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Boston's Reluctant First Lady

Don't be fooled by her modest presence and traditional trappings. Staunchly independent, Angela Menino is her own woman.

It's lunchtime in the Fens, and the wife of the Boston mayor is the speaker at the annual Friends of the Emerald Necklace Garden Party in the Park. She hates giving speeches. It makes her nervous to speak in public unless everything is written out. Giving speeches on her lunch hour is something she has to do occasionally even though she's not a gifted speaker, but then, neither is her husband, and it hasn't hurt his popularity. Her voice quavers, and she has trouble making eye contact with the crowd.

At 61, Angela Faletra Menino is an unassuming presence, standing off to the side, a little intimidated by the well-dressed women in garden hats who are power-mingling at the reception. People come up and greet her, but she is not mobbed, nor does she make any effort to work the crowd. It's hard not to wonder if most of these women even know who she is.

When she takes time off from her 30-hour-a-week accounting job at John Hancock Financial Services to fulfill ceremonial duties, she makes up the time later in the week. If you met her in the halls at John Hancock, she would strike you as the quintessential grandmother, wearing a bland but tasteful business suit with a brooch, and a gold bracelet with charms that honor her six grandchildren. And she would never forget your birthday.

Politics aside, if there were a local hybrid of Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton today, it might be Angela Menino, a woman who gazes adoringly at her husband, defends him no matter what, and champions safe, noncontroversial causes while also trying to maintain her own independence and career.

It was more than 40 years ago, on a tennis court in Roslindale, that she met her husband. Angela Faletra and a girlfriend kept hitting balls wildly into the next court, where two guys were playing. Tom Menino concluded that he was never going to get to play any tennis if he had to stop every second to retrieve the girls' tennis balls, so he suggested a match of mixed doubles. Angela and Tom went out on their first date that night; they married three years later in 1966. The mayor tells this story while sitting at the huge conference table in his City Hall office, in between contentious meetings with representatives of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association and logistics people from the Democratic National Convention.

Both he and his wife are trimmer these days after a long time on the South Beach diet. "We cut out pasta, pizza, bread," Angela Menino says. "It's been tough for us because we are Italians. Now, with the Crohn's disease, the doctors told Tommy to eat white bread and pasta. We're figuring it out day by day, but it's hard to watch your weight on one hand and eat a bland diet with lots of carbohydrates on the other." With some heat, she says, "It's hard to see your insides on the front page. Some things ought to be private."

Her fierce devotion to "my Tommy," as she calls him, crackles like summer lightning when she sniffs any criticism or lack of appreciation of the mayor by his constituents or in the media. Her jaw thrusts up and her blue eyes dilate as she outlines her husband's typical routine. "Tommy is up every day at 4:30. Out walking by 5. By 6:30, he's already made phone calls," she says. Starting to sound more like a politician's wife, she says the brouhaha surrounding the convention was especially irritating to her: "Here was this absolutely wonderful event for the city. All those people who said it couldn't be done, and the city showed them that it could be done. What did we have, six arrests during the whole four days? The press screwed the whole thing up, making such a big deal about the police, and then the traffic," she says.

She could, of course, choose to not work. Their two children, Susan and Thomas Jr., are adults, but there is more than enough for her to do as the first lady of Boston, and some people suggest privately that she should take some time off to spiff up her public image and become a more sophisticated ambassador for the city. But retiring is not an option. "Work gives me my own identity," she says. "It's a little private piece of me." Her husband agrees: "Angie is the real thing. She doesn't have to work. She could have a driver, and somebody to clean the house. But she'll never give it up. She's stubborn that way."

Menino invites me to ride with her to Danvers to the monthly board meeting of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. It's a rare period of downtime for her to be able to talk uninterrupted. In her old bronze Taurus with three car seats in the back for the Menino grandchildren, she navigates north of Boston idiosyncratically, avoiding the Tobin Bridge, which terrifies her. "Never in my 61 years have I driven over that bridge," she says. "And I never will." She talks about her family and the issues that matter most to her: her disappointment with the Catholic Church for doing little to support women, her sadness that women in Boston's Asian communities are afraid to report domestic abuse, and her compassion for mothers who live in terrorist regions. "Can you imagine," she says, "sending your kids to the corner store and not knowing if they are going to come home?"

She is a little nervous, fingering the ladybug pin on her suit. "When Tommy first became mayor, we had to stop at a community meeting. Tommy went up to speak. An elderly woman asked me to take her seat. Obviously, I wasn't going to take a seat from a woman older than myself. But when I said no, I could see that she was hurt. I realized that she was offering me a seat out of respect for me as the mayor's wife. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable, but I respect my role as the first lady, and I have learned to let people express their respect for my role."

Freelance writer Louisa Kasdon Sidell lives in Cambridge.

''Work gives me my own identity,'' says Angela Menino, who has an accounting job at John Hancock Financial Services. ''It's a little private piece of me.''
''Work gives me my own identity,'' says Angela Menino, who has an accounting job at John Hancock Financial Services. ''It's a little private piece of me.'' (Photo / Peter Urban)
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