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Yvonne Abraham

The scoop on Jack and Tom

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / September 25, 2011

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Two men of a certain age stand at the counter at the Ice Creamsmith in Lower Mills, looking up at the menu with an awestruck reverence more commonly associated with apparitions of the Blessed Virgin.

“What are you gonna have?’’ asks Jack.

“I’ll have the maple-walnut,’’ says Tom.

Jack, who is buying, goes half chocolate, half butter-almond. They sit at a table in the wood-paneled Dorchester institution, flip their ties over their shoulders, and shovel ice cream with great gusto. The two gray-haired men seem like schoolboys who can barely believe their luck.

Actually, these guys feel lucky pretty much all the time. Jack is Jack Connors, the 69-year-old advertising magnate, Partners HealthCare chairman and Boston power-broker. Tom is Tom Shields, 80, who founded the Shields Health Care Group, an empire of MRI and radiation oncology centers.

The men first met in 1965, when Shields sold ad time, and Connors worked for BBDO, an ad agency.

“We struck up a good friendship,’’ Connors says. They saw each other on and off over the years, until three years ago, when Shields read about Connors’ plan to refurbish and reopen some shuttered Catholic schools.

“I called and said I’d be happy to give a million bucks,’’ Shields says.

“That was his first million,’’ Connors chuckles.

They’ve been close since. So far, they’ve reopened four schools in Boston and Brockton that educate 3,000 kids, only half of whom are Catholic. “We don’t do it because they’re Catholic,’’ Connors says. “We do it because we’re Catholic.’’

Neither of them are big drinkers, so they get together over ice cream - once a week in warmer months. If you’re a kid in search of a frosty treat, a wise move is to arrive at Ice Creamsmith in Lower Mills around the same time Connors’ black Lexus rolls up. They’re buying.

And if not there, then its Rancatore’s in Belmont. Or Farfar’s in Duxbury or Smitty’s in Barnstable Village, if they’re on the Cape. They have houses in Florida too, but tend, unless desperation strikes, to avoid ice cream there.

“In Florida, on the rare occasions, we’ll go to,’’ Connors looks left and right, to make sure no one hears, then hams a stage whisper: “Dairy Queen.’’

These are not vanilla men, except in an emergency. Chocolate is their passion (for Connors, that also means jimmies, top and bottom). They’re especially partial to the Callebaut milk chocolate at Rancatore’s, which is the second stop in their first-ever double-header on Monday afternoon.

They wax on about the importance of high butter fat content, and the merits of chains and frozen custard, which are few in their estimation.

“We don’t do frozen custard,’’ Connors says. “It’s a little bit like making love with your clothes on.’’

Between spoonfuls, the friends talk about the schools, their church, health care, their families, and politics, which is one of the few things on which they disagree. Connors is a Democrat. Shields, disenchanted with his old party, is now a Republican.

“Jack was holding a fund-raiser for Barack Obama, and he asked me to’’ contribute, Shields says. “You hate to say no, but Jesus, that’s a hard one. I said, ‘If you run short, I’ll do it.’ I knew it was a pretty safe offer on my part.’’

They finish each other’s sentences, share a dry sense of humor. They’re close enough now to know right away if one of them is having a bad day. And they trust each other.

“There’s nothing we can’t share,’’ Connors says. “We never have to worry about reading it in the newspaper. Well, until now.’’

They’re usually together for 90 minutes - long enough to give the old friends a high that outlasts the sugar.

“I never leave Tom that I don’t feel happy,’’ Connors says.

“You go whistling off, and do what you do,’’ Shields adds. “We put our hands on each others’ shoulders and say ‘I love ya.’ It’s unusual for men.’’

“It almost impugns one’s virility,’’ Shields jokes. “I know it does a number on mine.’’

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