John Carroll likes to tell stories and so he launched into one as we sat over lunch the other day in Norwood amid another icy blast of punishing snow that carried him back to that awful storm that made history 37 years ago this month.
“My job was to screw up the entire state highway system during the Blizzard of ’78,’ he says, an impish smile creasing his face.
Not quite. The guy standing next to him in the Massachusetts command center during that storm against which all storms around here are measured has a different assessment of how Carroll, then the commissioner of the state Department of Public Works, performed under fire.
“I was a transit guy. John was a highway guy,” former governor Michael S. Dukakis told me on the phone from Southern California, where he had a perfectly timed teaching gig. “But I’ll tell you, he was simply terrific. I learned that John’s a guy who stands out.”
I went to see Carroll, the general manager for the town of Norwood for more than 36 years now, because public sendee has been on my mind since I visited the embattled MBTA command post last week, which was sort of like visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum right after thieves made off with masterpieces worth millions 25 years ago.
Taxpayers are up in arms. Fingers are pointed. Blame is leveled. Tempers are short. Citizens are demanding an accounting. Public sendee? Who needs it?
Turns out John Carroll does. “I love public sendee,” he told me. “I’m still here. I haven’t lost my mind yet. I come to work every day. I’m here in the middle of a snowstorm. I like being relevant.”
If longevity were the only barometer, Carroll’s tenure as Norwood’s chief operating officer would be remarkable. In a job where a five- to eight-year tenure is the norm, Carroll is lapping the field for the fourth or fifth time.
He turned 87 this week. Retirement is not in his future. “That’s John Carroll for you,” Dukakis said.
This is John Carroll, too: Civil engineer. Soldier. Lobbyist. Editor. Father to 18, including former Globe reporter Matt Carroll. Born-again Christian.
Public servant. Humanitarian.
“Sometimes in life you’re lucky to meet someone who’s special, and that’s him,” said Frederick A. Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, of which Carroll is a charter member and its vice chairman for 30 years. “When he got here, Boston had the dirtiest harbor and the dirtiest river in the country’ — the butt of songs and jokes. His fingerprints are all over those cleanups.”
If Carroll’s imprint is on those important public works landmarks and on municipal improvements across Norwood, those who have watched his career say the more telling signs are the smaller, more personal ones.
Like the sandwiches he buys for the homeless after church on Sundays. Or the pizzas he delivers to the elderly on Thursdays. Or the counseling he provides to inmates. The other night after a municipal meeting ran late, Carroll spotted two lonesome figures on a Norwood sidewalk. They’d missed their ride to the Forest Hills T station. He drove them there.
“He’s the quintessential public servant — the antithesis of the no-show hack,” said Robert Thornton, who stepped down this month after 35 years as Nonvood’s town clerk and accountant. “My wife calls him the incredible man. We gave him a T-shirt once with that on it.”
Back behind his desk at Town Hall, Carroll wears a starched white shirt as he presides over a lengthy, mind-numbing meeting that has to do with neighborhood ground-water contamination, French drains, clay pipes, and impenetrable environmental regulation.
Carroll deftly steers the conversation toward a possible resolution, but makes no promises. Then he shares a funny story with the homeowners at the center of the dispute and leaves them laughing and appreciative.
“I think about Norwood when I’m going to bed,” he tells me later. “And I think about Norwood when I wake up.”
He knows what he doesn’t know, a skill that comes with experience. There’s no magic wand in this work. He knows that, too.
By Thomas Farragher Globe Columnist. February 21, 2015
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist.