I suppose I first became interested in politics when I noted one of my dad's best childhood friends, Kevin Coleman, was the mayor of Woonsocket and running for governor. He barely lost the Democratic primary to John Notte, but with the election of John F. Kennedy as president a few months later, well, I and my brothers got the bug.
Longtime Woonsocket residents know the story. Coleman, the same guy whose face we saw in the newspaper, was a hero in the city, and could be found having the occasional Narragansett beer in our home with my dad. What's not to love about that for a 7-year-old boy?
It was in that era of Coleman and Kennedy, and growing up rock solid Catholic at Sacred Heart Church, that the lines between good and evil were clearly drawn for us. And in what is certainly seen by many as a simple notion today, when I was 7, I learned to expect good and heroic things from the politicians I knew.
In the nearly half-century since, I've been disappointed by some, but not Mayor Francis L. Lanctot. "Franny" Lanctot passed away last week and was laid to rest Monday, but I'll never forget him. Remembered as "persistent" by his daughter at his funeral Monday, Lanctot lost races for the City Council four times before winning eight consecutive terms and finally moving into the mayor's office for six years. He had his share of tribulations, but none was bigger than the "Second Great Depression" brought onto his beloved city in 1991 as the state's credit unions, including Woonsocket's triumphant Marquette Credit Union, collapsed and were forced shut. In Marquette's wake, thousands of city residents and scores of businesses had their lives tied up for months, with no access to the money they had earned by the sweat of their brow. It was the lowest of low points. Eventually, the economic skies cleared, and in 1995 Lanctot knew it was time to retire. For me, however, he earned his stripes on a warm August night in 1993.
In the days long before there was a Valley Breeze, when I was little more than an ex-photographer at The Call, working as a low-level editor in Fall River, my wife Carol planned my surprise 40th birthday party at the Marchegiano Club. She knew getting me there would be tough, but my brother Vinnie, who worked with Lanctot at the time, asked the mayor if he'd take part in the ruse to get me there. So the "Mayor Lanctot fund-raiser" was born, and I arrived at my party clueless. He and I chatted briefly outside the hall until the big announcement. What I thought was his moment was instead mine, and to this day I still can't believe the city's mayor would take time away from his family to do a good deed that would not benefit him in the least, a kindness that would never be repaid. Until today.
Thank you, Francis, for the thoughtfulness you showed to Carol and I back in 1993. As politicians go, you set the bar very, very high, doing a favor that I had no ability to repay. You were one of a kind.
When Woonsocket's citizens read this on Thursday, they will be in the transitional days to a new mayor's administration. As I write this column Monday, I don't know who that person will be.
But I do know this. The new mayor would do well to mirror Mayor Francis Lanctot, and bring the sense of honor, decency and respect that he showed to all who sought his attention.
For the six years Francis Lanctot served as mayor, citizens never once had to worry, for even one second, that he might do something to enrich himself or his family or friends on public funds. Never. His integrity was beyond question. To men like Lanctot, "Thou Shalt Not Steal" was a Holy Commandment to live by, and he did. To Lanctot, there was no asterisk that made those words conditional, no nuance that made the theft of public money or pension funds less sinful.
I will naively cling to my notion that public officials must be free of even the slightest conflict of interest, especially in a state where the bar is set so low by judicial scoundrels who rule on such matters. Lanctot met the standard.
Aside from the credit union crisis, does anyone remember what the city's issues were 15 years ago? I doubt it. What is remembered of Mayor Lanctot is the optimism, the friendly kindnesses that marked his public years (and the camel joke, of course...Oy, Oy!).
We will also be forever grateful for his legacy project in retirement: Lanctot as the "true believer" that shook the slumbering city and showed it the possibilities of a gloriously reborn Stadium Theatre. Without Francis' unique vision, it would never have happened.
There are many hallmarks of a great mayor, and Lanctot had most. Woonsocket's newest mayor would do well to emulate them.
- Ward is founder and publisher of The Valley Breeze.
He grew up in Woonsocket. Find them online at ValleyBreeze.com.