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Elvira 'Pixie' Palladino, 74, fierce foe of imposed busing

During Boston's busing crisis in the 1970s, Elvira ``Pixie" Palladino would often open her mailbox to find an unexpected present, such as a dead fish or a Barbie doll with a noose around its neck, her name scrawled on its chest, her daughter said.

Mrs. Palladino, a two-term member of Boston's long embattled School Committee and one of the city's most strident opponents of desegregation, died Aug. 31 of diabetes at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital in Melrose. She was 74.

``She was one feisty woman," her daughter, Nancy O'Brien of Saugus. said yesterday. ``If she saw something wasn't right, she fought for it to be right. She was certainly a woman of strong convictions. . . . She was arrested so much, it would be nothing to hear, `Mom got arrested again.' "

A lifelong resident of East Boston and graduate of East Boston High School, Mrs. Palladino was a housewife when she began attending protests against the Vietnam War, her daughter said.

As the federal courts imposed busing in 1974, she rose to prominence with another vocal mother, Louise Day Hicks (who died in 2003), to help found the anti busing group ROAR which stands for Restore Our Alienated Rights .

Mrs Palladino, a short, tough-talking woman who often appeared in public in ROAR's blue and gold tam-o'-shanter, was first elected to the School Committee in 1975 as a foe of court-ordered busing. Two years later, she lost by fewer than 100 votes and wasn't elected to the School Committee again until 1979, when she served another two-year term.

In his Pulitzer-prize-winning book ``Common Ground," J. Anthony Lukas said Mrs. Palladino was called ``garbage mouth" and described her as a ``street-savvy daughter of an Italian shoemaker from East Boston, accused of punching Ted Kennedy in the stomach at a rally and cursing a Catholic monsignor" and muttering racial epithets.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy's office did not respond to requests for comment. Her daughter insisted that Mrs. Palladino did not punch the senator and wasn't a racist.

In January 1975, Mrs. Palladino and about 80 ROAR women stormed into a governor's commission on women. Decked out in a ``Stop Forced Busing" T-shirt, she called on the group to see busing as a women's issue.

``We are poor people locked into an economically miserable situation," she said, according to the Globe's archives. ``All we want is to be mothers to the children God gave us. We are not opposed to anyone's skin. We are opposed to forced busing of our children to schools other than in our neighborhood."

Interviewed by the Globe in 1994, she said she had no regrets about her positions.

``Busing was a total disaster," she said. ``It destroyed the school system. Kids lost their sense of loyalty to the schools and their communities. There's no Eastie pride now, no Southie pride. I think that's wrong. Everything we said 20 years ago has come to pass. A generation of kids was wasted on a sad and stupid experiment forced upon us."

She added: ``What bothered me most was being called a racist, which was not true. I still feel that school assignments had nothing to do with color, nothing to do with discrimination."

Supporters of the desegregation effort, however, say they have a hard time not remembering her as a racist.

``She stood for everything exactly opposite of what I stood for," said Jean M. McGuire , executive director of Metco Inc. She said Mrs. Palladino used to follow her when she spoke about the program outside Boston and heckle her with racist language.

``Racism is prejudice plus power," McGuire said. ``I think she reflected the beliefs of the day, of hundreds of thousands of people. She was probably a bit more outspoken about it."

Paul Parks, president of the city's first appointed School Committee and former secretary of education under Governor Michael Dukakis, said he was ``really amazed at the positions she took."

``I would say she had some interest in making things better for children, even though she only supported a select group of kids," Parks said. ``We had an intense disagreement on constitutional issues."

Former mayor Raymond L. Flynn described Mrs. Palladino as ``fiercely loyal to what she believed in."

He said he noticed how determined she was when the two began working together to thwart the expansion of Logan International Airport, before busing.

Some of her language and tactics ``went over the line," Flynn said.

``I think the label racist was really unfair to people against busing," he said. ``I would call her an advocate for parental rights, and there's a big difference. . . . But a lot of people couldn't identify with her because of some of the rhetoric. You can be against busing, but you can't be against blacks. I think she let the language hang out there."

Sal LaMattina , the newly elected City Councilor from East Boston, said he got involved in politics because of Mrs. Palladino.

``She was a remarkable woman, a real fighter," he said. ``When I look back at Pixie, I look at her as someone who believed in a cause. I don't think she was a racist. I think people just misunderstood her. She really cared for kids. She worked hard, and she fought the good fight."

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Palladino leaves a son, Robert of East Boston; and three grandchildren. She and her husband, Nunzio , divorced several years ago, her daughter said.

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