Here in Gloucester we don’t always welcome change. And rightly so. What we have here is so special, so unique, that we have a special fear that change will take away that which makes it so. Nevertheless, change comes whether we want it or not. For my wife Catherine and I, change has come after more than four decades in this place. We are moving to California to be closer to family.
It was 45 years ago, almost to the day, that I first came here. Like most visitors, I stopped at the Man at the Wheel and had my picture taken. Unlike most visitors, I stayed. Most of our time here we lived in a little white house on Eastern Avenue. Over time, I often made my living elsewhere, but we made our lives here. It was here that we raised our family. It was to here that we always returned.
As I look back on my time in Gloucester, I remember many things. Some are of places: The Boulevard, the Fort, the Back Shore, the Babson Boulder Trail in Dogtown and Good Harbor on a late afternoon in summer. Some are happenings: The Fiesta, of course, and the Schooner Festival and smaller but important things like the annual gatherings on the Boulevard in remembrance of those lost at sea, and those lost to the scourge of drugs. Some are institutions: The Cape Ann Museum, the library, Maritime Gloucester, the churches.
But most of all what I recall are the people I met and came to now in my time here.
We came to know thousands of people in our time here — rugged and resilient people who make this rugged and resilient place what it is. But there are two that I recall in particular — two people who summed up this community for me.
The late Peter Watson presided over an ever-changing cast of aspiring journalists for more than 30 years at the Gloucester Times. Our local paper was a training ground for many of the stars of journalism. Peter was committed to local news and to Cape Ann. Under his guidance Essex County Newspapers became a model for community journalism that is still respected to this day. He understood that to cover a community you had to be part of that community. He insisted that his reporters and editors live locally and embed themselves in the fabric of the city or town they covered. The holiday parties that he and Pat gave in their always-under-repair-and-never-quite-finished Addams family style house in Pigeon Cove were a gathering place for all of Cape Ann’s many sometimes raucous communities. A place where our tribal sensibilities were put aside and all the guests joined in celebrating this place that we love.
Marge Bishop is another part of the fabric of Cape Ann. Marge is 83 now, but she still comes to work at St. John’s Episcopal Church four days a week, as she has since 1982. She’s been a part of St. John’s longer than that —since 1963, not too long after she married Charlie. Part sexton, part secretary and part social worker, Marge is St. John’s heart and soul. Over the years, she has kept a number of rectors from taking themselves too seriously and helped any and all who come through the church door. Normally, the only time she isn’t available is when the Bruins are on. Marge was in the front row when Bobby Orr made his iconic, joyful leap into the air after scoring the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup Final. She has been to almost every game since then.
In her no-nonsense way, she provides a caring, loving, helping hand. Many people whose lives were in disarray owe to Marge and the church the little bit of something that helped them weather the storms in their lives and put them back together. This past winter, a young couple were huddled outside on the church steps when Marge arrived before 7 as she always does. Their clothes were worn and dirty. The girl said she had early in the morning job interview. Marge took a key from the office wall and led the young woman down the stairs to the Thrift Shop where clothes were kept for sale. “Take something nice,” she told her. The woman picked out an ensemble and went off to her interview. Later that day she called Marge to tell her she had got the job.
It’s people like Peter and Marge who made this place special for Catherine and I and inspired us both to try to give something back. I was privileged to serve three terms on the City Council. Catherine worked for many years in efforts to reduce substance abuse in our city.
We have seen Gloucester change — mostly for the better. But we have also seen it stay the same — the same kind of caring community that looks out for one another and is at its best when times are most difficult. That is the memory we will take with us to our new home.
We are off to California to make a new life, a life we hope will be informed by what we learned here. And, when we come back to visit and our California neighbors ask us where we are going, we will simply say, “We are going home.”
Longtime Gloucester resident Paul McGeary is a former city councilor and City Council president.