Philip Suter
735 Lowell Road

Age 79

Interviewed [2002]

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Phil SuterMr. Suter has given a tremendous amount of service to the town and in turn those years were very critical in a number of events and growth.

My first years of service to the town were as a member of the Planning Board. I was appointed in 1959. That term expired in 1964, and I believe I stayed on for a year or so after that. Then I was appointed to the Board of Appeals. I served on that board until I ran for Selectman in 1972. I was then on the Board of Selectmen from 1972 until 1978.

Concord was going through considerable growth at that time as the town itself was located in a critical place between Routes 128 and 495. We as selectmen were well aware of that, and there was a long range plan that had been developed over the years which was finally accepted -- the Comprehensive Town Plan Committee report. A lot of the changes that were made were a result of recommendations in that report. I should say parenthetically that when my wife and I first moved to Concord in 1955, the neighborhood we're in now was pretty rural, although not too many houses have been built up since then, but the atmosphere then was quite different. Most of our neighbors had horses and across the street there were even some burroes. Daily people would ride by including Raymond Emerson on his horse and talk to the neighbors. It was a somewhat very informal neighborhood.

When we first moved into this house, it was a pretty important week. We bought the house and accepted title, my daughter Lydia was born, and I took the bar exam for Massachusetts all in the same week. It was a hot week. I think the only reason I passed the bar exam was I had a lot of other things on my mind at the same time.

The Comprehensive Town Plan called for quite a few changes and a lot of them were made. They developed for example some off-street parking regulations. We established flood plain districts. We established three industrial park districts. And most of the remaining area of the town which was undeveloped was rezoned from one acre to two acres. All of this was recommended by the Comprehensive Town Plan Committee which also recommended acquiring open land. Also at that time there was a committee appointed to study historic districts. Tom Atwater, Oggie Butman, Don Ellison and Elizabeth Lowell were on that committee, and I was the Planning Board liaison with that committee. A study was done and subsequently, historic districts were adopted along the American Mile on Lexington Road, out Lowell Road and down Barrett's Mill Road to the Barrett Farm. Then another area was the Monument Street area. These were overlays over the regular zoning.

I remember when the two-acre zoning came up at town meeting, I was on the Planning Board and for some reason or other the Planning Board gave its recommendation not to change the zoning. I was kind of a new member on the Board, and I thought I ought to file a minority report and say we ought to adopt it. I remember I got up at the meeting as a neophite and talked about how it was important to change, and much to everybody's surprise the town went along with the minority report. That was sort of my debut as a Planning Board member. Almost all the areas in Concord which were undeveloped and that included the Nine Acre Corner area were changed from one acre to two-acre zoning.

There were three industrial park districts created. Then in connection with the two-acre zoning change after it passed the Planning Board appointed a study committee to permit what was known as cluster zoning where you could vary lot sizes and the frontage requirements by Board of Appeals approval provided the number of houses put in were not more than would have been permitted under the regular zoning. A committee of Paul Counihan, Gordon Bell and myself worked many night hours drafting a cluster zone bylaw which subsequently passed and was used as a tool by developers including John Marden, who developed the Spencer Brook Valley and the Annursnac Hill area, and other parts of town. The incentive for cluster zoning was it would cost the developer less because it didn't have to have so many roads and the frontage requirement was reduced and he could make use of the natural topography of the area he was developing, which would permit the same number houses but maybe less roads and better use of the topography. I think it was one of the pioneer zoning bylaws. I think one other town in the Commonwealth had a cluster zone development at that time.

In 1959 the Conservation Commission was formed in order to acquire open land. Once the Commission was formed, it was possible for the town to vote money to buy open space rather than have it go to development. That was a program that was very valuable to the town, and they did acquire quite a few pieces of land that way to keep it from development. It was a critical time to have caught those things. Time was running out for the Town of Concord because of the pressure developers put on the town because of the vast development of Route 128 industrial parks and also Route 495 was beginning to get developed. Concord was right between the two and obviously a desirable place to live if you worked either on Route 128 or 495. These were places that people were commuting to as well as to Boston. Initially, a lot of people were commuting to Boston including myself to go to work. Now people were commuting to the 128 industrial parks and the parks beginning to be developed on 495.

