The Chelsea community is mourning the loss of one of its most accomplished and distinguished residents, former Massachusetts State Senate President Tom Birmingham, who died on Jan. 20, 2023, at the age of 73.
Mr. Birmingham was elected as a state senator for Chelsea and adjacent communities Everett and Revere in 1990. He was elected president of the esteemed 40-member body by his senatorial colleagues in 1996.
During his time in the Senate, Tom Birmingham led the way for the passage of the Education Reform Act, which transformed the education of students in Massachusetts in a positive manner that was applauded by school administrators, teachers, students, and families. With Richard Voke as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Chelsea had a prodigious duo representing the city’s interests, and it ultimately led to the construction of new schools throughout the city.
The son of John and Agnes Birmingham, Tom grew up on Essex Street. He attended the Shurtleff School and often spoke of the strong foundation that his education in Chelsea had provided, specifically noting the positive influence that his junior high English teacher, Arnold Goodman, had on his life. He continued his education at Austin Preparatory High School and Phillips Exeter Academy where he was recognized for his athletic skills and academic excellence.
His post-secondary school credentials were extraordinary. He graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School and became a Rhodes Scholar, an international award that allowed Tom to study alongside the most outstanding students in the world.
Tom met his future wife, Selma Botman, at Quigley Park in Chelsea and they were in Selma’s words, “childhood sweethearts.” Tom graduated Shurtleff one year ahead of Selma, but they remained close through their high school and collegiate years.
Following their marriage, the Birminghams lived in a home on Nichols Street where they raised their two daughters, Erica and Megan.
A brilliant woman in her own right who graduated from Chelsea High, Selma holds an undergraduate degree from Brandeis University, a graduate degree from Oxford, and master’s and doctorate degrees from Harvard. She is currently the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Yeshiva University in New York City. As parents, Tom and Selma Birmingham instilled in their daughters the importance of education and the daughters took that inspiration and attended the nation’s finest universities as well. Erica Birmingham is a graduate of Harvard and holds an MBA from New York University. Megan Birmingham Wolf is a graduate of Bates College and holds a master’s degree from New York University.
Tom’s sister, former school principal Nancy Birmingham, and brother, the late Jimmy Birmingham, a former Chelsea Fire captain, were also widely known and well-admired in the city, taking pride in their brother’s career in the field of public service and law.
Dr. Selma Birmingham spoke of her beloved husband’s many contributions to the advancement of people’s lives for the better.
“Tom was a one-of-a-kind,” said Selma Birmingham. “He cared about community, about people, people of all kinds. He cared about the union labor movement. Most of all, he cared about quality education for all children throughout Massachusetts. He took positions that were sometimes unpopular, like his support for charter schools, because he believed that we had choice in sending our children to school. And he wanted all parents to have choice for their children. Mostly, he wanted opportunity for children because of the opportunities he had.”
Selma also noted how “before it was accepted in American society, Tom supported people of all diversities and persuasions. He was a supporter of LGBTQ rights, civil marriages, marriage equality – to the detriment of sometimes his political ambitions. Most of all he cared about people, and he touched many lives.”
Selma said she and her husband learned valuable lessons in their formative years in Chelsea.
“Chelsea taught us to respect people and to dedicate our lives to helping people,” said Selma. “I’ve dedicated myself to higher education and Tom was a K-12 education person. Chelsea made us who we are.”
A Loving Father and an Inspiration
Erica Birmingham, 40, who now lives in New York City where she works as a manager for Amazon, remembered how her father would be in attendance at her games throughout her athletic career at the Brooks School in North Andover.
“I played field hockey and ice hockey, some softball and a bit of rowing, and my dad would drive all over the state and out-of-state, to attend my sports games,” recalled Erica. “He also did the same for my sister (Megan, 37, now a registered dietician and mother of two children who also lives in New York City). He was always super supportive and that time, I thought, ‘That’s cool, he came to my game.’ Now being a working adult myself, I wonder how he was available at 3 p.m. to show up at a hockey game.”
