Yvonne Abraham

A show of good faith

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / November 25, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

CHELSEA — There are grand, transforming acts of selflessness — the stuff of which Thanksgiving columns are often made. Then there are tales of people who change things more quietly, just by showing up.

Paul Corcoran shows up.

At 4 p.m. on a recent afternoon, the Jordan Boys & Girls Club was full of loud middle-schoolers. Amidst the happy chaos, Corcoran — stately, 78 — settled in at a table with a fifth-grader named David and prepared to help him study.

“Whaddya got?’’ Corcoran asked. The cherubic 11-year-old said he had reading comprehension work to do — and some good news. “I got my progress report,’’ David said. “I got one C and all A’s and B’s.’’

“You’re doing real good, David,’’ Corcoran said, and the fifth-grader beamed. “You come in here, and you do your work, and you don’t mess around.’’

Corcoran has sat here two or three afternoons a week for six years. He could be playing golf. He could be hanging out at the Harvard Club, of which he is a former president. He could be more like his friends, who “retire and sit on their duff.’’

His family owned Corcoran’s department store, a Cambridge institution for a century. Then he had The Harvard Shop, which did very well. He raised four kids, three of whom followed him to Harvard, all of whom have spectacular careers. They gave him 10 grandchildren.

And he had 47 years with Carol, for whom he fell the moment he saw her — white sweater, deep tan, black hair in a bun — on a blind date in 1957.

“I used to love to walk into places with her and watch all the guys look up like, ‘How did that ugly guy get so lucky?’ ’’

He never stopped feeling lucky, not even after Carol got sick with MS, then cancer. Not even after he woke in their Waltham apartment early one morning six years ago to find she had finally let go.

“I knew that my friends were going to get sick and tired of asking poor old Paul over,’’ he said. “I had to do something.’’

He figured he was pretty good with kids, so he should do that.

But the kids at the Chelsea club aren’t like his kids — they have messed up families and broken neighborhoods. What can an elderly white guy from Waltham do for kids like that?

Show up. And keep showing up.

“If you keep coming back, the kids will trust you,’’ Corcoran said.

For some of them, he is much more than a reliable fixture.

When Ilan Rodriguez was considering college, Corcoran helped him with his essay. When Rodriguez had nobody to move him into his dorm at Syracuse University, Corcoran loaded up his car. When his mother and sister had no way to see him get his social work degree, Corcoran got them to graduation.

“He has done things no ordinary person would do,’’ said Rodriguez, now 22 and looking for work, with Corcoran’s help.

He helped another student find the right college and come up with the tuition.

And he regularly tries to convince another kid over dinners at Chili’s that he’s better than the 9 months he did for gun possession.

Michelle Perez, Jordan Club director, has seen a lot of volunteers throw themselves into this place, only to fall away when other responsibilities intrude. Not Paul Corcoran.

“I wish I could clone him,’’ she said.

Instead, the organization nominated Corcoran for a Bank of America Local Hero award, which he’ll accept at a ceremony on Tuesday.

He’s a little embarrassed about this. He knows he gets more out of his trips to Chelsea than the kids do.

“The other day this kid asks me, ‘Paul, did you drive that car over here?’ I tell him sure. And he goes, ‘But we don’t let my grandmother drive, and you’re much older than she is.’ ’’

Corcoran was laughing.

“How could you ever walk away from that?’’

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at