BEVERLY — To most Beverly residents in the 1970s, Bill Scanlon was the guy who laid off hundreds of people at the United Shoe Machinery Corp. — the executive who had been brought to town to cut and slash the workforce at the city’s largest employer.
So when Scanlon decided to run for mayor in 1992, he knew that many families would remember him.
“The question was,” he wrote in a new memoir released this week, “did they hate me?”
Scanlon found out the answer when he won that first election by a wide margin. He went on to become Beverly’s longest-serving mayor with nine terms in office, transforming a city facing an $8 million deficit into one on solid financial ground.
In “My Story: Bringing Beverly Back From The Brink,” Scanlon recounts his version of not only his historic run as mayor, but also his path from a blue-collar upbringing in Dorchester, to MIT and Harvard Business School, a stint in the Navy, and his role as a top executive at United Shoe.
In an interview at his home in Beverly, Scanlon, now 82 and retired since 2014, said he decided to write the 122-page book because, “I thought it was a pretty unusual story.”
“Nobody else in Beverly had the same situation,” he said.
Scanlon grew up in a two-family home on a busy main street in Dorchester. His father was a meat salesman. His mother was a housewife. To attend Boston Latin School, he rode a bus, train and streetcar. He picked wild blueberries that his father sold, with the proceeds going to Scanlon’s savings account. In the summers he was sent to caddy camp on Cape Cod, where he slept in a tent along with the other young caddies.
“Looking back, it was clear that my parents wanted to instill a strong work ethic in their children,” wrote Scanlon, who has two sisters.
After graduating from MIT, Scanlon attended the Navy’s Officer Candidate School, where among other things he learned “what a jerk I could be.”
“I was very self-centered,” he wrote. “After a while I began to catch on and for the first time in my life I started to listen and think about the other guy.”
Rough day at ‘The Shoe’
Scanlon rose through the executive ranks at the United Shoe Machinery Corp. before eventually being sent to Beverly in 1974 to “restructure” the factory, where generations of Beverly families had been employed since 1908. The Shoe, as it was known, was losing $2 million a year. Scanlon oversaw four large layoffs that took place over an 18-month period, all on Fridays.
Recalling the last of the layoffs, Scanlon wrote, “I knew quite well many of the people let go that day and I felt terrible. To be honest, I admit that I literally tried hard that evening to drown my sorrows, but my efforts did not help one bit. It was a rough night. One I will never forget.”
Ten years later, Scanlon ended up getting laid off himself when a new owner took over.
Although he had only been in City Hall three times in his life, Scanlon, at the suggestion of his wife, Louise, decided to run for mayor in 1992. At the time the city had run up an $8 million deficit and was facing receivership.
A force in City Hall
Scanlon’s business acumen proved helpful in digging the city of its financial straits. He went on to preside over the building of a new high school, the renovation of the elementary schools, drainage projects that solved decades-long flooding problems, and the steady improvement of the city’s bond rating. He also played a major role in the resurrection of The Shoe building, the very place where he had laid off so many workers. The factory had been empty and deteriorating for years before it was purchased by Cummings Properties. Scanlon agreed to a 10-year property tax break that spurred the company to renovate the massive complex into a now-thriving office park.
For all of those accomplishments, Scanlon said his most important decision may have been ending inequities in the distribution of lower-income students in the city’s elementary schools. He recalled a meeting in which several people were upset about their children being forced to switch schools under his plan to correct the situation.
“After minutes of rancor, something I will never forget happened,” he wrote. “Several young women who were obviously pregnant spoke up eloquently insisting that the current districting policy was unfair and unacceptable. They were unstoppable and they were right. Their voices carried the day.”
Scanlon devotes several small breakout sections in the book to people that helped him along the way. He reserved a “special tribute” chapter to two people in particular, former Endicott College President Richard Wylie and entrepreneur Steve Dodge, who he said both deserved much credit for the resurgence of Beverly. Wylie died in 2018, Dodge in 2019.
Scanlon is also not shy about criticizing some people, particularly those who ran against him. He wrote that former Mayor Jack Monahan “spent little time in his office” and that Tom Crean, who beat Scanlon in 2001 before Scanlon won a rematch two years later “was floundering around getting nothing done. His failed performance made me look better every day.”
In an interview, Scanlon said he felt that his political opponents were “fair game,” whereas he steered clear of criticism of city employees. Overall, he said, he hopes the book provides readers with a fair and accurate assessment of his 18 years in office.
“There’s that famous question: ‘Was it better when you left than when it started?’” he said. “I’d like to think it was.”
Staff Writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.