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Finding calm after the firestorm

A terrible time behind her, Grace Fey steps down as chair of UMass trustees

One year later, Grace Fey remembers the summer of 2003 as the worst time of her life.

As head of the board of directors of Zoo New England, she spent the summer begging the Legislature for funds for Franklin Park Zoo, but that was normal. As head of trustees for the University of Massachusetts, however, she found herself squeezed between two political heavyweights, Governor Mitt Romney and then-UMass president William Bulger, the former determined to force the latter from office.

Fey was loyal to Bulger, believing he had served UMass well. As a result, she was pummeled in the press for weeks.

In June 2003, she was vacationing in Florida with her husband, Edward Fey, a scientist who loathes publicity. As they were about to go out to dinner, the telephone rang. It was a reporter, alerting her that the state Republican Party had asked the Ethics Commission to investigate her husband because his firm had a contract with UMass.

"Oh, no," she recalls thinking. "Do I tell him now and ruin dinner, or do I wait?"

On the way home she broke the news.

What? he said, shocked. We're being investigated by our own party?

"Nothing came of the investigation," she says, "but it was horrible for him."

Last August, Bulger announced he would resign, and the university returned to normality.

On the last Sunday in September, however, Fey heard a television report about Franklin Park Zoo and the escape of a gorilla named Little Joe. That confused her. Little Joe had escaped the previous month, within the exhibit, but why report that now?

She called John Linehan, president of the zoo.

"The most bizarre thing has happened," she said.

It sure has, he said.

"You mean it's true?" she said, flabbergasted. "Little Joe escaped again? Where is he?"

On Seaver Street.

"Little Joe is out of the zoo?" she said, horrified, "and he's in the neighborhood?"

Fey approached her husband at his computer.

"This time, I have really bad news," she said, describing how a 300-pound gorilla had wandered from the zoo and was prowling the streets near Franklin Park.

Tense at the prospect of more bad publicity, he listened patiently. "Is this the way people live?" she recalls him asking softly. "Is this the way we should be living?"

Gearing down
Fey took his question to heart. While she'll continue her role at the zoo and finish her ninth year as a UMass trustee, she has decided, after four years, to surrender the role of UMass trustees chairwoman as of today. Her likely successor is trustee James Karam of Tiverton, R.I., president and founder of First Bristol Corp., a real estate development company.

"It's a good time to step down," Fey says over lunch at Locke-Ober. "The university survived the firestorm. We have a terrific new president in Jack Wilson. The governor is happy. The state has been generous in funding. We have a good board, and it's reasonable to give the governor his own person in charge."

Now, as Fey, 57, looks ahead to more time at her job as vice president of Frontier Capital Management and to her responsibilities at the zoo, she also looks back to last summer and the telephone calls from reporters at 2 a.m., the editorials and columns that denounced her as a rubber stamp for Bulger.

Bulger relayed a laudation via e-mail. "Grace Fey has given mightily of herself. . . . She brings enormous talent. She's highly professional, always cheerful, always diplomatic, a wonderful listener. In all my years in public service, I've never seen a more civic-minded person."

Having grown up in Washington and graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in English, Fey arrived in Boston in 1970 unschooled in Boston's brass-knuckle politics.

"Last summer was unlike anything I've ever experienced," she says over scallops. "I was taken completely by surprise, and it became so personal, particularly the accusations against my husband."

Although bitter about the news coverage, Fey speaks with a temperance impressed upon her by nuns at parochial school: "I know you're part of the media, and I hate to criticize, but I can't remember one positive editorial. At a time when we were thinking hard about what was best for the university and when we saw President Bulger as a rational man who had done a good job -- well, the way the media covered the story was most distressing."

To Fey, the struggle between Romney and Bulger was a morality play, starring a patrician governor and a kid from the streets, well educated and hard-working, but whose escutcheon was bloodied by a gangster brother.

"I read mysteries, and you couldn't make this up," she says. "I realized I was in trouble the day I got a call from someone at The New York Times who said he was a crime reporter. A crime reporter! I said, `Look, I'm a university trustee. Crime is not what I talk about.' "

The Boston to which Fey came in 1970 was not the Boston of today. She went to an employment agency, saw two doors, and, being a college graduate, bypassed "Secretaries" and headed for "Executive Recruiting." Because she was a woman, however, she was redirected to "Secretaries." Hired as one, she rose to become executive vice president of Frontier Capital, a $6 billion investment firm.

In 1970, women were not allowed in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton attired in pants, she says, sipping tea in a room at Locke-Ober where women were once denied admission. She recalls going to a Harvard-Yale game and then to the Somerset Club and being startled to realize men entered by the front door, women by a side door.

Animal attraction
As a child, Fey was the girl who brought home stray dogs and cats and buried dead birds in her yard, and one day in 1995 she inveigled her husband to accompany her to the Franklin Park Zoo. "A beautiful day, but I thought, God, there's nobody here, and it was so dirty and depressing I wanted to take the animals home," she says.

In 1995, she finagled an appointment to the board of the zoo, then allied herself with a bloc that hired a dynamic new president who built 26 exhibits in five years. By 2001, attendance had climbed from 120,000 to 500,000.

In 1996, when Governor William Weld offered her a seat on the UMass board, she met with Bulger to ensure they could work together. After a two-hour discussion, she was persuaded.

Seven years later, in the summer of 2003, what she and Bulger discussed was his resignation.

"We thought he was doing a good job -- we were getting better students, better programs, better faculty. But we also saw a downside, that it was not healthy for the university to be at odds with the governor."

In the end, she says, it was Bulger who took the initiative to step down from the job that paid, with benefits, $357,000 a year.

"We were prepared to ride it out, but you know President Bulger -- no one tells him what to do. I think he saw that with new appointments by the governor, the board would change, and how could we govern?"

The wound that was expected to heal with Bulger's resignation was reopened by news that the board had approved a severance package of $960,000.

"A large amount of money," Fey says, "but he had four years on his contract, and the board was not asking him to resign. So how do we protect the university and hear the governor, whose concerns were important to us, and at the same time be fair to someone who had done a terrific job? We had an attorney help determine what would be appropriate, and to this day I feel we were fair in buying out the remaining four years of someone who had done nothing to violate his contract."

Among trustees who regret Fey's decision to step down is Robert Sheridan, president of Savings Bank Life Insurance. "An exemplary chairman who treated everyone with dignity," he said. "Last summer she saw combat but dealt with it courageously."

Since the firestorm a year ago, Fey has met regularly with the governor, and peace prevails. After three years of cuts, the UMass budget has been increased from $327 million to $392 million.

She's still in touch with President Bulger, as she calls him, and was instrumental in organizing a dinner in his honor in March that raised $1 million for UMass scholarships in his name.

"I consider him a very special person, and my relationship with him is a positive outcome of my involvement with the university. The farther away I get from last summer, though, the more surreal it becomes. But now everything is positive. We've gotten our budget money back. The university is fine. President Bulger is happy. The governor is happy, and everyone is OK."

Jack Thomas can be reached at thomas@globe.com.

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