JOE CASAZZA: COMMISSIONER & FAMILY MAN

13May07

Wakefield resident retires after 39 years Boston DPW chief

On a Saturday morning in March 2007, recently retired Joe Casazza got to clear the snow from his own driveway on Sycamore Road in Wakefield instead of spending the weekend in Boston overseeing the city’s snow removal efforts. After 39 years as Boston’s Public Works Commissioner, Joe Casazza retired from the job late last year at age 73.

Casazza was only 33 years old in 1967 when newly elected Boston Mayor Kevin White offered him the job of Public Works Commissioner. Casazza was just getting himself established as Lynn’s first Commissioner of Public Works, where he had been asked to consolidate five previously autonomous departments.

Casazza turned White’s offer down.

“I can’t do that to the city of Lynn,” Casazza told the Boston mayor.

White offered more money, and Lynn’s mayor gave his blessing, encouraging Casazza to grab the opportunity to go to Boston. But Casazza was still hesitant to walk out on Lynn so soon.

“I’m the first Public Works Commissioner Lynn ever had,” Casazza told White. “I made a commitment to them and to myself.” He told White that he needed at least 6 months.

White couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and thought that Casazza was blowing the opportunity of a lifetime. But White was also determined to get what he wanted.

Casazza recalled White’s words. “He said, ‘If you’d do that for them, you’d do it for me. I’ll wait.’”

Casazza took the job, becoming the youngest Public Works Commissioner in Boston’s history. But Lynn had taught Casazza some hard lessons about city politics, and he told Kevin White so right up front. “Politics and I aren’t meant for each other,” Casazza told the mayor.

“I’m not hiring a politician,” White replied, “I’m hiring a Public Works Commissioner. Let me do the politics. You just run the Public Works Department with integrity. That’s all I want from you.”

For the next 39 years, serving three Boston mayors, that integrity served Casazza well. It also helped get him elected president of the American Public Works Association. And last January, when the city and the APWA threw a retirement banquet for Casazza, a thousand people showed up at the Hynes Convention Center to honor the Commissioner.

A graduate of Arlington High School and the Northeastern Engineering Cooperative Program, Casazza began his public service career in 1957 as Arlington’s Chief of Construction and Chief of Survey Party. In 1960, he became Wakefield’s Town Engineer and moved to Wakefield the same year. He served briefly as Wakefield’s Acting Director of Public Works, before taking the Lynn job in 1966.

During his nearly four decades at the helm of Boston’s Public Works Department, Casazza oversaw the city’s preparations for visits of the Queen, the Pope and the President. Then there were the Tall Ships, the Bicentennial and the Democratic National Convention, not to mention the blizzards of ’69, ’78, ’97 and ’05.

One of Casazza’s proudest public works accomplishments was capping the 98-acre Gardner Street Landfill in West Roxbury and converting the site into Millennium Park.

“If I put a blindfold on you and took you to Millennium Park and you stood at the top of the hill and looked toward the Blue Hills, you’d think you were in Vermont,” Casazza says with pride. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Casazza also established a fiber optic policy that forced all utilities to cooperate when installing underground cables and limited the number of times the city streets needed to be dug up. The policy resulted in a sophisticated network under Boston’s streets and made money for the city. It has been copied from coast to coast.

Casazza also beautified the city of Boston in several key ways.

While traveling, Casazza liked the sidewalk cafes he saw in European cities. There were a few sidewalk cafes on private property along Newbury Street, but none on the city’s public sidewalks. The first administration told Casazza that the city sidewalks and streets were too narrow, but Casazza kept pushing the issue and now sidewalk cafes are all over the South End and other parts of the city.

Another simple beautification effort that met with initial resistance from City Hall involved hanging flowering plants off poles all over the city. Casazza had seen pictures in a magazine and thought it would look good in Boston. When the city balked at the idea, he had 30 or 40 plants hung on poles in the Dock Square area right outside the mayor’s window.

“The mayor looked out the window,” Casazza recalls. “He saw it and it took off.”

When it comes to snow, you might assume that the Blizzard of ’78 was the toughest one he had to deal with, but Casazza says no.

“It was anything but a fun time, don’t get me wrong,” Casazza says. “But people saw the magnitude of that storm and the best in the public came out. They helped each other. You get more complaints from an 8-inch storm.”

Casazza says that the worst winter from a public safety standpoint was 1969. After very little snow in December and January, the city was hit with three big storms in a row with no melting in between. That meant big trouble for fire trucks, ambulances and oil trucks getting through the city streets. Casazza said that public safety concerns from those storms caused him more worries than anything else in his 39 years on the job.

During the course of his long tenure in Boston, Casazza had offers and chances to move on to even bigger and more lucrative positions in the corporate and public arenas. New York City mayor John Lindsay wanted Casazza to come and work for him. He was wooed by private corporations too.

But the father of six, grandfather of seventeen and great-grandfather of two had a bigger priority: family.

“I turned down the dollars and the vice presidencies,” Casazza says. “I felt that when you go to work for big corporations, family comes second.”

Casazza says that he didn’t want to be in a position where he’d have to call his wife, Mimi, from some foreign city to tell her that he just couldn’t be there for one of their children’s confirmations or other important family event.

It’s not that being Public Works Commissioner for the city of Boston didn’t make great demands on his time, such as during snow emergencies. But staying with the Boston job allowed him to be home with his family, or at most 12 miles away, if any problems came up.

“I chose family over dollars,” Casazza says, “and in the long run, I think I made the right decision.”

[This story originally appeared in the Wakefield Daily Item.]

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