BUZZY ALWAYS HAD THE TIME TO GIVE
APRIL 7, 2023: It was hard not to be struck by the irony of the moment. A half-dozen people crammed into a room on the 16th floor of Brigham & Women’s Hospital late Tuesday night, family and friends of Buzzy Barton, who was sitting up in his bed taking it all in.
Buzzy looked at the clock high on the wall in front of him as it hit exactly 11 p.m. and, while by that point he was not able to say much, weakened by the cancer that attacked with merciless and meteoric ferocity, you could tell what he was thinking: What the hell are you people doing here at this hour; this is way past my bedtime.
It was indeed well after usual turn-in time for the beloved city councilor, but even he couldn’t manage to sleep amid the parade of those who had rushed into Boston upon hearing the news that his condition had deteriorated from serious to grave in a matter of hours. They were there not so much to say “goodnight,” but, each in his or her own way, “goodbye.”
With the death of Barton, a retired Lynn firefighter and city councilor since 2012, the world lost a high-tech holdout, a guy who found it more effective to communicate eye to eye than with an iPhone. He had an email address, but there is no proof he ever sent one with his own hands. A quick check of my messages finds 33 outgoing texts to Buzzy over the last eight years … and zero incoming.
Yet, he found a way to connect with people on a deeper and more meaningful level than anyone you’ve ever seen.
Without a doubt, that was his strength, dealing with people one-on-one,” said Bob “Moona” Mullins, who met Buzzy when they were students in junior high and two became inseparable friends over more than a half-century. “He was second to none when it came to dealing with people.”
Moona and Buzzy were instrumental in getting their good friend Pat McManus to run for mayor – and win – in 1991.
“We encouraged him to run and he confided in us,” said Mullins, who played on the Wyoma Dodgers Little League team with McManus. “We got people involved immediately. We were a good team.”
McManus went on to serve 10 years as mayor.
The current mayor, Jared Nicholson, developed a close professional and personal relationship with the council vice president in a relatively short period of time.
“It was an honor to work with him,” said Nicholson, who had a chance to see Buzzy one last time earlier this week and ordered the flag at City Hall to be lowered to half-staff after his death. “He was someone I admired and I loved to be around. I learned a lot from him.”
About six months into the mayor’s tenure, the phone rang and it was Buzzy, who told him, “I’m not happy.”
“My heart sank because I care so much about when he thinks,” Nicholson recalled, shuddering at the thought of disappointing his friend in any way. “He told me he heard I was spending too much time at City Hall and that I have to remember what’s important.”
It was a timely message for the father of a 3-year old with another child on the way at the time.
“I know he really cared about me as a person,” said Nicholson.
That puts the mayor in a not-so-exclusive club.
“The one thing in life he always wanted to do was to help people,” Mullins said. “That was his goal. When he coached (basketball at Lynn English), he would buy the kids sneakers and clothes, things people never knew. He was a giver, big-time. That’s the best compliment you could give him, that he liked to take care of other people.”
That was 100 percent genetic, according to his sister Pat.
“Buzzy was a carbon copy of my mother, and that’s probably the highest praise you could give him,” she said, referring to the late Virginia Barton, one of the City’s fiercest advocates for civil rights ever. “He truly believed in her mantra: ‘Don’t ever look down on anyone unless you’re offering a hand to help them up.’”
“The City of Lynn lost a legend,” said Jim Cowdell, EDIC/Lynn executive director and a friend of Buzzy’s for decades. “He is irreplaceable.”
Cowdell recalled being a freshman city councilor in 1989 when the firefighters were battling with Mayor Al DiVirgilio, who had proposed closing the Franklin Street fire station. “The day of the public hearing, I called Buzzy and told him I was nervous that we didn’t have the support,” Cowdell said. “He told me to look out the window right at 8 o’clock. So when 8 o’clock came I looked out the window. Marching down Franklin Street were 100 firefighters, in uniform, with Buzzy leading the way with a big smile on his face.”
