By Blake Maddux
On May 26, 1988, the obituary of former Somerville mayor and longtime city clerk William “Bill” Donovan ran in the local newspaper.
The obituary described Donovan as having “dominated the city’s political arena for the better part of the 1950s.”
“Oh I don’t know about dominated, but it sounds good.” says Elaine Czesniuk, one of Donovan’s four daughters.
Mrs. Czesniuk was the third of six children born to William and Gertrude Donovan. She lives in the Philadelphia-style house on Bay State Avenue in which she was raised. Her sister Thelma, the oldest of the Donovan children, lives in the upstairs of the house. A full two decades separate the oldest from the youngest of the four girls and two boys of the Donovan family.
Elaine Donovan was seven years old in 1953, when her father was first elected mayor. He received the most votes in a field of eight candidates. Prior to becoming mayor, William Donovan served as Ward 6 Alderman. He held the office of mayor until 1959, completing three two-year terms.
“One thing he always stressed,” Czesniuk says of her father, “he was not a politician. He was ‘in politics.’”
Czesniuk recollects many of her father’s accomplishments as mayor, and reflects on what the city of Somerville was like in the late 1950s and how it has changed since then.
“Somerville, if nothing else, has been a city of tremendous transitions over the years, it really has,” she says.
Czesniuk remembers her father as describing Somerville as “cosmopolitan.”
She continues, saying, “But, he said, it was predominantly middle-class, blue-collar workers who lived here. And they lived here because the wanted the best for their kids. There were very few wealthy people. He always said [that] when he was a kid, he’d walk down to church to go to confession, and on his way home he’d get beaten up.”
Mrs. Czesniuk then describes the Somerville of her childhood in her own words.
“It was very neighborhood-oriented. People in West Somerville didn’t go to East Somerville. East Somerville had a supermarket and West Somerville had a supermarket. So you didn’t have to cross McGrath Highway. We both had a movie theater. It was just the different populations. It was mostly Irish and Italian. And there was all that nonsense of ‘Oh, I can’t play with you.’ There was a very small black population near Teele Square.”
She then adds, “You didn’t have to go too far to do anything. You could go to Davis Square and buy a suit, or shop, or do something other than eat and drink.”
Somerville’s population has decreased over the past several decades. According to Czesniuk, “It was over 100,000 when I was a kid. And now it’s down to what, 80,000? And yet it seems more crowded now than it did then.”
Czesniuk explains what she thinks accounts for the smaller population of Somerville: “A lot of my generation saw the dream of living in suburbia. Plus, they grew up in two and three-family homes. They wanted single homes. That was what the goal was at that point in time.”
Before the many transitions that Czesniuk experienced, however, there was the Somerville of the 1950s, the decade in which William Donovan served almost the entirety of in some sort of official capacity.
“When he was elected,” Czesniuk says, “they had a big inaugural ball. It wasn’t like now, you go to the Field House and you don’t even get a cup of coffee. This was full-dress regalia, and an orchestra, and dinner. It was like watching a movie. That’s the way they used to do it.”
Czesniuk recalls with great pride the improvements her father made in terms of infrastructure, caring for the elderly, and educating the young.
“He really put a lot of effort into developing the Department of Public Works, making it more professional, [and] giving them the equipment they need,”Czesniuk says. “They purchased the first rubbish trucks.”
Jogging her memory with notes from a television interview that William Donovan did long after leaving the mayor’s office, Czesniuk adds, “Somerville was the first city in the country to build an elderly housing building. One of the first cities to enact urban renewal plans. He built the incinerator on McGrath Highway.” She is able to quickly clarify that Somerville was the first city on the Atlantic seaboard to undergo urban renewal.
It was Mayor Donovan’s commitment to education, however, that provided for Czesniuk’s fondest memory of her father’s time in office.
“He built three [elementary] schools in the city. When they dedicated, I think it was the Conwell [Elementary] School, we got to go to the dedication on a fire engine,” she says, lowering her voice to a bit of a whisper on the last few words.
“That was the highlight of his being mayor, as far as I was concerned: Getting to ride on a fire engine.”
Although the schools were eventually built to alleviate overcrowding, two of them closed due to their having too few students. The one that is still open is the Arthur D. Healey Elementary School, located at 5 Meacham Street.
Mayor Donovan lost his bid for a fourth term as mayor in 1959. Harold Wells, a jeweler who had also run in 1957, used the rallying cry “No Fourth Term” and defeated Donovan by just over 1,000 votes.
Wells was a Democrat, as were the seven other candidates for mayor in 1953. This was because, according to Czesniuk, “There was only one [political party]. It had to be 60’s or 70’s before anyone admitted to being a Republican when running for office.”
Looking back on the election that her father lost, Czesniuk says, “I remember it being a very uncomfortable election, a very uncomfortable time, because people did divide. People were very vocal about who their preference was, and would talk a lot about it. Every house was plastered with either Wells or Donovan [signs]. It was in-your-face.”
Czesniuk also recalls that she and her siblings probably had mixed emotions about her father’s defeat. “I think that we were sad, and we were upset. ‘How could you do this to my father?’. But on the other hand, it was, ‘Oh good, we don’t have to go through that anymore.”
After the 1959 election, William Donovan became Somerville city clerk, a position that he held until shortly before his death on May 19, 1988, which was one of the Donovan son’s birthdays.
Between her father’s last bid for re-election and his death, the political landscape of Somerville had changed noticeably.
Around the time of the 1959 mayoral election, Czesniuk says, “You were getting more Aldermen who were lawyers and college-educated, and much stronger backgrounds and personalities, who, I’m sure, they thought could do better. My father was a high-school graduate, that’s all.”
Again referencing the notes from the aforementioned interview that Donovan did, Czesniuk mentions that her father had said, “In the 80’s, people became more choosey. They were looking for serious qualifications. They were looking for people who were not necessarily die-hard Somervillians who wanted to work for the betterment of their city. They were looking for professional politicians.”
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