Erica also recalled a story about her father proudly attending her Harvard commencement ceremonies 34 years after he graduated from Harvard.
“It’s an interesting fact that when my dad graduated from Harvard, women couldn’t go to Harvard, they went to Radcliffe at the time,” related Erica. “He graduated wearing this yellow armband, which was my dad’s way of being in solidarity and saying that women should be able to attend Harvard. Thirty-four years later [in 2006] I got to graduate from Harvard.”
Erica said her parents truly inspired her and Megan on the path toward academic achievement.
“My sister and I had a lot of good support, from dinner table conversations to all the books being in the house,” said Erica. “And my father often drove us to school on the way to work.”
Erica Birmingham remembers her father’s reign as president of the Senate president.
“I would visit him at the State House all the time,” said Erica. “He had a great ornate office, but he preferred to do his work in the side office, which was much more characteristic of him, with a lot of papers, notes, and books for reference.
“He had the ability to build really great teams. I was always inspired by the camaraderie and the different perspectives, viewpoints, and talents that his staff brought to the table.”
Erica said she was proud of the political stances he took on various causes.
“One of the big debates at that time was the Defense of Marriage Act, and he was lobbied strongly to allow it to go to a vote, and he repeatedly blocked the vote on that legislation. He helped lay some of the groundwork for Massachusetts eventually getting civil unions. He was maybe an unlikely champion for civil unions, but he saw it as just an equity issue and there was no reason to block a specific group from having the same rights as another. He took a big political hit for that,” recalled Erica.
‘A Neighbor and a Friend’
Chelsea youth sports legend Tony Tiro Jr. knew Tom Birmingham as a neighbor and friend. The Tiro family originally lived on Essex Street and when the Tiros moved to a home on Franklin Street, they were neighbors again to the Birmingham family who lived on nearby Nichols Street.
Tony’s uncle, Dennis Tiro, attended Shurtleff School with Tom Birmingham. Tony Tiro and his parents, former Chelsea Committee member Anthony “Chubby” Tiro and Anna Tiro, were among the guests invited to Tom Birmingham’s swearing-in ceremony as president of the Senate.
“We were very honored to be at the State House for his inauguration,” recalled Tony Jr.
Tony said Birmingham’s intellect was striking. “He’s the smartest person I’ve ever met in my entire life,” said Tony. “He had a photographic memory. I work in real estate, and I would call him and ask him about something in Chelsea, Revere, or Everett, and Tom knew the history of the property like the back of his hand. It was almost like he knew I was going to call him, and he had studied it. He was just so brilliant.”
“She was the salt of the earth,” said Tony.
When Tom Birmingham announced in 2002 his candidacy for governor inside the Shurtleff School gymnasium, Tony Tiro, his father Chubby, and other notables such as Robert “Duke” Bradley, Attorney Richard Clayman, and Councilor-at-Large Leo Robinson were at the campaign kick-off in a strong show of loal support for the native son’s candidacy.
Tony said he also had the opportunity to be in Agnes Birmingham’s company on many occasions.
“She was the salt of the earth,” said Tony.
Leo Robinson said he first met Tom when Tom was playing baseball with his brother, Ron Robinson, in the local park leagues.
“Tom and I shared a lot of good things growing up together in Chelsea, recalled Leo. “He was a great guy, so smart, helpful and gracious.”
Former City Manager Jay Ash was chief of staff in Rep. Richard Voke’s office when Tom Birmingham was a state senator and president of the Senate.
“Tom had a remarkable career advocating for those in need of a champion,” said Ash. “His efforts to promote workers’ rights and his leadership on educational attainment, two of many examples, were impactful. He made all of Chelsea proud.”
State Sen. Sal DiDomenico, whose mother, Maria Apruzzese DiDomenico lived on Essex Street and attended Shurtleff School, said, “Tom was a brilliant senator and someone that I looked up to as well. He was someone that I relied on for advice. He always said to me, ‘Be yourself, and people will respond to that.’ It was an honor for me to follow in his footsteps and to serve in the senate seat. I had high standards and big shoes to fill.”