Celebrate This Year’s Difference Makers on March 21 at the Log Cabin
When BusinessWest created its Difference Makers program in 2009, it did so with the intention of both honoring those who embody the name of the award and showing the myriad ways that a group or individual can, in fact, make a difference.
The Class of 2013 probably accomplishes both goals as well, if not better, than any group of Difference Makers honored by the magazine.
Indeed, this year’s class includes the man almost personally responsible for keeping professional hockey in Springfield over the past 40 years — Bruce Landon — as well as the state and local police responsible for creating a unique counter-insurgency program that could become a model for cities battling gang violence. It boasts the Sisters of Providence, who have been adding new ministries of caring since they first arrived in Holyoke 140 years ago, and the group Soldier On, which has created a number of ground-breaking programs, including a landmark initiative for formerly homeless veterans. And then, there’s Jim Vinick, who has devoted his adult life to the Jimmy Fund and the Basketball Hall of Fame, and has devoted countless hours to a number of other organizations and charities.
“There are many needs within our society, and therefore many ways that individuals and groups can impact overall quality of life for the people in this region,” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti. “And this year’s class of Difference Makers drives this point home.”
“The individuals who directed the implementation of the C3 Policing program in Springfield’s Brightwood section have succeeded in challenging the culture in that area of the city,” she went on. “People who were once afraid and apathetic now have a stake in their neighborhood. That’s making a major difference.
“As for Bruce Landon,” she went on, “by putting three different ownership groups together and keeping professional hockey in this city, he has maintained an important form of family entertainment for three generations of area residents, while keeping a powerful economic engine in place in downtown Springfield. That’s a different, but also a very important way to make a difference.”
Campiti said the Sisters of Providence have been making a difference for 14 decades in areas ranging from healthcare to education to assistance for families in all the different forms they take, and creating both an infrastructure and a mindset that will enable their work to continue for centuries to come. And Soldier On, through the imagination and determination of its president, John Downing, and his staff, has significantly changed the lives of those who fought for their country and found that their fight certainly wasn’t over when their service was.
“As for Jim Vinick, he has put aside great personal tragedy to set an incredible example of what can happen when someone becomes passionate about service to organizations like the Jimmy Fund and the Hall of Fame — he or she can help take them to places they may not have dreamed possible,” Campiti went on. “As Hall of Fame President John Doleva said, he never stops — and, because he doesn’t, he’s a true Difference Maker.”
The Class of 2013 will be honored at the annual Difference Makers Gala on March 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. The event will feature butlered hors d’oeuvres, lavish food stations, introductions of the Difference Makers, and remarks from the winners. Tickets cost $55 per person, and tables of 10 are available.
For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or visit ww.businesswest.com.
Photography by Denise Smith Photography
Michael Cutone, John Barbieri, and Thomas Sarrouf
Michael Cutone, left, and John Barbieri. (Note: Tom Sarrouf was on assignment with his SF units and not available to be photographed.)
Organizers of Springfield’s C3 Policing Program
Michael Cutone was asked how he could tell if the C3P, or Counter Criminal Continuum Policing program, in Springfield’s North End was succeeding with its various goals in the manner that organizers anticipated when they commenced the initiative roughly three years ago.
The Massachusetts State trooper and master sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) paused for a second and nodded his head a few times, as if to indicate that he gets that question often, and that he had an answer.
Actually, he had several.
For starters, he told BusinessWest, there is statistical evidence showing often-dramatic reductions in what would be considered gang-related crime in the Brightwood neighborhood since this program, based on tactics used by the Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, went into effect. Comparing 2010 statistics with those from 2009, before the initiative started, there was a 76% decrease in larceny, a 66% drop in weapons violations, a 55% reduction in burglary, and a 47% decline in motor-vehicle thefts.
But there is also anecdotal evidence concerning what is being called a counterinsurgency, or COIN, program, he said, listing everything from reports of gang members throwing their cell phones into the nearby Connecticut River because they believe the police must have them bugged — so accurate is their information about gang activities past and planned — to other reports of gang operatives offering to pay neighborhood residents for information on what those leading the C3P operation are up to.
Meanwhile, there’s the rising number of communities and police departments looking to emulate this model — officials have come from as far away as the Netherlands to observe the concept and talk with its organizers — and the growing volume of press it’s generating; the New York Times and Boston Globe have done stories, and 60 Minutes will present a report on the program later this winter.
Still, with all that, Cutone prefers to sum things up with what he calls the “non-traditional answer,” a summation of what residents and neighborhood activists are saying about C3P at what amounts to the heart of the program, regular Thursday community meetings designed to share information and ideas and continuously strengthen the relationship between the police and area residents. Or what they aren’t saying, as the case may be.
“No one’s saying, ‘you guys suck, and we don’t want you here anymore — this is a all a bunch a crap,’” he explained with a laugh, noting that such sentiments work as effectively (for him, anyway) as the crime stats, media attention, and cell phones in the river.
Collectively, they tell him that the COIN operation is meeting its overriding goal — to make things very uncomfortable for the gangs that once ruled these streets through intimidation, so much so that they’ll want to get out of the various businesses they’re in, especially selling drugs. And this happened because the program has succeeded in getting residents involved in making their streets safer, where once they were “inured, apathetic, and afraid.”
Those are three words that John Barbieri, deputy chief of police in Springfield, used early and often as he talked with BusinessWest about C3P. He is the official within the department with whom Cutone and Tom Sarrouf, a fellow state trooper and team commander of Cutone’s Special Forces (SF) unit, worked most closely to get this program implemented.
“The problem with the communities we’re talking about is that there’s very little involvement with the police,” he said, adding that the gangs in the North End had thrived in part due to what amounted to passive support from the community. “And there are myriad reasons for this, but a lot of this boils down to them not being stakeholders — these people are, for the most part, very poor, and they’d become inured to gang violence, violence in general, and drug dealing.”
In very simple terms, the C3P program has succeeded in making people claim a stake, he went on, and by doing so, they are considerably weakening that base of passive support.
Sarrouf agreed. “The residents there are now engaged in their community, where before they were not, plain and simple,” he said, referring to the most tangible and far-reaching benefit derived from what has become known in SF circles as the “Avghani Model,” named after the small town in Northern Iraq where these tactics were employed successfully to gain the trust and support of the local population and make them a resource in the fight against the enemy.
For their success to date and the promise of much more, Cutone, Barbieri, Sarrouf, and all those people in the community who work with them are truly Difference Makers.
Joining the Force
As he talked about how the COIN program works, Cutone offered a few analogies to help get his points across.
The first is what he calls the “seagulls and the Labrador retriever on the beach” scenario. Elaborating, he said that, while the dog will scare the birds away, they will merely hover or fly off, eventually to return; their lifestyle is interrupted, but not changed. The same is true, he said, with a typical police crackdown, or increased police presence, in an area like Springfield’s North End.
