A Moderator with Staying Power

When he was 22 years old, John D. Walsh Jr., a genial collector of insurance premiums, was elected town moderator in Pembroke. Since then, at every town meeting for the past 48 years, Mr. Walsh has served as moderator, host, and master of ceremonies. His tenure is unparalleled among members of the Massachusetts Moderators Association, for whom the average stay in office is 10 years. Only eight standing moderators have survived more than 30 years on the job, and only one–Mr. Walsh–has surpassed 40. Townspeople credit him with lightening many a potentially grueling evening with humor, expeditiousness, and good will. The voters have been disposed to overlook some mistakes–and Mr. Walsh admits to having made big ones–because of the way he does his job.

“I was kind of nervous,” Mr. Walsh recalls of his first session at the lectern. “I won my first election against an incumbent of long standing. He had reached a point where he’d become autocratic and hard with people, and a selectman asked me to run.”

Now 71, he is ruddy-cheeked and square-jawed, with a mane of wavy brown hair lightly etched with gray. On his right hand lodges a ring whose green rock is almost the size of a junebug. From his insurance and real estate office, Mr. Walsh can keep Pembroke’s town hall in his sights across the road.

Located 30 miles south of Boston, Pembroke is a patchwork of blushing cranberry bogs and sky-mirroring ponds, woodland fringes and modest neighborhoods. Today, its population exceeds 16,000. In 1950, when Mr. Walsh first won office, with 70 percent of the vote, the town counted 2,579 citizens.

“We did things differently in the early years,” he says. “They were simpler times; meetings didn’t take as long. We were done in one night.” Nowadays, town meeting generally consumes three evening sessions. “People were kinder and more tolerant if you did anything less than perfectly,” he adds. “People aren’t as patient today.”

Attendance at Pembroke town meeting is up numerically, but down in terms of percentage of the town. When Mr. Walsh first raised his gavel, the quorum was 75. This past December, it was 150. “Now,” he says, “it takes an issue of major significance to get people out. The world is full of one-issue people–schools, open space, and so on.” Still, he says, “The issues themselves have not changed appreciably. They continue to be zoning–lot sizes, control; school expenditures; school space. Behind it all is growth and concern about how to deal with it. The town has changed, the problems are the same.”

Pembroke passed its first override of Proposition 2 1/2–approving $3.5 million in new debt to build a library–in 1996. The following year, the town voted for a $7.5 million debt question to renovate the Hobomock Elementary School. Last Dec. 1, townspeople filed into the Silver Lake Regional Junior High School for a special town meeting to decide the fate of the third major project to make it through town election in three years–$26 million for the renovation of two additional elementary schools. The evening afforded an opportunity to watch Mr. Walsh in action.

The moderator sets a hospitable tone when he introduces the town’s officials seated below him at the foot of the stage in the school cafetorium–starting with the town counsel (“Everett, you know I’m glad to see you.”) and concluding with the planning board and public works staff, squeezed in at one table (“You seem to be getting along.”).

Throughout the night, anyone who addresses the crowd or asks a question will receive Mr. Walsh’s unqualified thanks, but the moderator makes clear his intent to steer toward a reasonable hour of adjournment. “Good,” he cheers after quick votes, pacing the stage. When a question is moved he puts it to people this way: “All those who figure we’ve talked about this enough, raise your hands; all those who figure if they talk this to death we’ll all be better informed…,” his voice trails off before taking the vote officially. Yet when a member of the advisory committee has trouble clarifying an article for a questioner, Mr. Walsh allows him several tries before stepping in cheerfully and offering a crisp sentence or two that sweep out the fog.

Small touches–such as loudly relaying the tellers’ head counts as they deliver them (“Mary Ann, 10; Sandra, 20; Stephanie, zippo”) and announcing the evening’s attendance at what must be the seventh-inning stretch–keep the crowd engaged during slow moments. Through the evening, the body of 431 citizens remains relaxed and amiable, a reflection of the man on the stage. Mr. Walsh is proud of the fact that Pembroke was one of the first towns to implement a lottery for the ordering of articles – leaving to chance the important matter of when each item of business is brought up–and he enjoys utilizing the prop (“Now I’ll quickly go back to the salad bowl.”).

