Goodbye to a gentle mayor of New Bedford
The half-staff flag outside Register of Deeds Frederick M. Kalisz Jr.’s office Wednesday [ Jack Spillane ]
The flag outside of the New Bedford Registry of Deeds flew at a sad half-staff Wednesday.
It flapped in a sad gray sky, the day after a surprisingly strong winter storm preceded the unexpected passing of Fred Kalisz.
It was almost as if that wet flag was purposely blowing in a cold wind meant for Frederick M. Kalisz Jr.
Kalisz had not been mayor of New Bedford for some 15 years when he died and he had a successful career outside City Hall after he left the corner office, most recently as the Southern Bristol County register.
But for those who knew him and loved him he would always be Mayor Kalisz, or former Mayor Kalisz or just Fred.
Kalisz was an eight-year mayor and to say he made a big difference is understatement.
It is fair to say that Kalisz and his tenacious first city solicitor, George Leontire, were the guys who began a new era of economic development in the city, and an era of positive thinking about who New Bedford is and who it could be.
It’s not that other mayors before and after him have not done the same, they absolutely have. It’s just to say that Kalisz and Leontire had an aggressiveness, and more importantly a willingness to think outside the box, that in many ways helped New Bedford to start believing in itself again.
Kalisz created the professionally operated New Bedford Economic Development Council and kick-started the redevelopment of the downtown with the building of Compass Bank, a five-story office structure on the site of where a decrepit police station looked back on a bygone era.
Against heady political winds, his administration successfully made the case that New Bedford deserved a share of the ferry business to Nantucket and coordinated with state Sen. Mark Montigny on the conversion of the Star Store into a UMass Dartmouth campus that has laid much of the groundwork for downtown development that came after. With the subsequent efforts of Scott Lang and Jon Mitchell, that work continues to pay dividends.
The portrait of Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr. at the downtown library is draped in black. [ Photo courtesy of City of New Bedford ]
Like most elected executives, Kalisz was not without plans that went wrong.
There was the proposal for an expansive waterfront oceanarium that would have made the city an important entertainment and educational destination. It never happened. But had John Kerry been elected president in 2004, it’s fair to say that the striking proposal might well have come to fruition. It was a more than ambitious plan and that is what Fred Kalisz was very much about. He was a softspoken guy but he was a guy who was not afraid to think big.
Kalisz’s biggest mistake was probably the siting of the new Keith Middle School on a former PCB dump, a very costly error for the city. Although some might argue that even that resulted in the cleanup of contamination years earlier than it would have been otherwise. Sometimes forgotten is the fact that the Keith project was part of an ambitious eight-school building plan that included the successful construction of two other middle schools.
But Kalisz’s ultimate political demise was probably because he tried to do the right thing. He closed neighborhood police stations that most in law enforcement knew were no longer necessary. And he alienated the police union in a bitter contract negotiation. He had steadfastly tried to move the unions to a more affordable health care plan and they organized and demonstrated against him with furor.
In the wake of Mayor Kalisz’s untimely death, social media and talk radio were all a maze of “emotions and abstractions.” But the common thread was that Fred Kalisz was just a good, good guy.
It was hard not to like him -- he was easygoing and polite, well-intentioned and kind. He played within the rules of courtly politics in a world that is hard to recognize with the ubiquity of the national political dysfunction that blackens our lives today.
In perhaps a last gift to the city, the family of Fred Kalisz was straightforward that he had died of COVID-19. You can say he was a public figure and they had to do it. But they did it easily in a statement from his son Ricky, who with Fred’s penchant for doing all things publicly, had grown up for a time as “Little Ricky,” the city’s first son. Good for them.
We remain in the throes of this devastating epidemic that has taken so much from so many families and there was the Kalisz family, as Fred would have wanted, at the moment of their greatest personal tragedy, letting us know that this virus had taken the center of their world. The coronavirus is real and still challenging all of us to rise to it.
So here is this wistful goodbye to Fred Kalisz. He will be gone but not forgotten in this city of New Bedford he loved. He may never have known how big an effect he had.