That episode spoke to Buzzy’s leadership qualities, the type of guy whom people would get in line to follow, whether it be into a burning building or to fight City Hall.
“The thing that strikes me is how effective he was as a leader, without any fanfare,” said Charlie Gaeta, executive director of the Lynn Housing Authority & Neighborhood Development and a 50-year friend. “He was open-minded and accessible, just a wonderful guy and a good friend.”
Buzzy ran for city council six times and was elected six times, finishing first in the at-large race on three occasions. He did his share of campaigning, but it got to the point that as long as he submitted enough signatures to get on the ballot, there was a zero-percent chance he wouldn’t finish in the top four.
“He was just a solid guy,” said Council President Jay Walsh. “They just don’t make people like him anymore. He never backed down from a fight and he was always there to defend people. If he said he was with you, nobody was going to change his mind.”
State Rep. Dan Cahill served six years on the council with Buzzy and became a close friend – in and out of the chamber.
“To know him is to love him,” Cahill said. “He was a friend, a colleague, family. He was the kind of guy that no matter what relationship you had with him, he made you feel like he was your friend. If you had something bad happen to you, you could talk about it with him. He’s the guy I would call in a situation like this, but he’s not here to talk to and that’s sad.”
Though he had been retired for almost 20 years, not to be forgotten is just how good a firefighter Buzzy was.
“I worked with giants on the job and Buzzy was one of them,” said Jimmy McDonald, who worked with him on Ladder 1 at Fayette Street and went on to become chief. “He was a tough, brave firefighter. He learned how to put the danger and the fear aside and get the job done and he was tremendous at it.”
Long before they would spend leisurely weeks at Saratoga, Mullins and Barton found themselves in the same burning building on many occasions.
“Buzzy was an excellent firefighter,” Mullins said. “He learned the job and he did it well. When it was time to perform, he was very good at it.”
Matt Reddy looked up to Barton when he first got on the fire department and later when he was advancing in the ranks of union leadership.
“I came in as a young guy and didn’t really know much,” he said. “Buzzy was a mentor to me and I was lucky to know him. He encouraged me to get involved in the union movement.”
Reddy recalled many Christmas mornings when, after Santa Claus had come and gone, Buzzy would arrive at his door.
“Every year he would bring presents for my kids and flowers for my wife,” Reddy said. “I think they looked forward to that more than the gifts I got them.”
Kevin Bradley, his wife, Robin, sons Jacob, Noah and Kevin, and daughter Rachael, were with their cousin right to the end, and there is no doubt that Buzzy’s final days were made more comfortable by the incomparable level of care Rachael helped arrange at the Brigham, where she works as an emergency room nurse.
“What you saw is what you got with Buzzy,” Kevin said. “All he ever wanted was to do something for somebody else. He was just a giving guy.”
“He was a family man who always made sure no one was left out,” Robin said. “Anyone who needed a place to go on Thanksgiving, they were welcome. He was always there, and he didn’t talk about it, he did it.”
Andy Fila was Buzzy’s gym teacher at Eastern Junior High and the principal at English when he was the boys hoop coach.
“He was the first kid I helped as an educator and the friendship with him and his family grew over the years,” Fila said. “He was just an all-around good person and I was happy to have him as a friend.”
The last decision Buzzy made validates the sentiments of those who will remember him first and foremost as a giver.
“One of the last things he was able to say,” Pat Barton said, “was when the doctor had told him the cancer had spread and asked him if there was anything he wanted. He said ‘donate’ because he wanted to donate his organs.”
When the doctor told him that wouldn’t be possible because those organs had been ravaged by disease, “he got dejected,” his sister said. “Then they brought up the possibility of donating his eyes and he was all for that.”
On Thursday, a match was found and Buzzy’s eyes were given to someone who needed them. What a way to go out.
No word on whether the recipient has been told they typically don’t work after 8 p.m.