Remembering Elizabeth McBride

By Doug Sears

The towering, redoubtable Elizabeth McBride, devoted servant of Chelsea, has left us at the astonishing age of 100.  

Liz was already in her 70’s when I met her at the dawn of the Boston University-Chelsea Partnership, perhaps in 1991, when as a new member of the late John Silber’s staff, I was being drawn into our work in Chelsea.  She was sometimes described, in the early days of what became a twenty-year collaboration, as an opponent of the Partnership.  This was never the case.  She voted against our initial agreement on procedural grounds, believing that members of the school committee hadn’t been given sufficient time to study the relevant materials and have questions answered.  As I learned over nearly twenty years, Liz took her school committee responsibilities seriously and expected her questions to be answered.  She embodied the lyrics of the old spiritual, “I shall not be moved” (referring to Jeremiah 17:8).  John Silber, in his own way as splendid as Liz, but irascible and impulsive, implied publicly—at least elliptically—that her initial objection was rooted in self-interest.  Since Liz was universally and rightly recognized as utterly incorruptible, the predictable firestorm ensued.  Much effort went into persuading John to apologize, which he did.  Liz accepted his apology and moved on, ever focused on what was best for the children of Chelsea.  When the school building project went from talk to reality, no one was quicker than Liz to acknowledge John Silber’s agency and express gratitude.  There’s a wonderful photo from the groundbreaking celebration of Liz planting an enormous kiss on a sheepish university president.  When the Partnership came up for renewal during my superintendency, Liz was a leading proponent and stalwart defender of our work and commitment—to the distress of some who had her pigeonholed in the category of BU critic.  

There are many stories I could tell about Liz.  Here are the two that remain the most vivid for me.

In the midst of a controversy (I really can’t remember the particulars), I wrote an explanatory letter to my colleagues on the School Committee.  In my exasperation at what was going on, I wrote a valedictory sentence that could be read as high-minded or sarcastic.  Only one person remarked on the double meaning.  Liz, fond of me, but wise about human nature, had read my heart.  She materialized the next day in my doorway, leaning on her cane, smiling . . . she observed that the sentence was a bit on the snide side and allowed, “that doesn’t seem like the Douglas I know . . . “ using my full name just as my mother would have, and framing the well-earned rebuke with an appeal to my better nature.  Even as I write this perhaps twenty-five years later, I can remember how I felt as I blushed with embarrassment.  In all the time I worked on the Chelsea Project, I knew Liz wanted me to stay on high ground.  Which is where she stayed.

In the later 1990’s a high carbon monoxide reading caused the evacuation of our elementary school complex.  We had to temporarily re-locate and then send home some 2,000 elementary school children.  There are many funny stories from that day, which, happily, concluded, with every child accounted for.  Over the course of the day, order was produced from what could have been chaos.  And some good lessons were learned.  Many elected officials materialized on scene, leading to the potential for multiple lines of communication and ambiguity about authority.   Liz showed early on and positioned herself literally behind me—as I recall it, a couple of feet behind my left shoulder.  She eavesdropped on every conversation (she was easily within earshot) and never weighed in.  Not once.  What she did was nab any snack—whether a donut, juice box, one of those small inside-out pizzas—she could get her hands on.  Whenever there was a lull, she would thrust the latest snack into my left hand, and order me to eat or drink it.  It was already pretty well-known in Chelsea that I was chronically hungry.  That day, Liz made it her business to be the fueler on the pit crew.  She would turn me around just enough to make eye contact so that there was no ambiguity about her instructions—or debate about when they might be followed.  

I count it as a great blessing that I had the benefit of her wisdom, her affection, and, as needed, criticism.  I imagine that her own children can describe the penetrating look that she gave me when she really needed me to pay attention and I feel privileged to have been included in the circle of those who were the object of that look.  

Those for whom religious faith seems to come more easily remind us that we need not look high and far for proofs of the transcendent or divine.  In the living of her days, Liz McBride was an immediate and tangible example of virtue, devotion, and wisdom far beyond what can be taught within the confines of a classroom.  I cherish the days we walked the same paths.  I am grateful for her service and her life.  And on this day, I am reminded to hew more closely to what I learned from her.

Doug Sears is a former Chelsea Public Schools Superintendent.

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