Another analogy involves a water balloon. When one pushes a finger into a full water balloon, it compresses that area, he said, noting that, when the finger is removed, the balloon returns to its original shape. What C3P is designed to do is apply several pressure points and not relieve that pressure, thus permanently altering the shape of balloon, or, in this case, a neighborhood. And a third analogy references a farmer battling weeds; unless one gets to the root of the problem and removes the weeds, they will keep coming back.
Using such effective visuals, Cutone, Sarrouf, and Barbieri explained how a COIN operation, and this one in particular, goes well beyond most traditional police tactics and the community-policing concept as a whole to involve a neighborhood in efforts to reduce crime.
And such extreme tactics are necessary, said Cutone, because gangs, like insurgents in foreign countries, are clever opponents not usually thwarted by what would be considered conventional approaches.
“Gang members and drug dealers are very savvy; they exploit the fact that people don’t want to engage with the police,” he explained. “They exploit that passive support. Just like insurgents, they move into areas where people are not going to report on them. Terrorist training camps don’t set up shop in Longmeadow or Belmont, Mass. They set up in Yemen, Afghanistan … failed states. Well, gang members and drug dealers will move into a failed neighborhood for the same reasons.”
‘Failed’ would be one effective way to describe Brightwood in the early fall of 2009, said Barbieri, adding that it was, at that time, the scene of heightened gang violence and activity, punctuated by several murders, including one “finished off” near the entrance to the trauma unit at nearby Baystate Medical Center.
In response to the surge, Springfield police countered with heightened patrols and a spate of arrests. “We were carrying assault rifles because they were carrying assault rifles,” he recalled, adding that, while police were diligent in their work, the results were basically similar to that of the retriever on the beach.
It was about this time that Cutone — who had attempted to initiate a counter-insurgency program in Brightwood based on tactics used by the SF, but seen it back-burnered — made another push. And the reason was obvious to those fighting crime in that neighborhood at that time, he said.
“It was clear that, just as we couldn’t kill our way out of insurgency in Iraq, we weren’t going to arrest our way out of this gang and drug problem,” he said.
Instead, the answer lay with intelligence, said Barbieri, returning to his thoughts about making residents stakeholders.
“It’s the community involvement that separates these neighborhoods from the suburbs and even the more affluent areas of Springfield, such as 16 Acres and Forest Park,” he explained when talking about the attitude that existed in Brightwood three years ago. “If there’s a crime in those neighborhoods, people become involved. If there’s drug dealing, they don’t tolerate it. When they call the police, they demand results — they go out and take pictures of the people involved; they take down license plates.
“In Brightwood, we were working like animals, but it all boils down to intelligence, and no one was telling us what was going on,” Barbieri continued. “No matter how long I work your neighborhood, no matter how much patrolling I do down there, I don’t know your neighborhood like you do — you know who’s dealing drugs and who’s hanging out in front of your house all day. It’s a community that keeps a community safe.
“Trooper Cutone comes up to me at a meeting and says, ‘I just got back from Iraq; there’s a counterinsurgency model to target gangs where we get the community involved and committed, and we try to change the conditions and build capacity in the neighborhoods,’” he went on. “I was the right target audience, and this was the right target location.”
For Your Information
Cutone recalls that the COIN initiative got its unofficial start with what he described as “dismounted patrols,” where he would get out of his cruiser and walk into shops and engage the owners and employees.
“That’s something we would do in Army SF when we were deployed in remote areas — we would live amongst the villagers and get to know them,” he explained. “Using that principle that I was taught, I would walk into a lot of these Hispanic shops, using my limited supply of Spanish to simply say ‘hello.’ These folks would look at me like a hog staring at a wristwatch, saying, ‘why is this trooper in my shop having coffee and asking me how I’m doing?’ So I got the cold shoulder in a lot of places.”
Changing attitudes and generating the steady flow of information, or intelligence, that the program needs to succeed took the better part of year, said those we spoke with, adding that the process of building trust and a working relationship with the neighborhood’s residents was difficult, and it is in many ways ongoing.
There are many moving parts within the program, but its heart and soul is the regular Thursday community meetings, staged at a few different locations, such as the apartment complex at 101 Lowell St.
At these sessions, updates are given, information is shared, and ideas are launched, such as the so-called ‘walking school bus’ concept — teachers chaperoning groups of students as they walk to school in the morning — which was offered by an employee of the Baystate Brightwood Health Center.
Overall, trust is built and momentum is generated through these meetings and other initiatives, such as regular Saturday neighborhood walk-throughs during which police officers will knock on doors and engage residents, other types of outreach efforts, classes on how to report crimes and spot gang activity, and ‘text-a-tip,’ which enables residents to forward information anonymously, said Cutone and Barbieri, adding that the results have been dramatic when it comes to the residents of the neighborhood taking that stake they once resisted and becoming an invaluable resource.
“We gave them our work numbers, our work cell numbers, our e-mail addresses, we gave them classes in how gangs recruit youths and how to identify if your child is in a gang — those types of things,” said Cutone. “And what happened, little by little, is that, between the Thursday meetings, the walk-throughs on Saturdays, and these classes, the amount of criminal information started increasing exponentially.”
And this volume represents a radical departure from what the police are accustomed to, and normally forced to subsist on.
“Typically, narcotics units and gang units get their information from criminal elements — I arrest a bad guy, he’s looking at X number of charges and X number of years, so all of a sudden, he wants to cooperate with the police, so he gives me another bad guy,” Cutone explained. “That’s a good technique, and we still use that technique; the problem with it, though, is that you’re minimizing your information flow, because 95% or more of the people in a community are law-abiding citizens. If you’re only dealing with the criminal element, you’ve eliminated 95% of your information flow.
“So now I have all this intelligence coming into my work computer — I’ve had guns and drugs located because informants would send material to my work cell phone and we’d be able to make arrests and recover stolen weapons,” he continued. “None of that would have happened if we hadn’t built this rapport with the local population.”
This steady flow of information has changed life for gang members to the extent that there are reports that some are buying new cell phones every month because they believe the police are somehow tapping the lines, said Barbieri, adding that there have been other reports of residents trying to chase away undercover police officers working the neighborhood, believing they’re there to buy drugs.
As for the neighborhood as a whole, there has been palpable change, said Sarrouf.
“When you ask people what’s different about living there now as opposed to before the program started, they’ll tell you very candidly that it’s safer, they feel more engaged in their own community, and they feel more empowered to be able to participate in the direction their community takes with respect to the issues that they had prior to this.
“Before, the North End was just truly chaotic; that’s the only way to describe it,” he went on. “Is there still crime there today? Of course, but it is at a much more manageable level, where there’s trust built between the community, city government, and law enforcement where they can respond more accurately, in a more timely fashion, and with a better approach.”
State Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, who represents that neighborhood, used different words to say essentially the same thing.
