careless oversight.

Eugene Lally of South Boston who is indeed a rocket scientist. He assisted NASA with their Apollo Programs and pioneered digital photography.

Southie folks are not just characters in movies–they are also Hollywood Actors. Brian Goodman became an actor after spending 20 years in prison. Authenticity is his hallmark. He actually included former “marks” (the drug dealers and underworld folks that he robbed) as characters in movies. Goodman’s filmography is incredible: Catch me If You Can, The Last Castle, The Fast and The Furious, etc. One could go on forever with his filmography.

Let’s stick with the artist category. My hero Michael Patrick MacDonald is a gentleman whose writing and the work he has down for his own community, and other struggling urban communities makes him the Southie native I emulate the most. His life’s work revolves around the virtue of empathy–that same virtue that Southie continuously strives for. he has done community work for every part of Boston suffering from violence, drug epidemics, or any type of despair. His name is Michael Patrick MacDonald, and he is the author of the very successful book that a less courageous person could not write,All Souls: A Family Story From Southie. He was raised on Patterson Way in the Old Colony Projects. He now spends his life trying to improve the lives of the working-poor people of Boston. He helped to start Boston Gun Buy Back Program. He is Writer and Residence at Northeastern.

Southie is also the hometown of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, lyricist, and screenwriter, David Lindsay-Abaire. He won The Pulitzer Prize for his 2007 drama, Rabbit Hole. He hails from West 5th St.

Obviously, the Irish are prolific writers, and I cannot mention all of Southie’s writers. But the following author is a man that must be mentioned as one of Southie’s favorite writers. Not only is he a writer, but also spent years as a public servant for the people of South Boston: Representative Brian Wallace. He is the leading writer in South Boston with a sharp wit and talented pen. His latest book, A Southie Memoir, takes us back to Southie’s good old days. His love of history and his ability to paint a scene with words brings us right back to the Southie of the 60’s.

The last two “Will Huntings” are special to me for different reasons, but I hold them both in the highest regard.

Speaker of The House John McCormack served in The United States House of Representatives from 1928-1971. He served in World War I. In 1940, he became House Majority Leader. “You’ll never get anything done without Democratic help,” he often yelled across the aisle to his Republican colleagues in the 1950’s during the Eisenhower Administration. Any student of history or politics must note that during the passage of The New Deal Legislation, he was serving in the party leadership (the second highest-ranking Democrat). He became Speaker for 9 years, and the legislation passed under his Speakership makes for one of the finest legacies of any Speaker. He was an early advocate of Civil Rights and the Speaker of The House when The Civil Right’s Act of 1964 was made law (I only wish that the many intellectuals I’ve met who are so quick to generalize Southie as racists knew that it was under the auspices of our native son, John McCormack, that Civil Rights Laws were passed). Speaker McCormick also advocated for and signed laws protecting early education, health care, and elderly welfare. McCormack was a legislative giant who helped pass Great Society’s Reforms. After the assassination of President Kennedy, Speaker McCormack became next in line for the presidency.

The next giant that I am to mention comes from the housing project in Southie named after Speaker John McCormack’s mother, Mary Ellen McCormack. His name is Senate President William Bulger. He and most original Old Harbor families like mine would most likely call our neighborhood Old Harbor; although none of us forgot what the McCormack family did for us. William Bulger is a true Jesuit-trained intellectual. At Boston College High School, by the time we graduate, we are ready to “be men for others.” In other words, we will spend our lives helping our society, our neighborhood, those in need, just as Jesus intended us to do. And Senate President Bulger always heeded the virtues that The Jesuits taught him to strive for. And after going to BC High, BC, and BC Law, earning the honorable title Triple Eagle, his Jesuit education was bound to influence the rest of his life. He became a public servant: First as Massachusetts State Rep, then State Senator. As state senator he was elected Senate President. He served from 1971-1994, which is the longest tenure ever held by someone in that position. He was a political mastermind. But the reason folks love him still to this day is because of his renowned constituent service–another example of Southie’s loyalty and empathy at work. Bulger would field calls on his own and get back to people on his own. That is unheard of now in the Massachusetts State House. The proudest day of my life was when William Bulger, who graduated exactly 50 years before me at BC High, handed me my diploma.

One would be hard-pressed to find such ubiquitous talent in a town of this size. Good Will Hunting should not be seen as a story about a genius whose Southie upbringing makes him an anomaly in a town that is bereft of talented people and intellectuals. Indeed, the opposite is true. Southie, a town with a culture influenced by the oppression of our ancestors, is a town full of talent. But most importantly, Southie is a neighborhood of empathy and compassion. Our tradition of talent and our moral code of empathy have helped make this country a better place to live.