The godmother of East Boston community activism, the late Mary Ellen Welch, was not much for adulations, awards or honors. Instead, Welch prefered to quietly go about her daily commitment to improving the lives of all who called Eastie home and inspiring generations to become community leaders.
Sure, in her earlier years she was on the front lines protesting airport expansion. She joined the legendary Maverick Mothers and blocked Logan construction trucks that were disrupting the quality of lives for hundreds that lived on the street in the 1960s.
Yes, she was a force to be reckoned with at community meetings when her beloved community was threatened in any way.
And there are countless beautification and open space projects that dot the entire neighborhood that have her fingerprints all over them.
But when it came to honors or hero worship she shrugged them off as silly, especially in her later years when she preferred to work behind the scenes–writing hundreds of letters to decision makers expressing her opinion or offering sage advice to those who sought it.
So those who gathered at the East Boston Greenway Caboose last Saturday afternoon to officially name the Greenway after Welch were in an awkward situation.
On one hand the friends, family, elected officials and residents who gathered and benefitted from her decades of activism needed to honor her after her unexpected passing in March at the age of 77.
On the other hand, those who knew and loved her knew she would have been embarrassed by the whole affair and the fact everyone was making such a fuss over her.
Her longtime friend and collaborator Fred Salvucci had a solution.
“I see a cloud moving in and at any minute Mary Ellen is going to send a lightning strike down because she did not want to be recognized (for her accomplishments),” said Salvucci Saturday at the dedication.
Salvucci said there is still a lot of unfinished work to be done in Eastie, work that inspired Welch everyday.
So Salvucci looked up to the clouds and told the heavens, “Mary Ellen, this is not a memorial, but a rally to organize support and keep going!”
For over a half century Welch was the steward of social, political and environmental activism in the neighborhood.
Welch, a longtime community activist and school teacher, helped bring a neighborhood with the least amount of open space to a community with award winning sprawling parks and greenways.
Sadly, on Thursday, March 7 Eastie lost Welch after she battled an illness for several months.
As one of the founding members of the Friends of the East Boston Greenway, Welch worked for decades to take a neglected stretch of the old Narrow Gauge Railroad and transform it into a system of lush landscaped park so residents could enjoy a stroll from Jeffries Point to Orient Heights.
Welch was one of a small group of Eastie residents who believed the trash filled, abandoned freight tracks could become a welcoming, safe Greenway would remove years of contamination in the midst of the neighborhood.
At Saturday’s dedication Welch’s lifelong friend Roberta Marchi, whose children fondly called Welch “Auntie Mary,” spoke of her commitment to the neighborhood–even in failing health.
“One of Mary’s major priorities was always the creation of more green space in East Boston,” said Marchi. “She became an active member and supporter of the Piers Park Initiative and the Greenway Council, where she served as Chairwoman for years until poor health prevented her from leaving her home. Even then, she continued to attend meetings via phone conference calls. She never gave up networking with hundreds of contacts and personal friends that she had made along the way with whom she could work to create new initiatives and promote more opportunities. She influenced many politicians and power brokers by her amazing powers of persuasion, using poetry, home-baked cookies and visits at her home to share a glass of wine with newsreporters, authors, activists, analysts and university students who were interested in promoting the causes that were dear to her heart.”
Mayor Martin Walsh called Welch a hero.
“Often times we use ‘hero’ when dedicating things after sports figures or political figures and those are nice,” said Walsh. “But it’s when we recognize a great Bostonian like Mary Ellen Welch who loved her community as a teacher, a mentor and an activist is when the word ‘hero’ means a little more. Mary Ellen represented the best values and dedicating the Greenway to her is the perfect way to honor this local legend. When we think about heroes, when we think about true heroes Mary Ellen Welch is at the top of that list.”