By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
POLITICS’ MASTER SHOWMAN
The Boston Red Sox lost one of their most devoted long-time followers last week when
former state treasurer Bob Crane died at the age of 91. Beginning in the 1930s, during the
time of Moe Berg, the catcher/scholar of whom it was said, “Moe could strike out in
seven different languages,” right through the ages of Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, Big Papi and
beyond, his devotion to and passion for the Olde Towne Team never wavered. Even as
his own body was wearing out and he could no longer get to Fenway Park, the previous
night’s game and the prospects for the next night held his interest.
But Bob was far more than just a Red Sox fan. He was the most underrated public figure
of his age. There were a couple of reasons for that: first, while most poiticians spend their
time trying to show that they’re smartest person in the room, Bob disguised the fact that
he was, in fact, the smartest person in the room; and second, in thity-four years of
elective office he never once, to my knowledge, gave a campaign speech. Instead he sang
a song, told a funny story and asked people how he could help them. It was a formula that
worked; he was the longest serving state treasurer in Massachusetts history and he never
lost an election.
He was a consummate showman (his father had worked in vaudeville as a property
manager). He organized some treasury employees into a group known as The Treasury
Notes and together they would travel the state on their off time, singing, telling stories,
doing imitations – putting on entire first-class variety shows for civic groups and
charitable organizations. Bob was the group’s emcee and lead singer, and a damn good
one, too. His charm, his smile, his sense of mischief, were enthralling. He absolutely
loved it, as did those he entertained. It paid enormous dividends at the ballot box.
All the fun and laughter he created tended to obscure the fact that he was an extrmely
capable state treasurer. The Treasury, under his leadership, was a highly professional
operation and the state’s money was in good hands. When the state lottery was
established in 1971 he became its first chairman and remained so for nineteen years,
building it into the most successful lottery in the nation.
When he retired from public office he didn’t retire from public life. He kept The Treasury
Notes together and they coninued to entertain for many years, bringing joy to hundreds
and raising untold thousands of dollars for charitable causes. He charged no fee for
Treasury Note appearances but paid the other performers and musicians from his own
Critics ranted that he sometimes gave jobs to friends or friends of friends, or that some
state money ended up in banks, directors of which he knew, but his attitiude was that just
because somebody knew him shouldn’t be a disqualifying factor. He never tried to hide
what he did, was always open about it and willingly took the slings and arrows from
those who disagreed, even when they, to no avail, investigated him. As a result he earned
the undying loyalty of more people than any other politician of my lifetime.
Two years ago there was a State House event at which the confrence room in the
treasuer’s office was dedicated in his name. Bob was there in a wheel chair, and there
were a lot of famous pols from the old days on hand as well, such as former governor
Mike Dukakis and former senate president Bill Bulger; but there were even more just
plain people who he had helped along the way crowded into the room. Standing among
them was a man almost as famous for his aversion to crowds as he is for his heroice on
the field, but Carl Yastrzemski, whose daughter had worked for Crane in the treasurer’s
office, wanted to be there for his old friend.
Bob Crane came to prominence the sixties, the same decade that saw the rise of other
giants of Massachusetts politics -Ted Kennedy, Ed Brooke, Frank Sargent, Kevin White
– of them all he might have been the best polician. None of them, if they were around
today, would dispute that.
While Bob never did give a campaign speech, he excelled at another type of address, the
eulogy. He had so many friends and their families often reached out to him to pay a final
tribute – and he always delivered. One of his last public appearances was in 2012 to give
a eulogy at the funeral of his great friend Kevin White, the four-term Mayos of Boston.
Bob’s legs were already betraying him and he had to be assisted up the altar stairs of
Saint Cecelia’s Church to the pulpit, but once there he showed he hadn’t lost a step as far
as captivating an audience is concerned. He told touching stories about his old pal that
had the congregation alternately laughing and weeping. It was a tour de force
performance. I still remember his closing words that day. “God bless you, Kevin,” he said
with feeling, “The song is ended but the melody lingers on.”
With that the entire congregation in the jam-packed church rose to its feet in a thunderous
ovation. I’d never been a part of or witnessed a standing ovation in church before. As I
stood there applauding with the rest I couldn’t help but think to myself, “By God, he’s
just like his old idol, Ted Williams. He hit a home run in his last at bat on the big stage.”
One of his favorite songs, and one he sang at every performance of the The Treasury
Notes was “What a Wonderful World.” Its lyric says in part:
“I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do,
They’re really saying, ‘ I love you.’”
And we love you, Bob.