“There’s a renewed sense of hope — that’s the word I keep coming back to,” she explained. “But there’s also a sense of action and responsibility. If I’m a resident and I go to one opf these meetings, I come away thinking, ‘what can I do? — I have a team behind me now. What is my responsibility when it comes to working with that team?’ Is it just to fix my fence or clean up my yard, or is it call text-a-tip because I saw a guy put a gun in his trunk?’ There is a new sense of responsibility.”
To a Different Beat
Despite the gains in Brightwood, Sarrouf said, there is still much work to be done in this neighborhood.
“We’re not trying to fool anyone and present this as any kind of quick fix,” he explained. “Right up front, we said that this is a very long-term project, one that will take years to accomplish all its goals. Are we there yet? No, but we’re seeing incremental dividends with respect to the fact that the community is getting better over time.
“And what we’re not seeing is a fallback to what it was — which is a very good thing,” he continued.
In other words, there is more than sufficient evidence — both hard and anectodal — to suggest that this program is working, and that those who have put it in a position to succeed are worthy of being called Difference Makers.
President of Soldier On
John Downing has file folders full of statistics at his disposal as he talks about the many programs being carried out by Soldier On and the philosophy that powers the organization — from the percentage of veterans it serves who have mental-health issues (78%) to the average hourly wage being earned by the many formerly homeless veterans now working for the agency ($10.89).
But perhaps the most powerful — and poignant — numbers are these:
There are more than 265 ‘residents’ of the homeless veterans shelter and transitional facility in Leeds, where the organization is based, and only about 25 of them went ‘home’ — whatever and wherever that is — for the holidays last December.
“The rest of them were already home,” said Downing, the long-time president of the organization, founded in 1994, who understands fully what those numbers mean and what they tell him his responsibility, and that of his staff, must be to those the agency serves. Basically, to redefine ‘home.’
“These people have lost everything, and so they identify now with the community they’re growing and serving in,” said Downing, who told BusinessWest that, when he took over at the struggling organization, housed at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Leeds, in 2001 at the behest of its board, he did so with the single goal of creating the “Holiday Inn of shelters.”
He did that in what seemed like a few months — although it actually took the better part of a year to complete a full turnaround, thanks to some dramatic changes in the basic approach taken. And looking back over what’s happened since, success with that goal might be considered perhaps his most modest accomplishment.
Indeed, Downing has been able to blueprint and implement a number of innovative programs and services, all designed with the Soldier On slogan — ‘changing the end of the story’ — firmly in mind.
The most intriguing, and celebrated, of these to date is an initiative that provides veterans with the opportunity to transition from homelessness to home ownership through a unique program that enables them to purchase an equity stake in their homes. The Gordon H. Mansfield Community in Pittsfield, where more than 40 veterans now own their own condos, has become a model being emulated around the country, and Soldier On is planning several similar projects in this area, in communities ranging from Northampton to Agawam.
But there is much more to the Soldier On story, including a unique and comprehensive veterans-outreach program that includes case-management and referral services and temporary financial assistance involving everything from daily living activities to transportation to child care.
There’s also a full roster of employment services — a key component in any individual’s struggle for financial independence — that include interview skills, money management, résumé building, training and education, and transportation. And there’s also something called the Veterans Justice Partnership, created with the purpose of developing service and treatment options and, where appropriate, alternatives to incarceration.
Meanwhile, Soldier On recently received a $100,000 grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation to develop a wellness center to support its growing women’s program, said Downing, adding that the money will be used to help fund a multi-faceted treatment plan aimed at “getting them back in the center of their lives.”
And while compassion is the primary driver of these programs, there is a practical side as well: some of those aforementioned statistics show that, while the VA is projected to spend $400,000 to $500,000 on a 54-year-old veteran over the rest of his or her life, in the Soldier On model, that cost drops to $150,000.
Overall, it’s not just what Solider On does that’s so impressive and makes this organization and its leader a Difference Maker, but also how. Its model is founded on the quality of social interaction amongst veterans, and it brings services to them instead of the other way around, while giving them the means to succeed rather than criticizing them when they don’t.
“Our job is to serve veterans where they are, and our job is to take responsibility for their failure,” Downing explained. “You don’t serve people by blaming them, shaming them, and making them afraid.”
For this special section profiling our Difference Makers, we talked at length with Downing about how this approach came about and why it has become so successful in positively impacting quality of life for veterans.
During the course of his lengthy interview with BusinessWest for this story, Downing interrupted the proceedings on several occasions to bring various members of his staff into the discussion.
There was Maggie Porter, director of Communications; Michael Hagmaier, senior vice president; Dominick Sondrini, director of Outreach and Employment Training and coordinator of the Veterans Justice Partnership; John Crane, director of Case Management; and Katie Doherty, Women’s Partnership consultant, among others.
He wanted to introduce them and have them explain what they do and how, but he also wanted to display the great deal of pride he has in the team he’s assembled, the work it’s doing, and the intriguing approach it’s taking, which he explained in direct, colorful language.
“Everyone who comes to us is broken,” he explained. “And because of their brokenness, we all get to make a wonderful living serving them and figuring out strategies to bring their lives back to meaningful ways for them — not defining what we think is meaningful, but letting them define it for themselves.”
And as he elaborated, he ventured back to the weeks and months after he came to the then-7-year-old Soldier On, the latest in a series of assignments within the broad realm of social service and, especially, reintegration and after-care services.
He found an organization, started by some homeless veterans and employees of the VA hospital, that was functioning at about 40% capacity, had been poorly managed, and was essentially ready to be shut down by the VA.
His work to create that Holiday Inn he spoke of started with cleaning the buildings, replacing dilapidated furniture, and making sure the residents had decent meals and clothing.
And then, the real work started. By that, he meant changing and improving the way veterans were administered services and altering the basic approach taken by the staff. It was no small change.
“Most of us, as Communist-trained social workers, spend most of our adult lives learning how to tell people what to do,” he noted. “We tell people how to get into recovery, what steps they have to take, and what kind of financial planning they need to do. And we know how to tell them how to change their decision making.
“And I just thought that was a very offensive process to me as an adult,” he continued. “If you want to see my oppositional behavior rise up, just tell me what to do — and I’ll show you just what I’m not going to do. And I realized we spent a lot of time doing things that way, so I tried to figure out how to bring about change, because everyone in the recovery business, everyone working with homeless people, have all these rules and regulations that they like to enforce.
“So I decided to run the place with no rules — if you drank, you could stay, and if you missed your appointments, you could stay here, and that was quite different from what everyone else does in this world,” he went on, adding that another radical idea came to him — having the staff essentially take responsibility for the failures of those they’re serving.
This approach essentially changed the conversation, he said, from asking why they did certain things to asking what the staff could do to help them make better choices. That’s a fundamental change in philosophy that has had tremendous results.
“What we saw when we did that was that our number of intakes went from 1,025 for the 265 beds down to to 401,” he noted, adding that another major change was to either bring services to where those needing them lived — or bring them to the services.