In his casual manner, Mr. Walsh has a knack for gentle civic discourse. When a senior citizen complains about the “irresponsible message” that a run of costly overrides sends to children, Mr. Walsh absorbs the bitterness and dispatches the point to the town accountant: “You’re the keeper of the funds, Michael–let’s have it–do we have enough money to make this fly?” Recognizing speakers with a courteous, “What do you think about this?” the moderator also has a talent for getting people to frame their comments positively, or at least getting them to begin with the word “yes.” “Something makes me think you have a different opinion,” he smiles at one gentleman who approaches the microphone. “Try again, I suppose,” he consoles a disappointed group when an article goes down to defeat. “There’s a lot of sentiment for you,” he tells another, “Work with the selectmen and come up to bat again.” The override supporters need no such comfort: The school renovations are approved 378 to 26.

By his own count, Mr. Walsh has been opposed seven times in his 49 runs for office. (Roughly half of the 307 Massachusetts town moderators face election on an annual basis, with one-year terms predominating in the western part of the state and in smaller towns.) He even got beaten in 1972 but, by a fluke, saved his string of consecutive town meetings. That year, he served for two sessions of town meeting before losing an election over the weekend. His opponent moderated the third session. Mr. Walsh recalls the campaign centering on a piece of land he had sold that became a gravel pit for Logan Airport. “Some of the neighbors were pretty unhappy,” he explains.

“I was feeling bad,” he remembers, “but back I go to meeting. The fellow that beat me was a young guy, a good-looking guy who worked on Beacon Hill in a legislator’s office. It was a simple session, nothing complicated, but he was rotten–really rotten. I never felt so good.” Mr. Walsh filed papers to run again the next year. “Meanwhile, the good-looking guy resigned and left Pembroke. The next town meeting opened without a moderator. The rule in this situation is that a moderator will be elected from the floor. I was elected from the floor.”

What is remarkable about Mr. Walsh’s longevity in office is that he has maintained it in the face of political difficulties of his own making – and of a magnitude that might easily bring down a senator or chief executive. In January 1998, local newspapers reported that Mr. Walsh owed nearly $70,000 in back real estate taxes and interest penalties to the town, prompting the emergence of a strong challenger. That April, just weeks before election day, the newspapers described an emotional candidates’ forum at which Mr. Walsh admitted to incurring more than a million dollars in debts during the 1980s, brought on at least partly by a drinking problem. “I’m climbing my way out–it’s been a miracle,” he says now. He never declared bankruptcy, and he vowed to make good on his debt to the town.

Walsh has set a record for longevity, despite his admission of making serious mistakes.

Mr. Walsh won his race (“At my age, campaigning is tough.”) with 1,735 votes, or 54 percent. And he has begun to pay down his taxes. He’d like to serve his 50th year as moderator. His most recent opponent, James McCollum, thinks that’s entirely possible. “Walsh can read the will of the people,” says Mr. McCollum of his skills. “He’s semi-entertaining and he’s basically a nice guy. If 1,700 people can support him despite owing the town, he’ll be hard to beat, especially if he can pay off his debt.” Selectman William Cullity concurs: “Everyone’s made mistakes in their lives. That doesn’t excuse what happened, but people don’t want to see personal issues dragged into public matters. He’s doing the job he’s elected to do.”

Meet the Author
In the 1950s, Mr. Walsh made several unsuccessful runs for selectman. Later, in the 1960s, he spent five years on the planning board. “It was a controversial time; I’m in land development. I wouldn’t do it again.” Now Mr. Walsh is content to aspire to a few more years as moderator. “I’m not canonized” in Pembroke, he says. But “I’m as competent as I’ve ever been – maybe better. I have a calmer attitude toward myself and other people. I can respectfully control a meeting and get people to respond without being dogmatic. There’s a little knack to it. It’s like for a play: We could all sit down and learn a part, learn the lines, but not all get it right–the touch, the delivery.”

Anna Marie Murphy is a free-lance writer and editor in Medfield.