Herb Wilkins and I served for one or two years on the Planning Board together and then he became a Selectman. Subsequently he was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court. Incidentally his father had also been on the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts. So it's nice to see the family tradition continue.

The period of time I was Selectman was the time of the bicentennial and we also had a prisoner who decided to run for Selectman. That was an interesting time for the town. What happened was that people who were concerned with prisoners' rights thought it would be a good idea if a prisoner in the town could register to vote and also run for public office. This group got together and somehow persuaded the Board of Registrars to register the prisoners. Carl Valaka, one of the prisoners, decided if he could be a registered voter, he wanted to run for Selectman. He did campaign and he got about 400 and some odd votes of the total. But he was defeated by the other two people who were running against him. One of those people was Gordon McCouch, his first attempt to run, and the other was John Lamplough, who was seeking another term. Somehow or other the Board of Registrars got on the wrong side of this issue because it had a tie vote whether to proceed with the registration, and because it was a tie vote, the decision to register the voters was not overturned. Fortunately, Henry Dane, a lawyer living in Concord, took issue with that and challenged the right of the prisoners to vote, and the case eventually wound up in the court of Judge Sam Adams. He in effect ruled just because a person was incarcerated in the Town of Concord did not give him resident status and therefore, that fact alone did not permit him to vote. That case eventually went up to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and Judge Adams' decision was affirmed. So even though the vote was taken by the prisoners, their ballots were held in escrow and not counted pending the Supreme Court decision, and when the decision came down, they were determined to be invalid. We were quite concerned that this might actually happen and it would have been rather an embarrassment I think to the town. Most states except for one or two states when a person gets in prison their right to vote is rescinded while they are in prison. Massachusetts and maybe one other state doesn't say that, and so if a person is a resident in the town of Concord and put into prison then he could still vote in the town election providing he was a resident before he got incarcerated. But that didn't happen I don't think in any one case. It was a very emotional election and a great turnout and fortunately the voters did not see fit to give Mr. Valaka many votes. He was asked about the election some years later and his response to how did he get so many votes, "Well, there are a lot of kooks who live in Concord."

This was around the same time of the bicentennial. The bicentennial was in the planning stages for at least a couple of years prior to the actual bicentennial. The town formed a committee to handle the bicentennial almost ten years before. They appointed John Finigan, who had been a Selectman, as chairman of that committee. His committee held very regular meetings during that period of time and had all kinds of subcommittees to study different aspects of it, a Parade Committee, a Memorial Committee, Traffic Control. All of these things were thought of ahead of time. John Finigan and Paul Flynn, the Town Manager at that time, deserve a lot of credit for organizing the events of the bicentennial.

I was a Selectman at the time of the bicentennial and became Chairman of the Board of Selectman before the bicentennial and was chairman during the bicentennial. I made a point during that period to try to go to many of the bicentennial committee meetings. We had a lot of interesting meetings. The first thing that came up was whether or not a President of the United States should be invited as a guest. At that point Richard Nixon was President and he was not terribly popular particularly in Concord, but the vote of the Board of Selectmen by a 3 to 2 vote voted to extend an invitation to him. Then subsequently, Mr. Nixon resigned as President so when Gerald Ford was sworn in, the Board of Selectmen had another vote as to whether to invite Gerald Ford. Again, that was a 3 to 2 vote, and so he was invited. I voted to invite the President as I thought it was appropriate because at the centennial presentation President Grant had been invited and participated in the ceremony. I thought it was an important event in the town's history but not only that but in the history of the United States to have a national celebration for this event.