Downing said that there are some things that he and his staff have come to understand over the years, and these have become the cornerstones to their model for delivering services:
• Veterans who have been homeless succeed in overcoming addiction, as well as physical and psychological challenges, when they are part of a community of veterans who serve and support each other;
• They typically fare better when they live in a community in which they are surrounded by the various services they need; and
• They require not only counseling and treatment, but education, employment training, and individual case-management services, all on an ongoing basis.
And when an agency can succeed in doing all that, many things are possible in that broad realm of helping veterans define — and achieve — things that are meaningful to them.
Room for Improvement
Nowhere is this more evident than with the program to transition homeless veterans into what amounts to home ownership.
And for the inspiration to take Solider On into this realm — what certainly amounted to uncharted territory and a tangled web of bureaucracy and funding programs — he returned to 2005 and a speech delivered by Army Maj. Ed Kennedy from the Joints Chiefs staff as the project in Pittsfield was being announced.
“As Kennedy finished his talk, he looked out on everyone and said, ‘I’m Major Ed Kennedy, I’m 31 years old, I’m in the Army, and I’m a dad to two children,’” Downing recalled. “And then he said to everyone, ‘I’m going back to Iraq, and I will die for you.’
“When he said that, in my head I was thinking, ‘every veteran in my care said, ‘I will die for you,’ and all 25 million Americans who were veterans said, ‘I will die for you,’ and I never heard it. And I thought to myself, ‘the people who said they would die for me … it’s OK for them to live in transitional housing with used clothing, be treated like second-class citizens, and be grateful for this, because I’ve never been grateful for their commitment.’
“And in that moment,” he went on, “I said, ‘the game is over for building shelters; I’m going to build beautiful housing for these people to own.’ That became the mission.”
The rest, as they might say, is history in the making.
And it’s been an intriguing, often difficult ride — Downing knew next to nothing about housing at that time, and had to endure a challenging learning curve involving something called limited-equity co-op apartments.
He saw a few models, mostly faith-based, in Minnesota and New York City, and took these concepts to a property he acquired in Pittsfield. The working model calls for individuals to buy an equity share in a complex (there are 39 units in Pittsfield, and thus 39 shares), and that share entitles the individual to rent an apartment. Soldier On provides Internet, cable, and 20 meals a month in a dining facility on the campus to help enable veterans to live in the complex on their limited incomes.
“It’s a model that really works — it ends homelessness for veterans, and it ends long-term care for veterans in the Veterans Administration system,” he said, adding that the win-win-win nature of the concept (there are also real-estate taxes to be gained by the community in question) is generating considerable interest in new projects.
There are 44 units planned for the VA complex in Leeds ($6.2 million has been secured from the VA to build it), another project is planned for the former police-training facility in Agawam, and more plans are coming to the drawing board across the country.
And while housing is certainly a huge part of the equation, there are many other ways in which Soldier On is helping to change the end of the story.
Another is through direct employment — there are now just over 100 people on the Soldier On payroll, and 74 of them are formerly homeless veterans — and helping enable clients to enter and succeed in the job market. Through the Homeless Veterans Reintegration (HVRP) program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the agency provides veterans with the tools and support necessary for employment, said Downing, adding that this includes maintaining relationships between veterans and area employers.
There is also a greater emphasis on outreach, he continued, as well as on the recently instituted Veterans Justice Partnership, an alternative-sentencing program, involving the four western counties, for veterans who wind up in the court system.
In a nutshell, the program was created to provide veterans with access to information, resources, and programs to help them make positive transitions and lead productive lives.
“We’re in all four western-county jails every week with our staff, meeting with the veterans in jail, running groups, and helping them do their exit planning,” said Downing. “It’s another example of how go where the veterans are, we serve them, and, in this case, we try to prevent them from winding up there.
“The earlier you can intervene, the more effective you can be, and the costs go down,” he continued, adding that this sentiment applies not only to the justice partnership, but also to every Soldier On endeavor, and it goes a long way toward explaining the organization’s track record for success.
Fighting the Good Fight
When it was explained to those veterans who would soon be living in the Gordon H. Mansfield Community in Pittsfield that they would become taxpayers, Downing recalled, some responded with tears.
“They would say to me, ‘Jack, I never thought I could do this again — and I’m so grateful that I can do it,’” he told BusinessWest.
For making it possible for such individuals to give back to the community in such a different and rewarding way, and for truly changing the end of the story in so many positive ways, Downing and the entire staff at Solider On are more than worthy of the title Difference Maker.
President and General Manager of the Springfield Falcons
It was a few days before the National Hockey League was to begin its abbreviated and condensed season — salvaged by a new collective bargaining agreement reached in early January — and Bruce Landon was talking about the many ways the division-leading Springfield Falcons, the organization he’s been involved with for more than 40 years, would be impacted by those developments.
“We’ve lost six players,” said the team’s president, general manager, and minority owner, referring to the roster members who have been called up to the American Hockey League affiliate’s parent club, the Columbus Blue Jackets, since the labor impasse was resolved. “Every team has lost three to nine; whether we get one, two, or three back remains to be seen.
“They’re going to play 48 games in 99 days, so there are going to be a lot of injuries,” he continued. “So depth is going to be the key to success for teams in this league [the AHL]. It will be important for us to stay healthy here.”
Actually, the team already has a lot of depth, he went on, noting that it was built with the NHL’s labor situation in mind. In fact, the Falcons are carrying between 28 and 30 players, when they normally have 22 or 23 on the roster.
“And when you carry extra guys, it’s always expensive,” said Landon, who would quickly move on to other headaches, including everything from attendance still described by the word ‘flat’ to weather forecasts — not actual weather itself — that are often enough to keep people from driving to the MassMutual Center for a game.
But dealing with such challenges is obviously a labor of love for Landon, and this passion for hockey in Springfield is the sole reason why he’s still dealing with such issues as buying more tape and booking more hotel rooms because he has to keep more players on his roster.
Indeed, on three separate occasions, Landon has put together ownership groups that have allowed the city to keep an AHL affiliate, something it’s been able to do since 1936. And the most recent rescue was also the most harrowing.
It was the 11th hour, and the clock was getting ready to strike midnight. After negotiating with 28 potential ownership groups from Chicago, Washington, and even Russia, an exhausted Landon, whose wife, Marcia, was starting to worry about his health, was running out of options and nearly running out of hope that he could keep the team in Springfield.
That’s because the ownership group in place at that time was almost out of patience and applying some pressure to sell — even it meant to a group that would take the team to another city, like Des Moines, Iowa, which was coming ever more prominently into view as the likely landing spot.
But then, Landon had one more conversation with Charlie Pompea, a Florida-based businessman who had kicked the tires on the Falcons but was hesitant about pulling the trigger. It was after hearing Landon deliver an impassioned speech after the golf tournament they had just played in together — one in which he talked about the importance of preserving the team’s mailing address at Falcons Way in Springfield — that they initiated the talks that got a deal done.
Landon acknowledged that, while his business card says president and general manager, his unofficial job description for much of his tenure has been to keep a team in Springfield. And the main reason, he went on, is because, while Springfield has historically been good for hockey, the community should know and understand that hockey is very good for the city.
