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‘The Mayor’ of Melrose remembered with tears and smiles

James Milano, mayor of Melrose from 1972 to 1991, was buried last week with military honors at Wyoming Cemetery. James Milano, mayor of Melrose from 1972 to 1991, was buried last week with military honors at Wyoming Cemetery. (Kathy Sheils Tully for The Boston Globe)
By Kathy Shiels Tully
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2011

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MELROSE - A year ago, Kathleen McGourthy, a Melrose mother of four, was driving to the Lincoln School for a Veterans Day ceremony. Recognizing an elderly man in full military uniform jogging toward the school as former mayor Jim Milano, she pulled over and offered a ride.

“He didn’t even know me, but he hopped right in,’’ she said.

Apparently, after attending a morning Veterans Day celebration at Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School, “The Mayor’’ as he was fondly known long after his near 20-year term ended, had headed home for a quick lunch before the afternoon ceremony.

When a cab he called never showed up, the 101-year-old Milano, who had recently stopped driving, started out by foot, determined not to miss the next event.

“He was jogging,’’ McGourthy said. “Really jogging. I told him my name and offered him a ride back to his home on Grove Street. I’ll never forget how the kids were screaming and waving to him afterward, like he was a celebrity. He was.’’

“It still amazes me,’’ she added, “that he was still serving the community, basically, still working for us. He was so giving.’’

This Election Day, a warm fall day, Melrose politicians - past and present - stood together at St. Mary of the Annunciation Catholic Church, along with friends, family, and residents of the city, to bid a gentle farewell to James Milano, Melrose’s mayor from 1972-1991, who died last week, not long after celebrating his 102d birthday.

“Here in Melrose we have The Mayor, and then we have the current mayor,’’ the Rev. John Sullivan said when reached before the funeral Mass.

Mayors who followed, Patrick Guerriero, Richard Lyons, and Ronald Alley, all shared the sentiment, as did Robert Dolan, the current mayor.

All of them were mentored by Milano, and considered him a friend.

Milano, a lifelong communicant at St. Mary’s, was a walking history book about Melrose and the parish that “was his heart,’’ according to Sullivan. “Jim apologized if he missed daily Mass for a vacation or if he was sick.

“He was the oldest person I knew,’’ Sullivan said. “I joked with him, ‘Moses lived to 120. You only have 18 years to go.’ ’’

In his eulogy, Dolan recounted Milano’s accomplishments, inside and outside of Melrose.

As a young boy, Milano shook the hand of a man who once shook Abraham Lincoln’s hand.

President Ronald Reagan personally invited Milano to meet with him in the Rose Garden.

Though a local Republican, Milano was friends with Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill, former US House speaker and a liberal Democrat. His politics transcended party.

But it was the personal stories people shared over the course of these few days, with a tear in their eye or a smile on their face, that showed the man’s true character.

Regardless of the person’s connection to Milano, consistent themes emerged: Love of God, love of country, love of family and friends, and love of Melrose.

Dolan’s eulogy included a story of Dolan’s own introduction to politics when, at age 5, he held signs, black with orange letters, along with his parents on a cold October night as they campaigned for Milano.

Then Dolan told a more personal story, of when his father died last year at age 63. Milano called his parents’ house.

“He told me, in his distinctive voice, ‘The hardest part of living so long is the guilt I sometimes feel for living so long, when others die so young. I wish I could have given your father some of my years.’

“He meant it,’’ Dolan said.

Milano’s love of country was steadfast, and serving in the military was the proudest part of his life, he had told Dolan.

Milano, who was buried in his Army uniform, proudly wore it over the years at annual ceremonies for both Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Mary Beth McAteer-Margolis, alderwoman at large, told of many a Memorial Day parade when Milano, in full military dress, sat at Wyoming Cemetery, often in high heat.

“We’d be ready to pass out,’’ she said, “but Jim would stand and deliver the Memorial Day address, a 40-minute speech, reminding you of your freedom.’’

Leaving the funeral Mass, McAteer-Margolis sighed.

“It’s weird not to have Jim here, sitting front and center with the mayors,’’ she said. “He always came to the funerals. This is the first one he’s not at.’’