I think the main challenges in our planning the bicentennial were our relationship with the National Park Service and a group of people called The People's Bicentennial who really sought actively to upset our plans. It is important to remember that when the town voted to have the National Park Service take over the area at the North Bridge, part of the contract stated that the town of Concord would have a veto power over what happened at the bridge site, and that was a very important thing for us to have. When the National Park Service took over the Buttrick hillside area, that was not part of that contract at all, so the town really didn't have permit granting authority or veto authority for what happened on the Buttrick hillside overlooking the bridge. Because we had no authority to control the Buttrick hillside, the People's Bicentennial Committee filed a request with the National Park Service to permit 40,000 to 50,000 people assemble on the hillside during the night before the bicentennial all night. This was a very disturbing thought for us because they were obviously up to no good and were trying to sabotage our efforts. They had messages like "send a message to Wall Street" and were extremely anti-government. This was, as you remember, an era when many of the youth in the country were upset by our national policies. Anyway, the National Park Service over our strong objections issued a permit on April 4 for 25,000 people to assemble on the hillside and concerts were going to be held and so forth. We were very much concerned about that and carried the matter up to the National Park Headquarters and also the Department of Interior headquarters, but we not able to get it overturned at that level. Then the Selectmen had a long session as to whether we should seek an injunction against the PBC for this permit and the Selectmen and town counsel decided that we should not seek an injunction. I was the only member of the selectmen that was in favor of the injunction, but it didn't prevail. So we had to live with this permit for 25,000 people to assemble on Buttrick hillside during the night before. That caused a lot of problems.

In retrospect, two days after the bicentennial was over I sat out on my back porch where we are right now and dictated a memoir of my impressions of the whole bicentennial exercise and some of the problems we had and how they were resolved. That tape I believe is available at the library. It has been transcribed and it will be lodged with the Library once it has been finally edited. So that would be a good source if people want to get an in depth view, and I don't need to repeat all of that right now.

There were some things that happened which were possibly worthwhile mentioning. Prior to the bicentennial there was an attempt to blow up the Minute Man statue. Fortunately somebody from the Park Service saw this pipe bomb that was laid at the feet of the Minute Man statue and found it before it was ignited, so the statue was saved. Because of that and for other reasons the Minute Man statue was removed by the town and a mold was made of it. The statue was cleaned and put in good order and then it was returned to its pedestal a few weeks before the 19th of April. When it was returned to its pedestal, the Girl Scouts had prepared a time capsule which they wanted to put under the feet of the Minute Man statue. This was mostly the work of Peg Purcell so when the statue was hiked up to be put back on its pedestal, I was the person appointed to put the time capsule underneath its feet where it rests today and presumably will be retrieved at the tricentennial, I hope. That was one of the incidents that was sort of a side incident. It was sort of an interesting footnote to the celebration.

The picture that was put on the cover the 1975 Town Report shows Dana Greeley, President Gerald Ford, John Finigan and myself at the podium. The picture tells a story. One of the questions that came up in talking about the bicentennial was who of the visiting dignitaries should be put on the podium. As you can imagine, once you started getting into that exercise why there were all sorts of people who would be insulted by not being on the podium. So John Finigan, with my concurrence, said okay we're not going to get into that discussion. We're just going to have four people on the podium, and those are the four you see in the picture. Other dignitaries were Senator Kennedy, Senator Brooks, John McCormick who was representative from Massachusetts in the House, and John Warner who is now the Senator from Virginia and who was a member of the national bicentennial committee, and the Governor, which is another story.

