Looking Back : Dr. John Silber

Dr. John Silber

Dr. John Silber had a long and enduring relationship with Chelsea and with Andrew P. Quigley, my mentor, friend and the publisher of the Chelsea Record.

Silber, the bigger than life educator and philosopher who was president of Boston University, died last week at the age of 86.

Both Silber and Mr. Quigley were instrumental in bringing Boston University here to take over administrative control of the Chelsea Public Schools when the public schools here had hit the skids.

Silber became a frequent visitor to the city. I worked for him as his driver whenever he came to Chelsea to appear at a School Committee hearing when the debate was ongoing about whether or not the Chelsea Public Schools should be signed over to the control of a university.

My job was to inform Silber about who the committee members were. Who the chairman was. What the lay of the land was like and what he could expect.

He demanded to be fully informed before going before the school committee.

After all, putting a university in charge of a public school system was a novel idea never before attempted. Many people had questions.

Not everyone here welcomed BU.

One of them was former School Board Chairman Anthony “ Chubby” Tiro.

He was not in favor of BU running the public schools and he wasn’t afraid to say so.

Before Dr. Silber’s first meeting with Tiro, when he was appearing before the school committee to be questioned, he asked me a variety of questions.

As we drove over the Tobin Bridge toward Chelsea we talked. Dr. Silber, wearing a beret and a scarf and a wool suit – looking very much like a seasoned academic – asked: “Who is the chairman?”

“Mr. Tiro,” I answered.

“How is that spelled?” he asked.

“T… i… r… o.”

What is his first name?”

“Anthony but he’s called Chubby.”

Silber grimaced. “Can you imagine being called Chubby?” he said.

“I don’t see anything wrong with being called Chubby,” I answered.

Silber grimaced again and looked at me. We laughed.

“You are going to learn to come to terms with Chelsea’s leaders. They are a different lot than you are familiar with over at BU or in Boston. Because you don’t live here the tendency will be for them to believe that you don’t belong here and that you should go home to your president’s mansion in Brookline,” I told Silber.

Again, he appeared pained. He mumbled a few things inaudibly. I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“Tell me about this Chubby Tiro,” he asked curtly.

I drove down the off-ramp at Fourth Street, turned right, cut over Broadway, turned left onto Park Street and came a stop at a redlight in Bellingham Square.

A crush of humanity went to and fro in the square – a mish mush of different people, some down and out, others running to the bus or seated on the benches in front of the old post office – people young and old, rich and poor, happy and sad.

Silber watched. He said nothing.

When we arrived at city hall and parked the car, I answered his question.

“Chubby Tiro is as contentious as they come. A lot of the locals love him. He makes big sweeping gestures to the little people by talking their language and by giving many of them what he feels they want. He will make every effort to ridicule you,” I told Silber.

“We’ll see about that, won’t we,” he said.

We walked into city hall, up the stairs into the Aldermanic Chamber.

This was a big moment for the city, for Silber and for Tiro – it turned out to be a bigger introduction than anyone there might ever have imagined.

Tiro read bombastically from the schedule. Dr. Silber rose to speak. He took several questions from the chairman right off the bat.

“How do we know you people from Boston University have the ability to run a school system like ours?” Tiro asked. His voice was more like a scream than anything else. How are we supposed to trust you and the university to run our schools?” he asked.

“Mr. Tiro (he pronounced the name as though it was pronounced Ty-row), have you ever had an operation at a hospital?” Silber asked.

Tiro answered affirmatively.

“Would you question your surgeon the way you are questioning me about my abilities?”

“BU’s smallest college is larger than the Chelsea School System, Mr. Tiro. We have trained professionals, award winning educators, and administrators and we have resources this city cannot match.

“When you go to build a building Mr. Tiro (pronounced Ty-row) you use an architect and engineers, and you must trust them as professionals, don’t you. When you go for surgery you use a surgeon. You don’t think for a moment the surgeon does not know what he or she is doing You trust them for the same reasons you must trust us. At BU we know what we’re doing. We’ve been doing it for more than a century. When we build a building we hire an architect. When I go for an operation I have a surgeon perform it. When a school system could use our help and expertise, we provide that. You would do better to question your own motives rather than to question that of the university and mine,” he said.

Some months later it came to pass that Boston University took over the reigns of the troubled Chelsea Public School System.

There were many in this city who found everything wrong with BU.

Those of us with children in the school system couldn’t understand this as BU brought hope and money and know how. BU built pride into the system.

Dr. Silber’s influence brought all that, and more.

Some people in the city were offended that Dr. Silber wanted students to all be able to write in the English language.

“How will children who can’t read or write in the English language ever fill out an application for employment?” her asked at noe of the public meetings.

Some residents living here were riled that Silber wanted to take away from them their native language.

In the end, everyone here was better off for BU and for Dr. Silber’s presence here.

He was a tough, tough man but a very bright guy – a philosopher but not a saint – some real who had a strong impact on the history of this city and on the history and survival of public school education in Chelsea.

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