Furcolo, (John) Foster

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Furcolo, (John) Foster

(b. 29 July 1911 in New Haven, Connecticut, d. 5 July 1995 in Cambridge, Massachusetts), the first Italian American to win statewide office in Massachusetts and the first Italian American governor of Massachusetts.

Furcolo was the younger of two sons born to Charles Lawrence Furcolo, a neurosurgeon, and Alberta Marie Foster. Furcolo’s father was an Italian immigrant who graduated from Yale College in 1910. Foster attended public schools in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, and graduated from New Haven High School. He drove trucks and waited tables to earn his tuition at Yale. As an undergraduate Furcolo played basketball and football, and was captain of the boxing team in 1933. In 1933 he received his B.A. degree. Furcolo’s mother and father separated, and his mother changed the spelling of the last name to Furcolowe, which is how Furcolo spelled it when he graduated from Yale. On 18 April 1936 Furcolo married Kathryn Foran; they had five children. While attending Yale Law School, he wrote two plays, Fancy Free and The Grail, both of which were produced by stock companies. Also in 1936 Furcolo earned his LL.B. degree from Yale Law School. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1937 and practiced as a trial lawyer in Springfield.

During World War II, Furcolo served in the U.S. Navy (1943–1945), mainly in the Pacific theater aboard the attack transport Kershaw as a lieutenant junior grade. After his discharge Furcolo entered Massachusetts politics. He lost a 1946 bid for the congressional seat from the Second Massachusetts District by only 3,295 votes. However, in 1948 he defeated the Republican incumbent John R. Clason by 15,000 votes to become only the second Democrat elected from western Massachusetts. He served in the Eighty-first Congress and was reelected to a second two-year term in 1950. A member of the House Appropriations Committee, Furcolo generally supported the Truman administration along Democratic party lines.

Furcolo was a member of several other committees, including a special House committee that investigated the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre of Polish army prisoners. In March 1953 he was honored by Free Poland (the Polish government in exile) as knight-commander of the Order of Polonia Restituta for his work. In 1973 he published a novel, Rendezvous at Katyn, based on that tragedy. In July 1952 Furcolo resigned his congressional seat to accept appointment by the Massachusetts governor Paul A. Dever as state treasurer and receiver-general. The following November, despite the Eisenhower Republican sweep of national and statewide offices, Furcolo was elected to the position, which he held until 1955.

On 12 December 1953 Furcolo, addressing the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), shocked the group by suggesting that it disband because it was weakening the Democratic party. As a congressman Furcolo had received high ratings from the ADA on his voting record, but it never supported him again. He was highly rated by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and New Republic magazine. Both the National Radio Press Gallery and Fortune magazine praised him as one of the ten best congressmen.

In 1954 Furcolo received the Democratic party’s nomination for the Senate seat held by the Republican Leverett Saltonstall since 1944. Without the Democratic senator John F. Kennedy’s support, Furcolo lost the election but only by 28,706 votes. In 1956 Furcolo ran for governor and was endorsed by Senator Kennedy. In November, despite another Eisenhower Republican landslide victory in Massachusetts, Furcolo led the Democrats to a sweep of all state offices except that of attorney general. Furcolo beat his Republican opponent, Lieutenant Governor Sumner G. Whittier, by more than 154,000 votes. In 1957, under the quickly unmasked pseudonym John Foster, he wrote Let George Do It!, a political satire about ward politics and campaigning for ethnic votes.

Furcolo served two two-year terms as governor (1957–1961). He established a community college system and expanded the University of Massachusetts. He appointed the first African American superior court judge (1958) along with similar firsts for Polish and Portuguese Americans. In 1959 he appointed Jennie Loitman Barron to the Massachusetts Superior Court as the state’s first full-time female judge. In 1960, plagued by accusations of corruption in his administration, he lost the Democratic party primary to oppose Saltonstall, ending his elective political career.

In 1960 Furcolo was charged with attempting to bribe the Governor’s Council, in order to assure the reappointment of his commissioner of public works, Anthony N. DiNatale. DiNatale himself was indicted on charges of receiving bribes and larceny. Forty other people and ten companies were indicted as a result of investigations by the Massachusetts Crime Commission, headed by the Republican attorney general Edward Brooke. Furcolo’s name was cleared in 1965, and those around him deemed him to be honest but surrounded by corrupt people. The charges were felt to have been politically motivated by partisan politics. After leaving elective office Furcolo taught law and government at several colleges. From 1967 to 1972 he was assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts, and from 1975 to 1989 he served as federal administrative judge. His first wife died in 1964. He married Lucy Carra on 16 October 1967. They separated in 1972, and she died in 1979. He married Constance Gleason in 1980.

Furcolo wrote Law for You (1975), reissued in 1977 as Law for the Layman and revised and updated in 1982 as Practical Law for the Layman. In 1982 he wrote Ballots Anyone? How to Run for Officeand Win!, a well-reviewed political manual based on his own experiences. He received innumerable honorary awards and honorary degrees during his life.

As governor Furcolo fought unsuccessfully to establish a sales tax, which he considered his biggest failure. He believed the sales tax could both reduce the large budget deficit he had inherited and establish new government-funded programs. He alienated liberals in his 1953 speech to the ADA, in which he implied that they were not anti-communist enough, an inflammatory accusation during the McCarthy era. Furcolo was a staunch anticommunist, but his lasting legacy is the creation of the community college system and the growth of the University of Massachusetts. As a congressman in 1955 he supported federal scholarship loans, and he established a student loan program in Massachusetts. The former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr., called him “the nation’s greatest education governor” in 1982. While Furcolo was governor, Massachusetts ranked first among the states in elder care, civil rights, and education and at the top in health programs. He believed in direct citizen participation and government-funded social programs. Despite a rapid rise to political power, which culminated in his second term as governor, his achievements were relatively unknown at the time of his death. He was outspoken during his life, even before his entrance into electoral politics, and he acknowledged that this may have contributed to his short electoral career.

Furcolo died of heart failure in Youville Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is buried in the Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts State Library has two boxes of Furcolo’s papers dating from the mid-1940s to 1995. His congressional speeches are in the Congressional Digest between 1948 and 1952. A compendium of his speeches and an assessment of his gubernatorial terms is in Addresses and Messages to the General Court: Public Speeches and Other Papers of General Interest of His Excellency Foster Furcolo, compiled by Edward Michael O’Brien (1961). Current Biography 1958 includes an entry on Furcolo. Articles include George McKinnon, “Your New Governor,” Boston Globe (Dec. 1956 and Jan. 1957); Jack Alexander, “Mr. Unpredictable,” Saturday Evening Post (9 Aug. 1958); “From Dazzling to Fizzling,” Time (23 Oct. 1964); and David B. Wilson, “Furcolo’s Foresight,” Boston Globe (10 Feb. 1987). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Needham (Massachusetts) Times, and Needham (Massachusetts) Chronicle (all 6 July 1995), and Springfield (Massachusetts) Union-News (7 July 1995).

Jane Brodsky Fitzpatrick