Remembering Paul Faler

22Dec11

There are certainly many who knew Paul Faler better than I, although I had the privilege of knowing him for a good long time. When we spoke on the phone two days before Thanksgiving, it did not even cross my mind that it would be our last conversation.

I first met Paul Faler in 1970 or 1971, when I walked into his classroom at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He was a 30 year old assistant professor of history in his first or second year at UMass. This was before the Boston campus moved out to Columbia Point. Back then, most classes were held in the old office building at 100 Arlington St. in Park Square.

If I had to pick one word to describe Professor Faler, it would be “clarity.” After going over a subject matter once, he would invariably say, “In other words…” and explain it again from a different angle until it was crystal clear.

Around 1978, I was in a downtown Wakefield place of business when a man walked in whom I recognized instantly.

“Aren’t you Paul Faler?” I asked.

“Yes, I am,” he said.

“You probably don’t remember me,” I said. “I was in a couple of your classes at UMass.”

“Sure I remember you,” Paul replied. “Mark Sardella.”

It was easy for me to remember the names of a couple of dozen professors. But I was surprised that out of hundreds of students he remembered my name. I was a decent student, but certainly no superstar.

Paul told me that he and his wife Karen had just moved to Wakefield, having purchased a house on Lowell Street.

William J. Lee Memorial Town HallIn the 1980s, Paul became interested in local property taxation and in 1984 got himself elected to the Board of Assessors. Meanwhile, I was starting to get involved with local cable television production. At a Board of Assessors meeting sometime in 1985 or 1986, Paul was planning to propose something and anticipated a less than warm reception from his colleagues on the board. He thought it might be interesting if I showed up with a video camera to tape the meeting.

I can’t say for sure that it was the very first Wakefield government meeting taped for cable TV, but it was certainly one of the first. The other two members of the board nearly did double takes when they strolled into the meeting room at Town Hall and saw that big old video camera.

Last summer, I was cleaning a spare room when I found a yellowing newspaper clipping dated February 9, 1987. The clipping includes a photo to promote a cable TV debate between incumbent assessor Paul Faler and challenger Harris Cusick. The photo caption reads, “Producer Mark Sardella, Moderator Paul Dooley and Assessor Paul Faler review the ground rules for tonight’s debate.” The paper explained that Mr. Cusick was not able to attend the photo op.

Paul may have won that debate but he narrowly lost the election to Cusick by 32 votes. Paul’s strengths were reason and logic – qualities that don’t always lead to success in politics.

Many people witnessed those qualities when Paul spoke at Town Meeting. After listening to our various Town Meeting orators drone endlessly, Paul would often rise and use simple language to distill a complex issue down to its essence in about two minutes. After Paul finished, everyone understood what the crux of the matter was.

As a member of the Board of Assessors for many of the last 27 years, Paul advocated for what he believed was best for the town and especially its small property owners. He often ran into resistance from those interested in preserving the established way of doing things.

But often, time would vindicate Paul’s point of view. The recent case where the state Appellate Tax Board upheld the town’s right to tax concrete pumpers, resulting in thousands of additional dollars in previously untapped tax revenue for the town, is only the latest example.

Paul was instrumental in instituting tax classification in Wakefield, which shifts some of the property tax burden from the residential taxpayers to the commercial property owners. He also successfully pushed for the local hotel tax, which has brought hundreds of thousands of dollars into the town coffers.

Lynn in Ye Olden TimeEven after I left his UMass classroom, Paul continued to stoke my interest in history, especially family history. Long before the advent of Ancestry.com, he suggested that we drive down to the National Archives in Waltham, Massachusetts where we each spent the afternoon doing our own research. That day, I learned the dates that my immigrant grandparents arrived, the ports through which they departed and entered, and the names of the ships that took them to their new lives in America.

A few years ago, Paul gave me an old historical map of the City of Lynn. It still hangs on my dining room wall.

Back in its pre-industrial history, Wakefield was an agricultural town. As one local resident has suggested, Paul may have been Wakefield’s last farmer – a tag that I doubt he would have minded. With the vast acreage behind his home, Paul grew a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. Every year he would bring me a big tub of blueberries that he picked from the patches on his property.

I’ll miss Paul as a friend and a teacher. The residential taxpayers of Wakefield will miss him as an advocate on their behalf.

In more than one sense, Paul Faler left the town of Wakefield a richer place.

[This column originally appeared in the December 22, 2011 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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