Rita Gillooly’s Boston

Rita Gillooly, Mary Clark and Beth Ferree – Friends from Houston days

I met Rita Gillooly in the lounge of the University of Houston law school in 1974.  She was also eating a sack lunch alone.  We were both transfer students from other law schools and naturally gravitated to each other.  Our differences were stark despite her being only three days older.  Rita grew up in public housing in Boston and I was a farmer’s daughter from the panhandle of Texas.  No one in her family drove a car and I had my license at age 14.   My family traveled extensively and hers got no further than a summer jaunt to Cape Cod.   Yet, we bonded, stayed in touch, and in June, I finally got to experience Boston through Rita’s history.

117 Garfield Avenue is on the right

The Gillooly family immigrated from Ireland to join the many Irish in Boston.  With such an unusual name, anyone claiming it had to be kin to Rita.  She knew of 35 first cousins.  Her father delivered mail and her mother cared for the four children.  Rita candidly disclosed that her father’s drinking caused instability in the family.   They moved often with occasional residence in public housing  (Rita attended 5 schools in 7 years), before settling in Hyde Park, a nice neighborhood south of Boston proper.  Though surrounded by middle class homes, her cul-de-sac ended in several two story, three bedroom public apartment buildings. Theirs was number 117 Garfield Avenue.

When we visited it, Rita was shocked at the quietness – empty stoops, vacant street, and no hordes of children playing on the back yard monkey bars.  She noted window air units had been added since her time, possibly the source for the minimal activity.  Rita pointed out one apartment where she had done Mrs. Carroll’s hair and the O’Grady and O’Hara families’ homes where she babysat.  All earned money went for clothes as she avoided the outfits bought by her mother at  Salvation Army’s thrift store.

Boston bomb memorial in Copley Square

Thanks to her good grades and teacher recommendation at the end of 6th grade, she was told she would be going to Girls Latin School  – an offshoot of the oldest public school in America,  one with high expectations and  dedicated to college preparation for girls. To get to the school on Codman Square, Rita had to take a bus, trolley and bus again.  After school,  students would hang around downtown Boston, including Copley Square where the makeshift memorial to the Boston bombing victims stood.

At home, Rita’s mother knew the value of education and played word games with the kids, surrounded them with books and alw
ays had paper and pens ready for writing.  Even though the TV was often on, her mother would lay a board over a chair for each to do  homework.  Her father was harder to please.  Despite her excellent grades  (she graduated 3rd in her class), her father would look at the report card and always  say, “Room for Improvement”.

Her life changed forever when a school counselor suggested she apply to Brown University, a nearby Ivy League school.   She had never heard of Brown, and never been to Providence, despite its proximity at the end of her train line.  The school was full of far wealthier students and Rita realized quickly she needed to tone down her strong working class accent.  After getting her undergraduate and law degrees and practicing in Texas for several years, Rita returned to Boston in 1985.

Charles River, Boston

On a stroll along the Charles River,  we learned her father and five uncles served in World War II and one has a sign honoring him.   She also pointed out a reference to Thomas  “Mumbles” Menino, mayor of Boston for 20 years. Her brother has worked for the Mayor for many years and her mother used to write letters telling him exactly what he should do.  The Mayor even attended her mother’s funeral – indicative of the roots established by the Gillooly family over the years as well as the small town feel of Boston.

Swan Boats in Boston’s Public Garden

At the Public Garden, across from the Boston Common, we saw the famous swan boats ferrying tourists and families around a small lake.  Rita’s mother would bring the four kids downtown once a year to ride the boats, an experience they loved.  And nearby we walked by the headquarters of the insurance giant, Liberty Mutual, where Rita now works in the legal department.

Rita is not bitter about her father’s drinking nor does she indulge in self-pity.  She and her husband raised  two children in Canton, only two train stops  from her family’s apartment on Garfield Avenue in  Hyde Park.   Her journey to a home in the suburbs with good schools is the American dream.   I missed seeing many famous sites of Boston but the city became  more real with Rita as the guide – a place for immigrants to settle and thrive and where a self-motivated, smart child of the projects could use a good education to expand her world.

One Response to “Rita Gillooly’s Boston”

  1. Kathy

    Excellent article about one of my dearest friends, Rita. You sure have a knack at writing. Thanks for this beautiful tribute to Rita's upbringing.


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