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Brian McGrory

Wowed in Worcester

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / March 23, 2011

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Somewhere between the dreams of youth and the cold onset of middle age, something had gone terribly awry. How else to explain why, as news rippled around the world, I found myself with a particularly enthusiastic city councilor giving me an exhaustive tour of — there’s no polite way to say this — Worcester.

Some context: A couple of weeks back, yours truly had a cheap line about commuters on a delayed Worcester-bound train probably being in no hurry to get there. By 7 that morning, Worcester’s most famous resident, Tim Murray (He’s the lieutenant governor), was on my voicemail, and not to say “Great job.’’

Then came Rick Rushton, the councilor, urging me to give him a few hours in exchange for a fresh outlook on his native city. So there I was, in the passenger seat of his SUV as he admired something I couldn’t see. All I noticed were potholes, warehouses, a transmission shop, and a sushi restaurant that looked like it took a wrong turn at the Centrum.

“The Canal District,’’ Rick proclaimed.

And that, my friends, was the inaugural declaration in a day filled with firsts, bests, and mosts. Every street and every building on our rolling tour had a story, and Rick told me every one. Of a hair salon, “The owner was on a national reality show.’’ The clothing store around the corner “sells Kim Kardashian-style jeans.’’

“Worcester,’’ Rick declared, “is all about food. People who spend a long weekend here realize we rival New York and Boston.’’

Food? Worcester? Really?

“See that building,’’ he said, pointing to the David Clark Co. “When Neil Armstrong said ‘One small step for man,’ that’s where his microphone was made.’’

“Worcester,’’ Rick declared, “is a hotbed for inventions, from the monkey wrench to the spacesuit.’’

Whatever the baby-faced and relentlessly cheerful Rick Rushton was drinking, get me a case. But I soon learned the entire city was gulping it like Gatorade.

At the sparkling Worcester Technical High School, Ted Coghlin, a buzz-cut 76-year-old businessman with a general’s bearing, led me through the hallways as he listed private companies that donated millions to the cause.

Then we were at Mac’s Diner (Worcester, Rick declared, was the preeminent manufacturer of diner buildings), where Mayor Joseph O’Brien waited at the counter. He is young and personable, and seeing my stricken look, said, “We are serially optimistic in this town.’’ He explained that Worcester is promoting itself to biotech companies as the affordable alternative to Boston and Cambridge.

Worcester is also becoming — as Rick declared in the car — “Vollywood.’’

You’re betting big on a beach sport?

“Videogames,’’ Rick said. And suddenly we were in a lab at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where students were creating virtual reality. At WPI and nearby Becker College, videogame creation is surging, and Worcester is looking to capitalize with startups.

Coming up on our fourth hour, I may have gone from visitor to hostage, but Rick wasn’t done. We passed “the first public park in the country,’’ “the foremost repository of Revolutionary-era periodicals,’’ and “the country’s oldest continuously operating hardware store.’’

We arrived at the UMass Medical School, where I found myself with Chancellor Michael Collins, the street-smart academician who surely had kept his wits about him over his years here. “I like every bit of it,’’ he said. Oh, Michael.

“What takes three years to get done in Boston takes three months here.’’

All right, Rick, you win. It’s all great — the people, the history, the whole grand metropolis that is Worcester. Just please, nothing personal, but my long weekends are already booked.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.