“Springfield should be proud to have a team in the American Hockey League,” he said, prefacing his remark by saying that he makes it quite often. “There are only 30 teams, and 30 cities across North America and Canada, and we’re one of them.”
For his untiring work to enable the city to say it is still one of those 30, Landon has been named a member of the Difference Makers Class of 2013.
Several Big Saves
As he talked with BusinessWest, Landon referenced an e-mail he had just received from Chris Olsen, one of the hundreds of interns he’s worked with over the years.
Olsen is currently vice president of Football Administration for the Houston Texans, who were still battling for an NFL championship until the New England Patriots beat them on Jan. 13.
“He wrote to basically say that he was following us and he was happy with our success, and he wanted to thank me for giving a young man an opportunity to get into the business,” said Landon. “Those things are so rewarding, and we’ve seen so many of them over the years.
“I love it when we see people come here and either work for us, or go on to bigger and better things, because that’s what we’re all about,” he went on. “We’re not just a development team for players … we’re also a development business for a lot of aspiring sports professionals as well.”
Helping individuals contemplating careers in everything from broadcasting to marketing to merchandising by giving them real-world experience is just one of the many ways in the which the Falcons have made an impact on this region, said Landon, listing others ranging from direct economic impact to providing wholesome family entertainment.
“We’re more than just a professional hockey team providing great sports entertainment for families,” he explained. “We are, and should be looked at as, a catalyst for downtown; on a good year, we can draw 180,000 people into the city, and the economic spinoff from that is in the millions of dollars.
“We create jobs for people at the MassMutual Center — we have 38 guaranteed dates there,” he continued. “Our players live here and spend money here, we employ people ourselves, we help the parking garage … our franchise is very important to the city in many different ways.”
Landon has been making such comments since Jimmy Carter was in the White House, making him perhaps the most enduring and significant sports figure in the city’s history.
And by now, most people in Greater Springfield know at least the basics of the Bruce Landon story — how the Kingston, Ontario native was drafted by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and came to the Springfield franchise (then also named the Kings) in 1969, and how he injured his shoulder in the later stages of the Calder Cup championship season of 1970-71, paving the way for future Hall of Famer Billy Smith.
They probably also know that he later went on to play for the New England Whalers in the World Hockey Assoc. (which eventually merged with the NHL in 1979) before returning to Springfield and the AHL in the late ’70s. And they likely know that, while playing for the team, he was also doing some front-office work, something that became a full-time endeavor when he blew out his knee at age 28 in 1977, forcing him to retire.
They might also know that he’s held just about every title one can have with a pro sports franchise, from player to broadcaster; from director of marketing and public relations to general manager and part owner, and that he has plaques in his den, including the James C. Hendry Award, presented annually to the AHL’s outstanding executive, which he earned in 1989.
Less well-known, perhaps, are Landon’s successful efforts behind the scenes to assemble ownership groups. He first did it in 1994 after the then-Springfield Indians (the name the team had for decades in a nod to the famous motorcycles made in the city) were sold to out-of-town interests and moved to Worcester. Partnering with Wayne LaChance, Landon started a new franchise and named it the Falcons after the birds that had famously begun to nest in downtown Springfield office towers.
And he did it in 2002, when he expanded the ownership base to provide more stability for the franchise. He managed to pull together a group of local business people to commit to the team and then stay with it through a succession of parent clubs and seasons that ended with the club at or near the bottom of the standings.
Eventually, the ownership group tired of the team’s lackluster financial performance and initiated the process of exiting the AHL. And it was this latest effort to secure ownership that would keep the team in Springfield that is considered the biggest save of Landon’s career — and the most difficult.
“Selling the team at that time was a real challenge,” he recalled, “because no one wanted to keep the team in Springfield — they all wanted to move it. They were looking at other cities and other venues that were available … it’s a great league, and people want to be part of it.
“Had Charlie not stepped up and brought the franchise, there was a significant offer from a group that wanted to move it to Des Moines,” he continued, adding that he’s never made that information public before. “That [Falcons] ownership group had said, ‘there’s not much more we can do — we don’t want to lose money anymore.’ They were getting to the point where they wanted to sell, and if we couldn’t find a local buyer, then they’d take the best offer they could, even if that meant the team would be moved. A message was being sent, and Charlie saved the day.”
But, to borrow a term from his sport, Landon obviously earned a huge assist.
Returning to that golf tournament at which the two played together, Landon said his remarks at dinner obviously struck a chord with Pompea.
“He said, ‘you’re really serious about this, aren’t you?’” Landon recalled, adding that his lengthy answer to that query obviously convinced him he was. “We talked some more, and a few weeks later, we had a deal.”
Looking ahead, something Landon is far more comfortable doing than looking back, especially at his own exploits, he said that, despite the team’s recent success and position at the top of the Northeast Division, well ahead of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and Hartford Whale, there are still many question marks about the future.
“There are no more rabbits left in the hat,” Landon said candidly when referring to the team’s status, using those words to convey his belief that there will be no more 11th-hour rescues for this franchise if the current ownership situation deteriorates.
“We have our lease through next year, and we have our affiliation agreement through next year,” he noted. “But, as Charlie and I talk about, this is a business, not a hobby, and we have to assess how we’re doing from a business standpoint; are we seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, and are we making progress?
“He wants to see this work,” Landon went on, referring to Pompea. “But he is a businessman, as I am. Overall, we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re going to get this thing headed in the right direction.”
He said the team is well-positioned in many respects. It has a solid partnership with the Columbus franchise, a favorable lease arrangement with the MassMutual Center, travel expenses far lower than most other AHL franchises because of its central location, and a lean operation. The keys moving forward are improving attendance, obviously, but also growing revenues across the board.
And this can only be accomplished, he went on, by gaining a full buy-in from the residents of not only Springfield but the entire region.
“I hope that fans understand that they have to engage and embrace this team so it stays here for many more years to come,” he said in summation. “I’ll eventually be leaving this position, and I just hope that the fans — and not just the fans, but the community — realize how lucky they are to have a team of this caliber, and never take it for granted.”
A Game Changer
On several occasions during his recent talk with BusinessWest, Landon heaped praise on Pompea, crediting him with the fact that Springfield currently has a team stirring dreams of another Calder Cup banner hanging from the rafters at the MassMutual Center.
“If it wasn’t for Charlie, this team would have been gone,” he said. “He’s the one who saved hockey here.”
That’s one man’s opinion. Most, however, would say that Landon himself is the individual worthy of that sentiment, earned through more than four decades of dedication to the Kings, Indians, Falcons — and the Greater Springfield area.
For that, he’s truly a Difference Maker.
The Sisters of Providence
Sr. Kathleen Popko, SP likes to say that the 700-odd Sisters of Providence, present and past, “share some DNA” with Sr. Mary Providence Horan, the first mother general of the congregation.
