It was a classy — and very smart — move by Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll in choosing to name the new senior center in honor of Jean Levesque. The tribute is certainly well-deserved, but by not wasting any time in announcing the name, the mayor made certain there would be no second thoughts by councilors who only days before had voted first passage of the order providing the city’s share of financing for the new building at the corner of Boston and Bridge streets.
That intersection — site of a former Sylvania manufacturing facility — is located at a key entranceway to downtown Salem, yet the weed-strewn, fenced-in lot provides a rather poor impression of what lies beyond for visitors arriving from the regional highway system via Peabody. But long negotiations with the property’s owner and the last-minute intervention by Ward 4 City Councilor Jerry Ryan yielded a deal that will bring forth a new anchor building for the site housing both private uses and a brand-new facility for the city’s senior citizens.
Levesque, 88, who is ill and could not attend Sunday’s ceremony at which the naming of the Mayor Jean A. Levesque Community Life Center was announced, became the city’s first Franco-American chief executive when selected by fellow councilors in 1973 to serve as the interim replacement for Sam Zoll following the latter’s appointment to the bench.
At the time, some speculated that the only reason the unassuming ward councilor from South Salem was chosen was because he would be the least able to win election in his own right the following November. But Levesque fooled all the so-called experts, holding onto the seat for a decade in the face of a couple of very tough challenges by state Rep. Hank O’Donnell. (The two rivals would later work well together when O’Donnell was appointed the city’s superintendent of schools — a tribute to the character of both men.)