, Salem, MA

February 14, 2013

Heard around town: A loss of Peabody's memory

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — Barbara Doucette was an expert on all things Peabody, the good, the bad and the smelly. Doucette, 84, died on Feb. 6, and when she went, she took a lot of Peabody history with her — the sorts of things you won’t find in books or on video.

A member of the Peabody Historical Society, she was the go-to person when it came to understanding mid-20th-century Peabody, an era fading inexorably from view.

“She was our walking history book,” says Glenice Boyd of the Historical Society. “She answered a lot of questions. ... A great loss.”

A good example was her laughing take on the leather industry in 2006: “When I was growing up, in the summer, when you rode through Peabody Square, you rolled up the windows because of the smell coming from the leather shops. And you didn’t ride the bus in the afternoon when all the leather workers went home, because the smell would be on their clothes.”

In the midst of a debate over the value of the leather industry to modern Peabody, then-City Councilor (now mayor) Ted Bettencourt had pointed out its importance.

“No wonder,” Doucette commented. “The Bettencourts wouldn’t be here without the leather industry.”

All the city’s ethnic groups, she explained, came to work in the leather factories. “But the world has changed, and we have to go with it.”

Doucette’s colleagues at the society will now find it more difficult “going with it” without her.

“A personal loss for me,” Ann Birkner says. “If a research question came up, she was the one to call. She knew what was in the files.

Doucette was lecturing to the Garden Club as recently as January, Birkner says. She had a keen sense of humor and joy for life.

“She devoted her life to spreading the word about Peabody history,” adds Bill Power, a Historical Society veteran. “She was a huge asset to local historians. ... It’s an institutional loss and a personal loss.”

An unorganized party

Party activist Mike Schulze has announced a meeting of the Democratic City Committee, such as it is, on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the AOH on Lowell Street. The problem to be solved, Schulze says, is that the committee has not been properly organized and is, in fact, not legally constituted.

He’s inviting interested Democrats from the various city wards to join in rectifying the situation.

“Both mayors (Bettencourt and the retired Michael Bonfanti) will be there,” he promises.

Fellow activist Ann Mitsoupolis, who has been at odds with Schulze, agrees that something needs to be done. “The paperwork didn’t get to Boston,” she explains.

For her part, Mitsoupolis is also announcing her daughter Christina’s success competing in We the People, an organization that tests the knowledge of high-schoolers on subjects like the Constitution and government. Christina will head to the finals in Washington.

“She was the one who wasn’t interested in the political stuff,” says the proud mom, who remembers a frustrated Christina in the past (when Ann was battling former school Superintendent Nadine Binkley) pleading, “No politics at the supper table!”

Rebuilding history

A meeting of the finance subcommittee at City Hall earlier this week was a good harbinger for Peabody Institute Library fans. The request for $3.1 million was not voted on, but Chairman Dave Gravel detected a consensus that the structure, while requiring much maintenance, is “one of the two buildings in the city of such significant age and history.”

It’s the prospect of still more big bills in the future that has sobered people like Councilor Jim Liacos, who offered a motion to have an engineer’s study done projecting future costs.

A final vote is expected by the full council tonight on $3.1 million for repairing windows, the ceiling and making the library compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Councilors at the subcommittee meeting, including Tom Gould, Barry Osborne, Anne Manning-Martin and Liacos, also went downstairs to attend the end of the Planning Board hearing on the Marchese project flooding residents on Winona Street. Gould describes the area under development as “a big barren wasteland.”

He expressed delight in the decision to freeze any work for now.