And by that, she meant that those who worked beside her or followed in her footsteps have possessed both her many character traits and her broad operating philosophy.
As for the former, these include vision, compassion, determination, a large dose of innovation, and a very strong sense of mission.
“Mother Mary of Providence has always been an inspiration to me,” said Popko, president of the Sisters of Providence. “She had a lot of foresight and was very innovative; she established 20 works of charity within the first 15 years of her becoming head of the congregation. She crossed boundaries — she worked with the Jewish community and the Protestant community to help establish the board at Mercy Hospital, And she was willing to collaborate and ask for help from others to support the work she was doing, whether it was in Worcester or Pittsfield. And she had a great love of learning; those are qualities we like to think we possess today.”
As for the latter, well, that’s perhaps best summed up in a quote often attributed to her: “never rest on what has been accomplished, but continue reaching on to what needs to be done.”
Suffice it to say, the sisters have never done any such resting. Instead, they have, over the decades, responded to changing societal needs with the same zeal and desire that were firmly in evidence when two members of the Sisters of Charity of the House of Providence from Kingston, Ontario, Canada, came to Holyoke on a so-called begging tour in 1873 and were invited to establish a mission there to help the waves of immigrants struggling to carve out a living.
They eventually did, creating a legacy of providence that is captured in the statue of Mother Mary near the entrance to Providence Place in Holyoke, with a commanding view of the valley below. She is depicted holding hands with two young children — a boy carrying a schoolbook and a girl with a broken arm — artistic touches designed to spotlight the two basic tenets of the sisters’ work over the past 14 decades: education and healthcare.
Those two foundations remain, especially healthcare, through work carried out within the broad Sisters of Providence Health System. But the modern work of the Sisters of Providence is quite diverse, said Sr. Mary Caritas, vice president of the congregation, who listed everything from programs to provide healthcare to the region’s homeless population to groundbreaking initiatives in the broad realm of senior living, such as the ‘small house’ concept created at Mary’s Meadow.
“The one constant is need,” she said. “When the sisters came in 1873, it was in response to a need — they saw a need, and they responded. We’re doing things differently in this day and age, but we continue to have that same spirit.
“But they also recognize the need to change as society does — we’ve never been afraid to let go and move on from something because society has changed,” she went on, citing, as just a few examples, the transition of Providence Hospital from acute care to behavioral health; the repositioning of the former Farren Hospital in Montague into the Farren Care Center, a provider of services to people with severe behavioral disorders; and new uses for the facilities at Brightside for Families and Children.
The past several months have been a time of celebration for the Sisters of Providence — specifically, the marking of two important anniversaries.
Last year marked the 120th anniversary of the Sisters of Providence’s 1892 foundation as an independent congregation in the Springfield diocese. And this year marks the 140th anniversary of the arrival of the Sisters of Providence’s foremothers — today’s Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent De Paul in Kingston, Ontario — in Holyoke.
There have been a host of events to mark both occasions, from the planting and blessing of ‘anniversary trees’ to an anniversary procession and prayer; from an “open weekend of gratitude” to a dinner at Mercy Medical Center.
And because of that long history of caring being celebrated, there will be at least one more event to attend — BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Gala on March 21, when the sisters will be introduced as members of the Class of 2013.
For this special section profiling this year’s winners, we spoke at length with Popko and Caritas about how society may have changed over the past 140 years, but the devotion of the Sisters of Providence to their mission of meeting the needs of the most challenged segments of the population certainly hasn’t.
Past Is Prologue
Before talking about Western Mass. in 2013, Popko and Caritas wanted to talk first about Holyoke in 1873. Doing so, they said, would at least start to put the work of the Sisters of Providence in perspective, and also help explain that shared DNA.
Holyoke was the first planned industrial city in the country, they explained, and in the early 1870s, it was the place where some mill owners found fortune and many immigrants found opportunity for employment. But most found only hardship in the form of difficult, often dangerous work; crowded, inadequate housing (tenements built near the mills); and systems of education and healthcare that were nonexistent or extremely lacking.
It was into this environment that Srs. Mary de Chantal McCauley and Mary Elizabeth Stafford ventured on their begging tour in early 1873. They found the climate difficult for philanthropy — the country was in recession, and many of Holyoke’s mills had closed, while others were struggling — but ripe for charity, and for mostly the same reasons.
Fr. Patrick Harkins, pastor of St. Jerome’s Church in Holyoke, proposed that the congregation establish a mission in his parish for sick people and orphaned children, and one was created later that year, with four pioneer sisters from Kingston moving into a house belonging to St. Jerome’s but located across the Connecticut River in South Hadley Falls. The first orphan was admitted one week after their arrival, and the first patient was admitted for hospital care on Dec. 2, the recorded date of the beginning of the House of Providence, the first Catholic hospital in Western Mass.
Two years later, land was acquired for a new House of Providence on Dwight Street, while that same year, six sisters from Kingston, including Mother Mary of Providence, were assigned to teach at St. Jerome’s Institute, a school for boys in Holyoke.
In 1880, 53 acres of property in Holyoke, known as Ingleside, were purchased, and ground was broken for Mount St. Vincent, a home for orphaned girls. Sixteen years later, property on Carew Street in Springfield was acquired and deeded to the congregation for the House of Mercy, which later became Mercy Hospital and is now known as Mercy Medical Center.
In 1890, Bethlehem House, a home for infants and toddlers, opened at Brightside in Holyoke, Farren Memorial Hospital was dedicated, and schools of nursing were opened at Providence Hospital, Mercy Hospital, and St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, establishing a pattern of caring and growth that continued unfettered for decades.
“When the sisters came here, they were not here a week, and they had an ophan at the door, and then the alms person in the city decided to send some more,” Popko explained. “It wasn’t long before the need was manifested, and they responded, whether it was with orphaned children or with healing the sick, oftentimes in their homes, or it was with making burial plots because there was no one to do that.
“And I think that’s why the Sisters of Providence ministries have been so diverse, from the beginning,” she continued. “It wasn’t simply that we started a healing ministry and were in hospitals, although that evolved most significantly. We were also involved in caring for the elderly or the orphaned or abandoned children, or in burying the dead, or doing home care. We were trying to be the providence of God in the lives of others, and in doing that, we reached out into healing ministries.”
Today, the area facilities operated by the Sisters of Providence include Providence Hospital, Mount Saint Vincent Care Center, Beaven Kelly Home, Providence Place retirement community, and Mary’s Meadow long-term nursing care and rehabilitation center, all in Holyoke; Mercy Medical Center and St. Luke’s Home in Springfield; Saint Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield; Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester; Farren Care Center; Genesis Spiritual Life Center in Westfield; and the many agencies of Brightside for Families & Children. There are also operations far outside this region, ranging from a home-health agency, hospital, and retirement village in North Carolina to a health clinic and multiple social-service agencies in an impoverished section of Santiago, Chile.
The specific missions and constituencies served vary with each ministry, said Popko, but there is a common denominator — bringing care to those who need it, and to those who may have no other alternative.
