Kevin Cullen

Circle of friends

Paul Greenberg and his nephew Nathan. Paul Greenberg and his nephew Nathan. (Photo courtesy of the Greenberg family)
By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / May 11, 2010

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Paul Greenberg had eight rabbis. One is usually enough for most people. But Paul Greenberg was not most people.

As a kid, he wore glasses, ran track, played in the high school band, and got straight A’s. And then, 32 years ago, he went to college in Israel and the happy, smart kid who grew up in Brookline disappeared into a deep, dark hole.

“He had a psychotic breakdown in Israel,’’ said his sister, Rachel. “There was no manifestation of his mental illness before that.’’

He returned to Brookline and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Life became a series of hospitalizations and medications. His father died and things got worse.

He kept running away to Israel, and no one could figure out how he managed to do this. He eventually got put on a “no-fly’’ list.

Back in Brookline, he lived in a group home and visited rabbis all over town.

He walked around Coolidge Corner, like it was his beat, and years ago he walked into the Brookline police station to explain this to the cops. The cop on the front desk, Billy Simmons, recognized him from high school. One of the detectives, Tom O’Leary, recognized him, too.

Greenberg started dropping by the police station every day. He would stand at the front desk for hours, shooting the breeze. He told crazy, funny stories.

He was not a nuisance. He was not a menace. He was a fixture. He was Paul, the guy who went to high school with Billy Simmons and Tom O’Leary.

The cops didn’t patronize him. They liked him.

“Paul was never a chore,’’ Tom O’Leary said. “He was a smart guy who had a tough life.’’

O’Leary’s brother Dan is the police chief and Greenberg made Dan O’Leary’s secretary, Kathy Flanagan, promise to be the maid of honor at his wedding.

“Paul,’’ she said, “that means I’ve got to find you a girlfriend.’’

Greenberg had some bad years. He could be difficult with some people. But the last few years were his most stable and lucid. Then last November tumors began appearing on his skin. At 51, he was dying of leukemia.

He went into the hospital and the doctors said he had weeks to live. Tom O’Leary found out he was in Beth Israel and sent out an e-mail to the other cops.

“The police started visiting him at the hospital,’’ Rachel Greenberg said. “Every day.’’

Billy Simmons. Tom O’Leary. Tommy Maguire. John O’Leary. Amy Jeanne Hingston. Chief O’Leary. Many others. Greenberg was in the hospital for four months, and when he got moved to a nursing home in Needham two months ago, the cops started showing up there. Every day.

“When I asked them why they were doing this, they said that Paul visited them every day, and now it was their turn,’’ Rachel Greenberg said.

Paul Greenberg lived months longer than he was supposed to.

“He was having too much fun to die,’’ said Rabbi Andy Vogel, one of his eight rabbis. “His friends kept visiting. He didn’t want to go.’’

Last week, Vogel was sitting with Paul Greenberg, and they were saying the Shema, a prayer.

“I told Paul he was going home, to Israel. So he let go,’’ Rabbi Vogel said. “It is an ideal in Judaism, to die this way, saying the Shema. Rachel said to me that Paul died the death of sages and rabbis.’’

Rabbi Vogel stood in Temple Sinai, looking out over Paul Greenberg’s casket. There were police officers up front and the rabbi saw that some were crying.

“They looked past the mental illness and saw their friend,’’ the rabbi said. “He was there for them. And then they were there for him. Such a lesson.’’

Before they closed the casket, Rachel Greenberg tucked an Israeli police banner inside. The Brookline cops formed an honor guard, and then they led the hearse to the cemetery, to bury their friend.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at