Former Senate President Tom Birmingham dead at 73

Tom Birmingham

By Josh Resnek

Twenty-five years ago, when Everett was a far different place than it is today, I wrote a cover story in the Improper Bostonian Magazine about Senate President Tom Birmingham.

He represented much of Everett during the 1990’s. He was no stranger here.

His appearance at the then heralded St. Patrick’s Day roasts at the Bon Saisson are the stuff of legend – and today – the stuff only of anecdotes of those who can remember that time now so long ago.

Birmingham died last week following a long illness.

He was 73, and arguably, about the only intellectual to hold the office of Senate President in its long history.

Here’s how the piece began:

Lilly Navarro hugs her young son tightly in her arms in the time-warn living room of her top floor apartment in a dilapidated wooden three decker at 125 Essex Street in Chelsea. It is a hot summer day in July. The temperature inside is about 80 degrees.

Holding her boy, Lilly looks out the living room window toward the back of the house, where she can see Boston Harbor and the skyline rising in the distance.

Like most of the people on Essex Street, and many of the people who live in Chelsea, she speaks and understands almost no English, is illiterate in her native Spanish, and works at a menial job.

Her unemployed husband, who speaks some English, watches the television at the center of the cramped room. He sits stoically, alternately gazing into the screen, and then casting a glance at his wife and son.

“It is the least we can do,” Mr. Navarro says of the apartment, with a shrug of his broad shoulders. Whatever hopes and dreams Lilly Navarro and her husband have for their son, they are probably not so unlike those that Tom Birmingham held for himself when he was growing up.

Now 48, and president of the Massachusetts Senate, Birmingham spent the formative years of his life in Lilly Navarro’s apartment, with his parents ands brother and sister. He sat with his mother in the same living room, took his mother’s meals on a small table in the same kitchen. He knows what it was to look out the living room window at 125 Essex Street, and to dream.

It takes some explaining, but Mr. Navarro is told about Birmingham, who, he understands, is “El Presidente de Senate en Massachusetts.”

Mr. Navarro finds it hard to believe that such an important man could have grown up in an apartment like his, and what’s more, that he still lives in Chelsea.”

Birmingham’s death last week marks a major departure of a giant personality who once rose to the highest place in Massachusetts power politics.

Birmingham went to Austin Prep, then to Harvard, then got a Rhodes Scholar and finally graduated from Harvard Law School.

When he was done with his education, he might have deserted the place where he came of age. Instead, he never let it go. To the end he was a son of Chelsea, and damn proud of it.

During his time when he led the Senate, he never forgot where he came from. He liked to often say: “I’m more Chelsea than I am Harvard.”

That was the truth about him through and through.

He could speak Latin, quote from the classical greats of literature and he knew his history. Quite often he’d allow me to spend the afternoon with him in his grand office on Beacon Hill at the State House.

That was always fun, to be so close to the center of a great intellect and to the power structure.

His death at 73 is a great loss because there are no more Tom Birmingham’s climbing up the ladder of leadership in this state.

He was a one off, as the British might say of him.

He tended to stand for everything that was right, and to decry everything that was wrong. When he lost his first election to the Senate to the late Senator from Everett Fran Doris, he said this to me: “We live to fight another day.”

There was only one Tom Birmingham. We shall not see his likes again.

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