The stories of many of these various ministries, as well as the people who inspired and created them, are told in a recently released book titled 140 Years of Providential Caring — The Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Authored by Suzanne Strempek Shea, Tom Shea, and Michele Barker, it chronicles how many programs and facilities were developed, and is told largely through the eyes and thoughts of the individuals who paved those roads. There’s a chapter, for example, on Sr. Julie Crane and her work to create Health for the Care of the Homeless, another on Sr. Caroline Smith and her efforts to create the Sisters of Providence Methadone Maintenance Program, and still another on Sr. Elizabeth Oleksak and her work at Genesis Spiritual Life Center.
These chapters serve as both historical record and source of inspiration, said Popko.
“The individual stories demonstrate how that original spirit has been the driving force for us for 140 years, and how it’s certainly taken different shapes and forms and responded to the different calls of providence in each of our lifetimes,” she explained. “It’s certainly been an amazing journey, and for us to look back on it all in 2012 and 2013 and to read some of our archival material and relive some of the extreme dedication and willingness to reach out in multiple ways, is certainly inspiring.”
And moving forward, the unofficial assignment for the Sisters of Providence is to write more chapters for the next book, said Popko and Caritas. This means finding new ways to carry out the original mission, while also strengthening the infrastructure and operating philosophy that will ensure that this work is carried out in the decades to come, long after the last of the current sisters, already dwindling in number, are gone.
This is part of the legacy of never resting on one’s laurels that continues today, said Caritas, adding that there are several examples of how it manifests itself.
One involves a portion of the former Brightside property, used for residential treatment programs that were discontinued in 2010.
“I’m sure Mother Mary would have been thinking, as we have been for the past three years, about what to do with that property,” Caritas told BusinessWest, adding that plans are emerging to relocate the Sisters of Providence home-care and hospice programs in the main administration building at Brightside, while the ground floor will be used for something called PACE, or the Program for All-inclusive Care for the Elderly.
Elaborating, Popko said the initiative is a capitated-insurance program that provides essentially whatever care is needed to enable an older individual to remain in his or her own home. “They come to the site three or four times a week,” she explained, “and they might get all kinds of care, be it socialization, they might get a bath, there will be a clinic there so we can look at their healthcare needs and medication. They will be assessed, and care will be coordinated. It’s all designed to prevent those higher-cost institutionalizations by treating them effectively in the short run.”
In other words, it’s another imaginative approach to meeting recognized needs in the community, said Caritas, adding that there are other possible reuses of the Brightside facilities coming into focus, including low-income elderly housing, a geriatric-assessment center, and other coordinated facilities.
“It will be a full-service site,” she noted, “one that will provide all-inclusive care for those who participate.”
Securing funding for the project is ongoing, and it will be a challenge, said Popko, adding that there is no firm timetable in place for this strategic initiative. But the manner in which it is coming together speaks to the legacy of the Sisters of Providence and that notion of never resting on laurels.
“It references a vision of the future, a responsiveness to the needs of the times, and a creative reuse of existing resources — a replanting of the seeds, if you will, that were put down 140 years ago,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been doing throughout our history.”
Mission: In Progress
Returning to her thoughts on Mother Mary of Providence one more time, Popko said that she’d been doing some reading about her lately, and learned that her skills extended into architecture and building practices.
“I just read a quote recently … she said, ‘the next hospital we build is not going to be the conversion of some big house so we can fit in beds,’” Popko recalled. “She said, ‘we’re going to build a modern facility designed for the care of people.’
“Meanwhile, she designed Mount St. Vincent herself,” she went on. “She saw the first plans and went to the bishop and said, ‘these plans are totally inadequate.’ So they made her a committee of one; they tore up the plans, let her design her own building, and pretty much built off what she drew up.”
The current sisters are not architects in the same literal sense, but they are designers and builders in a figurative manner — blueprinting new ways to expand the mission launched 140 years ago.
And in that respect, the DNA is the certainly the same. The 700 Sisters of Providence through history have always been Difference Makers.
Senior Vice President of Investments at Moors & Cabot Inc.
As he talked about one of his latest — and most intriguing — endeavors, Jim Vinick’s passion, perseverance, and dedication to those causes that are special to him came across quickly and clearly.
And so did his no-nonsense approach to getting things done.
This particular project involves a statue he’s commissioned that will honor the late Einer Gustafson — the individual identified fairly late in his life as the young boy who became the ‘Jimmy’ in the Jimmy Fund — and the man who treated him, Dr. Sidney Farber, founder of the Children’s Cancer Research Foundation (eventually renamed the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) and the father of modern chemotherapy.
The initiative is the latest manifestation of a 35-year commitment Vinick has made to the Jimmy Fund, service that escalated, and took on a far more personal character, after his son, Jeffrey, was treated at Dana-Farber but eventually lost his battle against rare form of testicular cancer in 1982, and his daughter, Beth, became a cancer survivor.
Originally, the plan was to have the statue also include Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, long known for his devotion to the Jimmy Fund. But Vinick knows his Jimmy Fund history. So he also knows that, when the then-12-year-old Gustafson was selected to speak on Ralph Edwards’ national radio program Truth or Consequences from his hospital bed in 1948, he was surrounded by members of the Boston Braves, the National League franchise that actually started the Jimmy Fund (the Red Sox picked up the mantle after the Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953).
Thus, Vinick decided to remove Williams from his plans, even though he was his close friend for many years and actually still owns the rights to produce his life’s story on screen (more on that later).
But there’s much more to this saga.
Originally, officials wanted the statue placed in what Vinick considered to be a remote corner of a huge facility cluttered with more than 19,000 pieces of art. “I said to them, ‘if we’re going to hide this, I’m not going to do it — not for this price [$150,000],” he told BusinessWest, adding that he then secured a far more prominent location where the statue would be virtually impossible to miss. Meanwhile, Farber’s son wanted some specific wording on the accompanying plaque.
“He wanted it certain ways, and I wanted it certain ways, and finally, I got it may way — and it was going to be my way or the highway,” said Vinick. “I told them, ‘this is my project, and I’m not doing this for Dr. Farber, I’m doing it for the original Jimmy.’ Dr.’s Farber’s obviously a massive part of it, but this all germinated with Jimmy.”
“My Way” is the title to a song made famous by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, among others, but those two words constitute Vinick’s MO as well.
His way has been to be an ardent, nearly life-long supporter of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a commitment described by the Hall’s president, John Doleva, this way: “he is unequivocally one of the most passionate and involved board members in the history of Basketball Hall of Fame, and can be seen supporting our important events across the U.S., sharing the pride of the birthplace of basketball.”
His way has been to get deeply involved with the Western Mass. Jimmy Fund Council and stay involved for more than 35 years. His passion has been the Jeffrey Vinick Jimmy Fund Golf Tournament, which has raised more than $9 million in the 34 years it has existed.
