, Salem, MA

March 29, 2013

Benton: A classy move in Salem

Nelson Benton
The Salem News

---- — 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.)

With the help of people like Bill Tinti, who chaired the Salem Redevelopment Authority, and City Planner Greg Senko, Levesque continued the historic preservation and downtown revitalization effort begun during Zoll’s administration.

Levesque’s election to the city’s top elective office was a point of pride to friends and neighbors from the old Point neighborhood. A particular highlight of his tenure came when he and wife Florence were invited to a state dinner at the Carter White House.


The lack of any women on the 11-member Salem City Council remains an embarrassment.

But one of the first of her gender to serve, Frances Grace, may have a hand in rectifying that situation. Her niece, Heather Famico, is challenging incumbent Mike Sosnowski for the Ward 2 seat on that body, and as former colleagues and those who covered her political career can attest, Grace does not back down from a fight.


Danvers selectman candidate David Mills spent part of the week in Washington listening to oral arguments in the key gay marriage cases currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a courageous and eloquent column in these pages last June, the former town moderator and Massachusetts Appeals Court judge described how he came to terms with his homosexuality.

“The courts in Massachusetts have been leaders in protecting the sensitivities of lesbian and gay people by according to us full dignity as human beings. It was a long time coming. Sometimes the progress boggles my mind,” Mills declared.

Depending on how the high court rules, there may be more progress to come.


Nelson Benton spent 40 years covering politics on the North Shore before retiring from The Salem News. Contact him at