By Rosalie Tirella
Former Worcester District 4 City Councilor Barbara Haller died a few days ago. I drove by Haller’s Main South office space yesterday and saw her sign on her building at the corner of Main and Castle streets, the sign that’s been at the top of the edifice for all to see for years … big, bold and direct: BARBARA HALLER CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT 4.
Someone once said to me, miffed: She lost the election! That sign is still up!
The person was hinting that the old guard – Barb – just couldn’t let go, couldn’t face the fact that the new guard, a Latina representing the now pretty much Hispanic district, District 4, was the future. That the white working class that had voted Haller in a decade ago, the same folks who voted in the late great D 4 city councilor Jan Nadeau, Haller’s political mentor, were dying off, not really defining the Main South, South Worcester and Green Island neighborhoods anymore. The heart and soul of District 4. When Nadeau died, her supporters and political network became Haller’s. Haller, even though brilliant, artsy, educated – really phenomenal in so many ways – reflected their old school values back on to them, thru her presence on the Worcester City Council. She represented her district well for that time: She, like everyone else, declared NO prostitution in our neighborhood! NO drugs! NO PIP wet shelter! NO homeless people! NO crappy three deckers with their crappy slumlords! WE MUST TAKE BACK OUR MAIN SOUTH! WE MUST TURN THIS NEIGHBORHOOD AROUND SO WE CAN ENJOY OUR BACKYARDS, PARKS AND SIDEWALKS ONCE AGAIN!
During her council tenure, Barbara Haller did all that – and more. Not only – as D 4 councilor for more than 10 years – did Barb Haller “clean up” her Main South neighborhood and surrounding ‘hoods – she helped them flourish. Made them walkable. Made them greener. Made them artsier, healthier … It was Barb and life partner Frank Z and former mayor Joe O’Brien (a one time denizen of Main South living a few streets away from Barb and Frank on Castle Street) who cleaned up Castle Park and made it pretty, clean and safe – devoid of used heroin syringes, garbage strewn under trees … It was Barb who got former City Manager Mike O’Brien to revive the last municipal swimming pool in Worcester as he was shutting the rest down. Not only was the Crompton Park pool saved, it was redone with adorable amenities like spray slides and new benches, new shower area … everything! Crompton Park, in D 4, is a city gem – Barb helped make it sparkle.
Barb got the handball courts rebuilt… they’re off the old Maloney’s Field on Cambridge Street in South Worcester – not in Main South, Barb’s neighborhood. Still, she brought her passion to the project, and they went from being drab to beautiful and new. These inner-city handball courts instantly drew hundreds of Latino folks during all seasons to play, exercise and have fun. Families who bring babies in strollers and sometimes pack a lunch to enjoy a summer day at their park together!
Barbara would patrol her District 4, a densely populated, sometimes dangerous D 4. She quit her job at National Grid to devote all her working – some would say waking – hours to her beloved District 4. As a reporter and friend I drove around the district (also my childhood stamping grounds – I grew up in Green Island) with Barb. More than a few times. I was with her as she checked on all her neighborhoods, three decker by three decker, park to park, mini Mart to liquor store. In her big old rusty SUV, Barb braking and accelerating, stepping on the gas or brake pedal in her cute signature brown or beige sensible shoes, wearing her faded denim long skirt, white cotton shirt and topped off with a black cotton blazer, Barb was on a roll. Little notebook by her side, pen by notebook, she checked the three deckers with busted windows, broken doors, used works – needles and other crap that heroin addicts had left behind in HER district. Barb was fearless in these inner-city fact finding missions, where she’d check on drug houses or abandoned warehouses, climbing over fencing, pushing aside bushes and brambles. Once, on one of our little jaunts, always followed by a nice lunch at Peppercorns or the Webster House – always on Barb – she and I saw two groups of young guys, in their late teens and early 20s, squaring off in front of a liquor store in Piedmont, baseball bats in hand. Fearing violence, smashed heads galore, I said: Barb, Oh, no… there’s gonna be a fight. Let’s call the police!
