By William S Coleman III
The Worcester Senior Center, which sits atop Vernon Hill at Providence Street and was once the home of the St. Vincent Hospital School of Nursing, is 10 years old. And as amazing as it may seem, this municipal gem of a building, an institution for our city, was the clumination of a hard-fought battle. Many of our outstanding seniors who led the battle for the establishment of a Senior Center in Worcester are no longer with us, and for them and their efforts and the personal contributions they made to this city, their families and the businesses, schools and workplaces, I ask each one reading this article to honor them with a moment of silence … .
I first got involved in the fight for a senior center for Worcester in 1976, while I was working as an aide to former US Senator Edward W. Brooke, R-Massachusetts. Someone had written a letter asking if the Senator could help Worcester join other communities around Massachusetts that had built senor centers for their elderly. At this time the Director of the Council on Aging was Milton Bornstein. The Senator gave a letter to me to research and act on; I immediately began contacting the legislative leaders, including former State Senator Dan Foley, Representative Robert McNeal, Representative Tom White, Congressman Joe Early, City Councilor Tom Early, Joe Tinsley and City Manager McGrath and other political leaders prominent at that time.
Back in 1976, Worcester was an industrial power house. There were many manufacturing companies in Worcester working at full steam. Names like the Wyman-Gordon Co. and Norton Co., Crompton and Knolls Loom Works Co, US Steel, Coles Knife Co. , Mills Radiator Co., Morgan Construction Co., Johnson Steel and Wire Co., Meade Corporation, Rand- McNally, New England Telephone and Telegraph Co., Harrington Richardson Guns, Parker Metals, Come Play Products, Heald Co., Cincinnati Milicron, Oilzum Co., White and Bagley Co., Healey Co, David Clark Co., HH Brown Shoe, Thom McCann Shoe, Chess King, Distribution Center of America, Worcester envelop Co. and not to forget we were a city of many hospitals, Worcester City Hospital, Doctor’s Hospital, St. Vincent’s Hospital, Hahneman Hospital and Worcester Memorial Hospital and Worcester State Hospital. We had them all.
And for those who could not get jobs at Worcester’s manufacturing base, we must give credit to the stay at home Moms who supported their families by managing the households of Worcester’s triple deckers. There also was a powerful workforce often unseen cleaning the homes of the upper middle-class and the very wealthy, these were the maids and the butlers and the children’s caretakers from the domestic workforce of the African American and European immigrant residents of our city. Let’s not the many schools public, private and parochial who tended to the educational needs of Worcester’s student population. Employment was abundant in the city of Worcester. It was often said that you could not walk down the street without being offered and least 2 positions of employment.
And although we were a city of close to 200,000 people, we were a city approaching a change in direction. Many of the veterans of World War II and Korean War with Worcesters’ massive workforce had settled into jobs and were on the verge of approaching retirement age. Our now re-established Union Station had closed its doors in 1974. The Ford Motor Co., who had made several attempts to move into the city and build a manufacturing plant, gave up trying to build in Worcester. It was time to look at the needs of our growing senior population. The state mandated the establishment of Councils on Aging, advocacy groups funded by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to address the needs of our growing senior populations. The Worcester Commission for Elderly Affairs grew out of this state mandate. The Commission on Elder Affairs was from it’s onset was a advocacy group as well as a policy group of citizens, taking the concerns of Worcester’s senior population and bringing it to the direct attention of our City Council, our City Manager and his administration. The three city managers directly responsible for the development of the Senior Center were Francis McGrath, William Jeff Mulford and Thomas R. Hoover. It was through their administrations that the Worcester Senior Center came into being.
But in no way was it a welcoming or easy process.
The City Administration had appointed an Executive Director and supportive office staff to run the operations of the Executive Office of Elder Affairs. The staff under it’s Director Elizabeth Mullaney held many public hearings, all around the city reaching out to every ethnic group and elder regardless of financial status to ask what is important to you and how can we as a city improve your quality of life. At that time the city of Worcester had 38,000 senior citizens, a number in ratio to the general population greater than the ratio of seniors to their general population in the city of St. Petersburg, Florida, a “retirement community.”
The Council on Aging in the late ’80s first opened a Senior Walk-In Center in what we remember as the Worcester Center Galleria later to be called the Worcester Common Fashion Outlet. The concept of a Senior Walk-In Center was new to Worcester, but the concept was growing in communities around the state. The Walk-In Center had its’ highs and lows but really started stimulating the need for a place seniors could call their own. Each year more and more seniors were getting involved in government, serving on boards and commissions and bringing forth those important issues that were affecting our growing senior communities. These issues included safe housing for the elderly, proper nutrition and healthcare, education programs to help stimulate the seniors to continue to learn and get their high school diplomas, take college classes for free at Worcester State College and encourage many to graduate from college. This was also a time when many senior professionals were encouraged to volunteer their worldwide knowledge in programs offered at the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, the Worcester Public Schools and area churches, synagogues and neighborhood associations.
