Friends carry on hero's social legacy

Man who changed city now a fading memory

Longtime activists and Somerville residents Dom and Marie Siraco say the city is better because of Paul Duhamel. Longtime activists and Somerville residents Dom and Marie Siraco say the city is better because of Paul Duhamel. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)
By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / March 22, 2009
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Community organizer Paul Duhamel died in 1996. Now his friends work to keep the memory of his accomplishments - and a formative time in the city - alive.

Dom and Marie Siraco, sitting in side-by-side plush armchairs, recalled Duhamel's role in turning "Slummerville" into Somerville and shared stories that are slipping into the shadows.

Duhamel was a Congregational missionary who made the city his congregation. "He put people together," said Dom, 75.

No one realized the breadth of his work until after he'd died, said Marie, 73. "We were just shocked at how many people he had organized."

In the late 1970s, Duhamel helped found several key social services organizations, including the domestic abuse group RESPOND, the Multi-Service Center, and the housing-focused Somerville Community Corporation. He also served on the School Committee.

Named in his memory, the Duhamel Education Initiative aims to keep students from dropping out of school through mini-grants for teachers and an after-school program at the Healey school. The group will hold a pancake breakfast fund-raiser March 28.

The Siracos had a true city romance: They grew up in East Boston on different floors of one triple-decker. Eight children, nine grandchildren, and almost 56 years later, "she's starting to get sick of me," said Dom, who still runs the family sharpening business with two of their sons.

You'd never know it from the carpeted stairs, flowered curtains, and shamrock on the door, but the single-family house on Albion Street "wasn't livable" when they bought it in 1966, Dom said.

At the time, "This was kidville on Albion Street," Marie said. "Drove me crazy!" Once she temporarily banned sugar from her house, only to find a small child being hoisted up by a rope to her second story bearing sweets. One of their children turned the Siracos into activists. "I had a son that needed help, and I went everywhere trying to find help for him," Marie said. "Anything for our kids. And now we're doing fund-raising for Duhamel for other people's kids."

She also went on to advocate for alcoholism treatment, homeless shelters, and issues of domestic violence. RESPOND now gives an award in her honor.

Those activities soon put her in Duhamel's orbit. He invited her to his office on Highland Avenue to advise on whether he should start a homelessness program. She said yes. "He shook my hand and he said, 'We'll be friends for life,' " Marie said.

They were. When RESPOND struggled in 1975, Duhamel got the organization a break on its rent. "He had faith when no one else did, and he saved a lot of women's lives," Marie said.

Duhamel's support went beyond practical matters. He saw what no one else did, Marie said. When her friend Sue was in the hospital with terminal cancer at age 44, she recalls, he brought in a big teddy bear. Afterward, he explained to Marie, "She had nobody to hug her when she was dying."

With all Duhamel's activities, it would seem challenging to pick only one to carry forward. But when his friends met, "the theme of education kept surfacing," Marie said.

Along with the annual breakfast (Dom makes the pancakes), the organization raises money with a walk and a ham-and-bean supper, the latter paying tribute to a fund-raiser where Duhamel infamously served undercooked beans.

School spokeswoman Gretchen Kinder said the fund-raiser meals were "like old-time Americana. It's fantastic."

The grants, awarded every year or every other depending on funds, top out at $1,000. Projects have included creating mosaics at the Kennedy School and a large mural at the East Somerville Community School.

This time around, the Siracos were concerned with raising interest, not just funds. "It's getting to the point where people don't know who Paul Duhamel is," Dom said.

The initiative needs new blood if it's going to continue, Marie said. She hopes younger people will consider carrying on Duhamel's spirit.

June Pietrantoni, the initiative's board president, was especially interested in reaching out to immigrants - "the people who we would really love to help the most."

"The more educated the community is, the more they're keeping their arm out of your bedroom window," Marie said. "And the kids can't do it themselves."

The breakfast takes place Saturday at the First Congregational Church in Somerville from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Suggested donation is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $3 for children 10 and under, with a maximum of $20 per family.

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