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Melrose bid fond farewell to The Mayor, James Milano

Posted by Marcia Dick  November 9, 2011 10:05 AM

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Kathy Shiels Tully

Melrose firefighters stand at attention as the funeral procession makes its way down Main Street.

A year ago, Kathleen McGourthy, a Melrose mother of four, was driving to the Lincoln School for a Veterans Day ceremony.  Recognizing an older man in full military uniform jogging toward the school as former mayor Jim Milano, she pulled over and offered a ride.  

“He didn’t even know me, but he hopped right in,” she said.  Apparently, after attending a morning Veterans Day celebration at Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School, “The Mayor” as he was fondly known long after his near 20-year term ended, headed home for a quick lunch before the afternoon ceremony.  When a cab he called never showed up, the then 101-year-old, who had recently stopped driving, started out by foot, determined not to miss the next event.  

“He was jogging,” McGourthy said, “really jogging. I told him my name and offered him a ride back to his home on Grove Street. I’ll never forget how the kids were screaming and waving to him afterward, like he was a celebrity.  He was.  It still amazes me,” she added, “that he was still serving the community, basically, still working for us.  He was so giving.”

This Election Day, almost exactly one year later, on a warm fall day, Melrose politicians ­ past and present - stood together at St. Mary of the Annunciation Catholic Church, along with friends, family, and residents of the city, to bid a gentle farewell to James “Jim”  Milano, Melrose’s mayor from 1972-1991, who died peacefully last week after recently celebrating his 102d birthday.

"Here in Melrose we have The Mayor, and then we have the current mayor,"  Fr. John Sullivan said when reached prior to the funeral Mass. Mayors who followed, Patrick Guerriero, Dick Lyons, and Ronald Alley, all shared the sentiment, as did Rob Dolan, the current office-holder. All of them were mentored by Milano at some point, and considered him a friend.

Milano, a lifelong communicant at St. Mary’s, was a walking history book about Melrose and the parish which “was his heart,” according to Fr. Sullivan. “Jim apologized if he missed daily Mass for a vacation or if he was sick.  In fact, Jim was at daily Mass on Oct. 23.  

“He was the oldest person I knew,” Fr. Sullivan said.  “I joked with him, ‘Moses lived to 120. You only have 18 years to go.’”

In his eulogy, Mayor Dolan recounted Milano’s accomplishments, inside and outside of Melrose, over his long life. As a young boy, Milano shook the hand of a man who shook President Abraham Lincoln’s  hand. President Ronald Reagan  personally invited Milano to meet with him in the Rose Garden. Though a Republican, Milano was friends with the late former Speaker of the House,  Thomas “Tip” O’Neill,  a liberal Democrat.  His politics transcended party.

But it was the personal stories people shared over the course of these few days, with a tear in their eye or a smile on their face, that showed the man’s true character to his dying day.  Regardless of the person’s connection to The Mayor, consistent themes emerged:  Love of God, love of country, love of family and friends, and love of Melrose.  

Dolan’s eulogy included a story of Dolan’s own introduction to politics when, at age 5, he held signs, black with orange letters, along with his parents on a cold October night campaigning for Mayor Milano.  

Then Dolan told a more personal story, of when his father died last year at age 63,  and Jim Milano called his parents’ house.  “He told me, in his distinctive voice, ‘The hardest part of living so long is the guilt I sometimes feel for living so long, when others die so young.  I wish I could have given your father some of my years.’  

"He meant it,” Dolan added.

Milano’s love of country was steadfast, and serving his country the proudest part of his life, he had told Dolan.  Buried in his Army uniform, Milano proudly wore it over the years at ceremonies for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Mary Beth McAteer-Margolis, alderman at large, told of many a Memorial Day parade when Jim would wear full military dress, and sit at Wyoming Cemetery often in high heat.  “We’d be ready to pass out, but Jim would stand and deliver the Memorial Day address, a 40-minute speech, reminding you of your freedom.”

Exiting the funeral Mass into the warm sun, McAteer-Margolis sighed.  “It’s weird not to have Jim here, sitting front and center with the mayors.  He always came to the funerals. This is the first one he’s not at.”

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