Most of you know my brother, Tim, as a writer, trucker, fisherman, political activist, neighbor, and friend. You probably don’t know much about his childhood and early years, so I will talk briefly about our parents, growing up in Boston and Dedham, and some early experiences that shaped Tim’s thinking about economics, history, and labor.
Tom Costello, our father, was born in Hyde Park in 1911, the youngest of six children. His parents were Irish immigrants from Galway who met in Boston. Our grandfather, Alexander Costello, was a groundskeeper on a large estate in Milton. Tom and his friends had a great time playing on the estate grounds. Most of his friends were children of the other Irish immigrants who settled in the Hyde Park neighborhood called Corriganville. Many of the men worked on neighboring estates or in local factories. The women worked as maids and household helpers.
Claire MacPhee, our mother was also born in Hyde Park in 1916, the third of six children. Her parents came from Prince Edward Island, Canada. They met in Boston and moved to Hyde Park where her father, Jim, worked as a machinist for the Sturtevant Corporation which eventually was bought by Westinghouse, where he worked until his retirement.
Tom graduated from Hyde Park High School an 1928 and went to work for the New Haven Railroad in the Readville car shops located on the Boston-Dedham line. The Readville shops were the main repair facility for the northern end of the railroad. At their peak they employed about 4000 workers – plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters, upholsterers and welders. Tom became a welder and a member of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, Local #102. He was active in the Union from the start. He became President and served for many years. The President and other officers were full-time welders dealing with grievances and other problems as they happened. This was a no-frills operation; no expense accounts, no business lunches, no fancy offices. In fact, the office was in our house.
In 1958, Tom was laid off after 30 years on the job. He was 47. Railroads were loosing both freight and passenger business at a rapid rate. The Federal Highway System and subsidies to the trucking and airline industries combined with incompetent management brought down the New Haven. Tim was in junior high school at the time and I was in high school.
Tom was able to get a job as a Union laborer working for a friend. He joined Framingham Local #609. The laborers’ union in those days didn’t offer much beyond a decent hourly rate. There were no sick days, vacation days, and if you were working outside and the weather was bad, you didn’t get paid. Some of the larger companies had permanent workers and paid benefits but the smaller ones preferred to hire out of the Hall. Tim and I were both members of Local 609 and both worked jobs with Tom. When Tom lost his job with the New Haven, he was never openly bitter or angry but it was very difficult to accept the fact that 30 years of dedicated Union work went for naught and he had to take a job which did not offer any of the benefits he had fought for. He continued to work on jobs around the Greater-Boston area until he became sick in 1967. He died of cancer at age 56.
Our mother, Claire, graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1933. The Depression was in full swing and jobs were hard to find. But she did get a job as the manager of a small clothing store in Hyde Park. They hours were long and the pay was lousy, but it was a job; one that she kept until I was born in 1941. Claire and Tom were married in 1937. They, unlike a lot of couples, each had a job.
The Depression had a lasting effect on our parents and their friends. Through the years as the economy improved, they continued to spend cautiously and save what they could. Over the years they spoke of the general feeling of gloom and pessimism that lasted throughout much of the 30’s. The critic Alfred Kazin, who was fifteen in 1930, wrote in 1980, “No one ever grew up in the Depression ever recovered from it.”
Claire also spent time as a union activist. In the early 50’s she was working in the classified ad department of the Transcript Publications which published weekly newspapers in the Dedham – West Roxbury area. The Newspaper Guild successfully organized several weeklies in the Greater Boston area. Claire was a leader in the Transcript drive and served as the first Secretary of the local.
Our parents’ hard work and saving did give allow them to buy a small house in Dedham in 1947, where Tim and I spent most of our childhood. About a year after we moved, when Tim was about four, he became sick with a neurological problem which was never really diagnosed. He spent two long stretches of several months each at Children’s Hospital. At some point it was decided that whatever they were doing for him had worked. He was discharged and resumed a normal life. He played Little League when he was old enough and a lot of backyard basketball. The Red Sox played many day games in the 50’s and we spent a lot of time in the bleachers at Fenway - 60 cents a ticket, believe it or not. Winter Sundays were spent in the second balcony at the Old Garden watching the Celtics, another cheap ticket.
Tim began high school in 1959. Dedham High was a very bad school. The books were old, the teachers were old, and the curriculum hadn’t changed in years. Tim was totally bored and unhappy. During his freshman year, Tim refused to participate in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. He was reading about the Army-McCarthy hearings of the early fifties and anti-communist paranoia which they helped create. The principal tried to force him to recite the Pledge, but our parents, who detested McCarthy, supported him. He felt that the daily recitation was meaningless and any forced participation was illegal.
Half-way through his sophomore year, he and a friend decided to shake things up a little. They anonymously wrote a lengthy and very accurate analysis of the failings of Dedham High School which was published as a letter to the editor in the local paper. This was Tim’s first published work, and I guess the beginning of his career as a writer and an activist. It created quite a buzz in the town; people wanted to know what was going on in the high school.
Harvey Scribner, the Superintendent of Schools, had been in Dedham about 6 years during which time he had revitalized the elementary schools but there was an entrenched group of administrators, teachers, and school committee members who were successfully his resisting his efforts at the high school. (Scribner, in later years, held several important positions including Commissioner of Education in Vermont, head of the New York City Schools, and Professor of Education at NYU). Claire had been working as a book keeper for the school department for a couple of years and she and Harvey were good friends. Scribner loved the letter and he asked Claire if she knew who wrote it. She told him that Tim was a co-author and that he was very unhappy at the high school. Scribner recommended that Tim go to the Huntington School in Boston. It was a good school and it was affordable.
Tim loved Huntington. – a commuter school located next to Northeastern. He enjoyed going into the city every day, the work was challenging and he got to read a lot of good books.
He joined the track team and became a very good distance runner, competing in the mile and two-mile events often against college freshman teams. In his senior year, Huntington won the New England Prep School Cross-Country Championship in their division.
In 1963, Tim entered Goddard College in Plainfield, VT. Goddard was a progressive school run by a man named Royce Pitkin who believed that college should be about, quote: “plain living and hard thinking.” During his freshman year he went to Puerto Rico where he lived with a farm family. This experience was the beginning a lifetime habit of seeking out working class and poor neighborhoods to see how people really lived.
In 1964, Tim married his classmate, Helen McCabe. They continued at Goddard for another year. Tim then transferred to Franconia College in New Hampshire. Their daughter, Gilly, was born a year later. Franconia was always on shaky financial ground but Tim’s time there was productive; he studied politics, history and economics, and a serious reading of Marx.
After Franconia, he entered the graduate school at the New School for Social research in New York City. During his second year, he decided that he couldn’t afford to stay in school. He took a ten week course at a tractor trailer school which led to a long and interesting career as a Teamster.
At this point, I am going to conclude. I hope that this narrative has given you some insight into some of the factors that influenced Tim’s thinking and writing. Jeremy has written a wonderful piece about his 40 year association with Tim. If you haven’t read it, I hope you all will. Also, one of Tim’s early pieces, “Keep on Truckin’,” written under the name Mac Brockway is included in their blog. I enjoyed reading it again after all these years and I recommend it.