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A Bridge For Lenny

Mike Hall

Until his tragic death from bone cancer two years ago at age 46, Lenny Zakim worked tirelessly for nearly two decades to build bridges between Boston’s disparate ethnic groups.

Now, instead of giving the former regional director of the Anti-Defamation League a bridge of his own, Gov. Paul Cellucci and the residents of Charlestown have robbed him of an honor befitting a man of his character.

Last Thursday, Cellucci signed a bill which named the Big Dig’s new Charles River bridge the “Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge.” The $86 million bridge connects downtown with Charlestown and will replace the upper and lower decks of Interstate 93.

Initially, Cellucci planned to honor Zakim’s legacy alone by naming the span the “Leonard P. Zakim Freedom Bridge.” After state Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty and his Charlestown constituents complained about Cellucci’s planned tribute to the civil rights figure, however, the governor capitulated and accepted the State Legislature’s compromise name, which commemorates a battle that already has its own memorial.

The new name is a compromise which compromises Lenny’s legacy. Since the bridge’s new name is more than a mouthful, everyone from pedestrians to traffic reporters will inevitably refer to it by a nickname. And which nickname is more likely to be adopted: the hard-to-pronounce Jewish last name or the easily identifiable name for a popular local landmark? The words “Bunker Hill Bridge” will be on everybody’s lips, while Zakim will be as forgotten in Boston as Robert E. McNair PhD ’76 and Camille Edouard Dreyfus (for whom Buildings 37 and 18 are named) are at MIT.

Lenny’s lost legacy is Boston’s loss as well, for everyone in this divided community has much to learn from his accomplishments in life. After suffering through anti-Semitic harassment while attending high school in Wayne, New Jersey, Lenny recognized the damage inflicted on victims of racial harassment. While at American University and the New England School of Law in the seventies, he studied racial persecution and worked on racial healing firsthand while helping with the African-American civil rights movement.

Zakim’s experiences there prepared him for his first big opportunity to make a difference: an appointment as the New England ADL’s civil rights director. While with the ADL, he reached out to the black community in an attempt to rekindle black-Jewish relations in Greater Boston. He established an annual black-Jewish Seder, which went from drawing six people its first year to drawing over 600 people of all races and faiths in 1999. Lenny also worked to mend fences between Boston’s Jewish and Catholic communities. He was praised at every level for his work and trips abroad with Cardinal Bernard Law, and was even named a Knight of St. Gregory (one of the highest lay honors in the Catholic Church) by Pope John Paul II in 1999.

Even up until his death, Lenny continued to keep a full schedule of activities, often delaying cancer treatments so that he could keep preaching to community leaders and to Boston’s children through his Team Harmony program.

Why would a man dying of cancer delay any of his treatments? Because this man wanted immediate action on civil rights issues. He fought through the infections and mind-numbing pain and losses of balance because he knew he had the power -- and the obligation -- to make a difference.

“We cannot wait for another Moses or Jesus to solve the predicament we find ourselves in today,” he said in a 1999 interview with The Boston Globe. “We have to do it ourselves.” And do it himself he did, right until the bitter end.

Let’s follow Lenny’s advice by doing what the governor failed to do. Call the new bridge the Zakim Bridge in conversation, regardless of what you hear on the street or on the radio. Call it The Lenny by nickname. Just do what it takes to keep his spirit alive.

With all due respect, Bunker Hill already has its own monument. Lenny Zakim deserves his own, too.