His way has been to lend his time, energy, and imagination to groups ranging from the Jewish Community Center to the Willie Ross School for the Deaf; from Temple Beth El to the Springfield Armor basketball team (he’s a partner in that venture).
And his way has been to right some things that he sees as wrong — like the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute not having a memorial to either Farber or the young man who inspired a charitable institution that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to find cures for a killer.
Because he’s always done things his way, and because that approach has greatly impacted so many lives, Jim Vinick has been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2013.
The walls and shelves in Vinick’s office on the 15th floor of One Financial Plaza in Springfield are crowded with photographs, news clippings, and other assorted memorabilia that do a decent job of summing up his life, career, and philanthropic exploits.
The collection includes everything from photos of family members, including his son Jeff, to news reports involving Friendly’s — he controlled a large amount of stock in the Wilbraham-based corporation and was often quoted in recent years on the many developments that have shaped the company — to a snapshot from his early days doing The Vinick Report, the region’s first business-news segment, on Channel 40.
And then, there’s a photo that captures the moment in February 1986 when Ted Williams signed the contract giving Vinick exclusive rights to his life’s story.
“The check was for $125,000 — that was a down payment — and that was the biggest check he’d ever seen in his life,” Vinick recalled, adding that the Splendid Splinter, as he was called, never surpassed $100,000 as a ballplayer, and that figure represented the annual amount paid to him by Sears Roebuck for 20 years to be one of its top pitchmen.
“Ted was under the gun — in 1980, he dropped Sears Roebuck,” Vinick recalled. At the time, the two were close friends who had worked together on many Jimmy Fund initiatives, including the annual Western Mass. sports banquet, at which Williams spoke on several occasions.
Vinick has never been able to get the Williams project off the ground, although it’s not from lack of effort, and he says he’s not through trying. He had a screenwriter interested, fielded inquiries from several actors looking to play the part (including Treat Williams and David Hasselhoff), shopped the project at various Hollywood studios, and spent a lot of money trying to pull a script together. But the pieces never fell into place.
However, frustration with the Williams project has been one of the very few real setbacks for Vinick, who has historically seen his persistence and passion take him — and the organizations he’s supported — to where he wants to go.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Jimmy Fund, which he has served for more than 35 years as a member of the Western Mass. Council, work that could best be described as a mix of personal tragedy, triumph over extreme adversity, and true inspiration.
Most in the region know the story of how Vinick’s son Jeffrey succumbed to cancer after a long fight, and they probably know also how his daughter, Beth, won her battle against the disease, but not before her mother (Vinick’s wife, Harriet) took her own life just days after Beth’s cancer was diagnosed.
“Those are my daughter’s twins there,” said Vinick, pointing at a photo on his wall, adding that his work with the Jimmy Fund takes many forms. The golf tournament is the most visible, but there are many other fund-raising events, including the recent Chef’s Night at Chez Josef.
“For the past several years, the Western Mass. Jimmy Fund Council has raised over $1 million,” he said, “and my family’s been an integral part of that.”
And for his efforts on behalf of the Jimmy Fund, Vinick has receieved one of the highest awards bestowed by the organization, the Bob Cheyne Lifetime Achievement Award.
Far from satisfied, he’s pushing ahead with the statue of ‘Jimmy’ and Dr. Farber. He’s commissioned Brian Hanlon, who he met through the Hall of Fame (he’s the shrine’s official sculptor), who will add this project to a portfolio that includes a statue of Shaquille O’Neal on the LSU campus, one of Bob Cousy at Holy Cross, and planned works on Chuck Bednarik and Yogi Berra.
Court of Opinion
Beyond the Jimmy Fund, Vinick is best noted for his work with the Basketball Hall of Fame, an institution he’s been involved with for about as long as he can remember. Actually, it started with his father. He ran a dry-cleaning business and eventually became involved in the building of the first Hall of Fame on the campus of Springfield College, a project that started in 1959, but was often delayed by funding problems and wasn’t completed until 1968.
Jim Vinick was intricately involved in both the building of the second Hall (the first on Springfield’s riverfront), which opened in 1983, and the current structure, which opened nearly a decade ago.
“I guess that’s my legacy to the city of Springfield,” he said of the current Hall complex. “Obviously, we’ve had a tremendous amount of help everywhere, and I’m just a cog in the wheel … but I’m devoted to it, and I’ve been involved since day one.”
One of his signature projects was the creation of the Jeffrey Vinick Memorial Locker Room in the first Hall on the riverfront.
“He was always in the locker room, so I thought this was the most appropriate way to honor him,” Vinick said of his son, who starred in three sports at Longmeadow High School.
Over the years, Vinick has held a number of positions and titles with the Hall, including board member, governor, treasurer, member of the Audit & Finance Committee, and chairman of the Endowment Fund. For his efforts, he was recognized with the Chairman’s Cup Award in 2010.
Doleva told BusinessWest that it’s not only what Vinick has accomplished, but also how, that stands out.
“He’s a very intense individual, let me put it that way,” he explained. “When I first met him, I kind of felt that he was a little over the top. But you have to take time to understand what Jim is all about, especially when he’s passionate about an organization you’re involved with.
“And it does take time to completely understand where he’s coming from,” he continued. “But there is no one more impassioned, more connected to this organization, than he is.
“We have events all over the country, and very few of my Board of Governors members, who live throughout the country, attend them,” Doleva went on. “Jim’s at almost every one of them, and he’s a local governor. He’ll go to the Final Four, he’ll go to a statue unveiling, he’ll be at various basketball tournaments around the country staged to support the Hall of Fame. And he doesn’t just go to be there and enjoy a good basketball game and a few social events; he’s there, and the switch never goes off — he’s talking about Springfield and the Hall of Fame and the birthplace of basketball. He just never stops.”
This ‘never stops’ quality equates to always looking for new and different ways to give back to the community — such as with another of his more recent endeavors, restoration of Robert Lewis Reid’s historic mural, titled “The Light of Education,” which hung in the auditorium of his alma mater, Classical High School, for more than 70 years.
When the school was converted into condominiums in the late ’80s, the mural was removed and subsequently damaged, said Vinick, adding that he and other members of the class of 1958 are working in conjunction with the Springfield Council for Cultural and Community Affairs to restore the piece and then hang it in the Springfield Library.
“We’re up to about $109,000, and we’re still collecting money,” he said, adding that the efforts recently received a boost in the form of a $23,000 check from Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss). “This is a piece of Springfield’s history, and it should be there for citizens and visitors to enjoy.”
Art of the Deal
Work on the Jimmy statue had been delayed somewhat — Vinick said it took several months to get permission to use the 1948 Boston Braves uniform given to Gustafson by the team’s manager, Jimmy Southworth, in the statue’s design — but everything now appears on track for a spring unveiling.
There have been several challenges to overcome and many logistical hurdles to clear, but they are now all in the past tense.
That’s because Vinick is doing things his way, and also because, as Doleva said, the switch never goes off when it comes to something he’s passionate about.