Well, Barb, being Barb, doesn’t hear I word I say and stops her vehicle just two yards away, in front of the soon to happen brouhaha and opens the SUV door to get out …
I say: No, Barb! What if someone pulls a gun on you?
All were so young and strong, bicep muscles showing definition in the summer sun…Barb was a senior citizen, heavy and sometimes … waddled.
I’m 63, she tells me, quietly. I’ve lived a long life …
and she gets out of her vehicle cool as a cucumber, John Wayne in THE SEARCHERS. Barb walks up to the guys, talks with them and they disperse.
My late mom used to love to watch our city council meetings when Konnie Lukes and Barbara Haller were on the council. She admired Konnie’s toughness and in your face political style. She thought Barbara was always intelligent – and that she always looked so cute! “She’s wearing her outfit!” Ma would say, between sips of coffee and nibbles on her danish. “She has her pencil sticking out of her bun!”
Yep. That was the great Barbara Haller. Fine grey hair pulled back into a neat little bun with a yellow number 2 pencil protruding. I don’t think I ever saw Barb’s hair down once, even when I visited her in her home – always her neat bun, a few grey wisps of hair framing her round pleasant face. The pencils spelled brilliant mathematical genius engineer – and they were also there in case she needed to take notes on District 4.
I am making Haller sound a bit severe – and she could be. That was maybe part of her political downfall – seeing every Main South addict as a criminal, every homeless person on Charlton or Sycamore streets as the enemy, every PIP client someone to eject from her neighborhood forever. Her biggest political mistake? Saying, on the record, that some days, walking past the PIP, walking along Main Street, she felt she was “the only legitimate person” in her ‘hood. This comment brought on a slew of haters and political opponents. From then on Barb had one political opponent after another vying for her seat on the city council, election cycle after election cycle – in Worcester, that means every two years! So there was Lynn, a founder of the Worcester Youth Center, Grace the progressive but pokey WAFT saint, even Dave from Dismas House on nearby Richards Street got into the act and tried to register homeless people to get them to vote for the person running against Barbara that year. Barb called him on it through placing a call to a T and G columnist who wrote a scathing column on Dave, making him look sneaky…reprehensible. Dave quickly moved to Westboro with his wife and little child.
Which leads me to say: Barb was a politician. A very savvy one. A true operator. I say this with pride, as a woman. Barb was ALWAYS the smartest person in the room. She knew exactly what every character was up to – and she knew how to foil their plans, making those phone calls, button holing this person, taking that person to lunch. Male pols do this all the time. It’s high time we acknowledge female politicians for doing the same…for better and for worse.
Barb was a joyful person: after she and partners sold the Gilrein’s blues club on Main Street to new folks, she threw a party. I went to it and watched Barb dance up a storm! The music started, the boxy, buxom Barb lept up, and light on her feet, with grace and rhythm, boogied with Joe O’Brien’s wife and then maybe one of Joe’s (at the time) young kids and then … alone. Just for the joy of the dance.
Once I gave Barb a Dollar Tree Christmas mug for Christmas. It was the best I could do that year. We were in her SUV when I gave her snowman mug to her. She looked at it and started to cry. She said: Thank you! It’s just what I needed!
When I got home later that day I wondered, why the waterworks? A few years later I realized it was because she loved me …
I could go on and on about how terrific a human being Barbara Haller was and how lucky Worcesterites were to have her live with us, for us. … A few years back, right before they were going to tear down the beautiful Notre Dame church in downtown Worcester, I saw a small group of people putting on some kind of farewell concert to the church – right before its demise, in front of the ugly brown tarp and silver chain-link fence that had cut the church off from the community. But the community had come! A few high school and college kids were reading poetry before the church, another person was playing a violin to her … There was a small audience. And sitting in a folding chair, before the little group of young people, before the great church with its high arches sparkling in the sun, there sat Barbara Haller, witness to it all, waking a friend that would soon die, even though she tried to save her! Barb was swaying gently to the music, and though I only saw her from behind, I bet she was smiling … and crying a bit, too.
Just like I am today! Goodbye, old friend! Like Note Dame, you were a once in a lifetime gift to Worcester!