Whenever I relate a story about my hometown in Massachusetts, it’s important to remember that these are renderings from the first third of my life, and while they might sometimes seem idealized, I try to sketch with the candid perspective that comes with time.
I have not lived in East Bridgewater since the age of 21. Even so, I kept up with news of the town. I visited family and friends two or three times each year. I also traveled back via memory, savoring my experiences and recalling, above all, the townspeople — teachers, coaches, fathers and mothers of friends — who left the most enduring impressions.
And so I remember the kind voice of Bob McCarthy.
I see his intense eyes. I hear him asking questions no one else asked. I sense a genuine fraternal interest in the teenaged boy who mowed his mother’s lawn on a summer evening. I was awed by Bob McCarthy. He was 14 years my senior, an established attorney and elected official. He was not merely handsome and tall, he was larger than life. He was a source of pride for the teachers and coaches at East Bridgewater High School, a man we admired because he had dared to be great.
Bob McCarthy had gone to West Point. He had played football for Army. That gave him special status because, in the 1950s, going to college, especially a military academy, was still a big deal for anyone from that working class town, especially the children or grandchildren of Irish, Italian and Portuguese immigrants. The Yankee class, the townies who could trace their ancestry to the Mayflower, might have had those experiences, but the college track was still new for the sons of small-town immigrants. Going to West Point gave McCarthy legendary status. He graduated at a great time, as JFK announced the New Frontier. McCarthy’s service in the Army came before the Vietnam War opened a fault line between the military and American civilians.
He came back to his hometown and gave honorable public service to East Bridgewater and the South Shore that he later represented in the Massachusetts legislature. He was to EB what George Bailey was to Bedford Falls.
I would see him from time to time and always be a little awed.
Awed that he remembered me. Awed that, at each encounter, he seemed to genuinely care about where I was headed in life.
Bob McCarthy died in January at 82. His son, Robert E. McCarthy III, a retired Marine colonel, eulogized his father and provided details about his life that I never knew, starting with the fact that Bob McCarthy’s father had died when he and his three siblings were kids.
I’ll step out of the way here and, with these excerpts, let Colonel McCarthy tell the rest.
When Dad’s father died when he was 13 years old, the town of East Bridgewater embraced the McCarthy family. … Veterans of World War I and II served as positive role models for my father and his siblings. Berj Kambegian hired my grandmother at his still-standing dry cleaning shop. My father started working at A.R. Parker Ice Cream shop, where he remained throughout high school. He did that while earning straight As, serving as president of his class, founding the East Bridgewater High School football team, subsequently serving as captain of the football, basketball and track teams, and representing East Bridgewater as a delegate at Boys State.
Where does a widow’s son, on a limited income, attend college? Enter Principal Stanley Goldman. Mr. Goldman aggressively pursued academically challenging schools with respectable football programs to offer scholarships to dad. The letters back and forth are amazing; Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Harvard, Yale, to name a few. The objective was West Point and Mr. Goldman went hard at Senators Kennedy and Saltonstall for appointments. He maintained weekly correspondence with Coach Red Blaik’s [assistant] Dale Hall. Mr. Goldman went so far as to drive to West Point with my dad and his mother. The football coach commented later that that was the first time a high school principal ever came to West Point to advocate for one of his students. After their relentless efforts, dad received an appointment to the West Point, Class of 1961.
Dad and his teammates produced an undefeated season in 1958. A teammate, Pete Dawkins, received the Heisman Trophy. In their senior year, the 1960 football season, they defeated Syracuse 9-6 in Yankee Stadium. Syracuse was led by Ernie Davis, the 1961 Heisman Trophy recipient.
Army closed out that season with a 17-12 loss to a Navy team led by that year’s Heisman Trophy recipient, Joe Bellino.The funny thing to come out of that game was that, in the article by legendary sports writer Red Smith in the New York Daily Herald, our dad was referred to as a “runaway beer truck” after he tackled Bellino for a big loss. Our grandmother was none too happy with the reference of an Irish lad to a beer truck. Sorry, Gram, we still think it’s a great literary depiction of what happened on the field that day. When he graduated, dad was commissioned an infantry officer and received orders to report to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1962, his unit responded to secure Oxford, Mississippi, after James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi. The challenge was that the 82nd was one of the first integrated units in the Army and they were deploying to provide peacekeeping in the middle of race riots. The solution was not ideal for a leader to maintain good order and discipline in his ranks. The decision made was to keep the Black soldiers back at the cantonment area and only employ white soldiers in town. He dealt with it like the leader and gentlemen we all knew him to be, and his unit accomplished their mission successfully.
Following his service in the Army, Dad returned to Massachusetts with his new bride, attended Boston College Law School, started a family, and then returned home to East Bridgewater. Despite all the employment opportunities coming out of law school, dad chose to return to East Bridgewater, where it all began, out of love and loyalty to his family and to a town that helped raise him. …
I can think of no better epitaph for Bob McCarthy except that he was a kind and great man.