The momentum was ever growing and the support from community organizations all over Worcester felt the need to join the call from the growing senior population to build a center for seniors to gather and get the support services they need. There were many locations that were suggested for a senior center. One of the first locations was the Kresge Building across from City Hall next to the Denhom Building. It was suggested that bringing the Senior Center to downtown Worcester would contribute to the city administration’s plan for continued downtown development.
This plan was shot down.
Next we had the former Worcester Boys and Girls Club at Lincoln Square. This suggestion had a great deal of support but was shot down because there was a problem with the Worcester Vocational High School wanting to use the facility to expand its’ classroom space and educational programs. Then there were many suggestions about putting the Senior Center at various locations around the city of Worcester. And there was one little problem, the city administration was offering no money for purchase of a building. The Commission on Elder Affairs was instructed to find some way to raise its’ own money to buy a building, renovate it and present the idea to the city. I must admit I witnessed this as an appointed member of the Commission on Elder Affairs during my 10 years of service to that board and as a member of the Senior Center Committee. I was first appointed by City Manager Jeff Mulford and later re-appointed to the commission by Thomas R. Hoover.
Other locations that were presented to commission on Elder Affairs through the city’s Office of Economic Development was the Berwick Building at the corner of Madison and Main streets. This idea was not recommended because of the lack of parking and easy physical access to the building and the suggested cost to renovate the building and make it un-workable. Finally, after much deliberation and visits to senior centers around New England, an offer was made to the city administration by the Diocese of Worcester and St. Vincent Hospital. The offer: to convert the former the St. Vincent’s School of Nursing for exclusive use as a Senior Center for the citizens of Worcester. We, as members of Commission on Elder Affairs, received this news from our Chairman Tom Cullinane, an executive with St. Vincent’s Hospital.
With this joyous news we really felt that Worcester was finally going to get a Senior Center after more than 20 years. All the support organizations rallied behind this generous contribution from St. Vincent’s Hospital and with help of the Mass Senior Action Council senior citizens like Betty Ormond and Terry Putnam we were well on our way. Betty Ormond and Terry Putnam are true heroes in Worcester’s fight for a Senior Center. I hope we name a place at the Worcester Senior Center after these courageous women who were role models to us all. It took a lot of people and a lot of organizations working together hand in hand to convince our city administration to listen to the will of the people and support the development of the Worcester Senior Center. Dr. Lee Bartlett a retired physician and member of the Greendale Men’s Glee Club was a diplomatic ambassador for the Commission on Elder Affairs in its’ efforts to build a Senior Center. This building would not have come to be without Dr. Lee Bartlett’s efforts.
The following folks were just a few of the many whose support helped build the Worcester Senior Center:
Thomas Cullinane, Chairman of the Commission on Elder Affairs
Senior Center Project Coordinator, Sona Hargrove
Mass Senior Action Council members
Director of Council on Aging, Cathy Levine
Executive Director of the Office on Elder Affairs, Elizabeth Mullaney
Current Director of the Office of Elder Affairs, Amy Vogel-Waters
Sue Corbett community activist and Senior Center advocate
Office Secretary for the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, Janet Bresnahan
Lou Swan, Head of Elder Affairs
Tom Eddy, Director the Council on Aging
Lorraine Remby, Director of Office of Elder affair
Betty Sheehan volunteer
Mass Senior Action Council, members
Eleanor and Bill Hawley, outstanding community leaders
Earlena Yelverton, President NAACP
Congressman Peter Blute
Edith Morgan, outstanding community activist
Bob Maher, a most valued and respected the Worcester Business Community
All the Friends of Worcester Senior Center Inc. who till today still contribute money to funding programs at the Worcester Senior Center.
Richard Pinto a community volunteer and strong advocate of the Worcester Senior Center
David Stevens, Director Mass council on Aging
Lois Green, Director of the Worcester Community Action Council
Bob Dwyer Area Council on Aging
Cy Topol, Jewish war veteran of WWII and political advocate for the Worcester Senior Center
Robin Miller, outstanding volunteer and media advocate for the Worcester Senior Center
Senior Advocate newspaper
Steve Harvey, Massachusetts Commission on Elder Affairs recently mentioned on a visit to the Worcester Senior Center that our Senior Center is a role model for not only cities in Massachusetts , but also a model center for the nation.
The Worcester Senior Center officially opened up its doors on June 25, 2000, with a grand celebration of 500 people in a standing-room only crowd, which featured dignitaries from all over Massachusetts including Gov. Paul Cellucci, Congressman Jim McGovern and legislators and state senators who came to Worcester to see what determined citizens could do when they work together.
Congratulations to all who built the Worcester Senior Center! And Happy 10th Anniversary.