John Finigan was planning to go to the State House and present the Governor with a gold replica of the medal that was the bicentennial medal. We had several struck, one for the President, and one for the Governor. We tried to make an appointment with Governor Dukakis to go into the State House and make the presentation and we got word back that he wasn't interested in ceremonial functions. And that was the end of that. So that gold medal that was destined for the Governor never got to him. When it became clear that the President had accepted our invitation to come to the bicentennial, then the Governor suddenly took interest in being there. His office called me and we had a long discussion with one of his aides, and I said, "We understood the Governor wasn't interested in ceremonial functions, so we really haven't made any plans for him to be here." They said, "Well, we thought he might introduce the President." So we said, "That's not going to happen, but we'll see what kind of arrangement we can make for him to be present." I turned that whole issue of the Governor over to Anna Manion who was on the Board of Selectmen, and she arranged for the Governor to come and meet the President and to walk with the President to the podium, and then he and all the other dignitaries were allocated a section to the left of the podium and they all stood there and the podium inviolate with just the four of us. We may look a little pained sitting up there and that wasn't without reason because The People's Bicentennial contrary to their promises tried to disrupt the ceremony and they were chanting obscenities to Ford the whole time he was speaking and the whole time I was speaking and the whole time Finigan was speaking. It was a chant that was distinctly heard by us all the time. Fortunately, the Park Service and the Secret Service had arranged that the President use a microphone that would only pick up sounds within a certain radius of the speaker so it didn't interrupt the proceedings. Fortunately, the President and all the other speakers overcame that. But it wasn't the kind of reception we planned for the President.

The President was very pleasant. I first met him when he landed by helicopter at the Fenn School. There was a line up to meet him including the Selectmen, some of the members of the Fenn School and some of their students, and also Caroline Kennedy was a student at Concord Academy. When the helicopter arrived, the President got off and along with Ted Kennedy and Ed Brook and some other officials and dignitaries, and they came through the line. I was a friend of the then Governor of Michigan, Bill Millikan, who was a fraternity brother of mine at Yale, so I tried to make some conversation with Mr. Ford about that. I said, "I hope you give Bill Millikan my best the next time you go back home". I think he just responded, Okay. But he was very pleasant and cooperative and came and gave his speech. Before he gave his speech, we presented him with the gold medal for him to keep and it was interesting the way that was done. I had the gold medal with me and before I got to the podium, it was taken away from me by the Secret Service. They said I would get it back in time to present it to the President. I guess they wanted to check it out. When I got to the podium to present this medal to the President before I introduced him, the medal was there and I gave it to him. But it was interesting that that was considered a security risk at that point. As you can see in the picture, there were Secret Service men stationed all around the President while we were on the podium.

During the parade The People's Bicentennial cut in. Again we had met with The People's Bicentennial group several times. They said they weren't trying to disrupt the parade and that they were just being there as participants, but they lied to us basically. I knew they had written a book which I had gotten a copy of and the book said one of the purposes of The People's Bicentennial was to infiltrate the plans of towns celebrating the bicentennial and try to impose their views on the town and skew the bicentennial celebration to their views. So they didn't deny that as I quoted some from their own book. They didn't have a permit to be in the parade, but they had a huge American flag and they tried to insert themselves into the parade as it was being formed to go over the bridge and before the reviewing stand in the middle of Concord. John Finigan, much to his credit, decided we didn't want a second battle of the bridge over this flag and we didn't want the flag desecrated any more, so he decided to let them stay, although the police said they would try to get them out of the parade. So they marched in the parade with this huge American flag. It was just not something we planned and was contrary to their promises to us.

It was a huge crowd that day. Somebody said around 75,000 people in all had come to town. After the parade and the speeches at the North Bridge, it continued on through the middle of town where the grandstand was set up. In the reviewing stand was Governor and Mrs. Dukakis, myself and my wife, Selectmen and their spouses, reviewing the parade as it went by. That went off relatively orderly thanks to the Parade Committee and the extra police we had brought in for the occasion. That was a very exhilerating experience. We all felt pretty good about it after it was finished. We felt our mission had been accomplished despite of the opposition that we had from The People's Bicentennial and the difficulties we had with the National Park Service and their various permits. One of the most difficult parts was in the middle of town when we had the ball, we were at the ball and they were going to get us to another site that night but security recommended against it because in the middle of town there was some minor rioting, people throwing rocks at cars and things of that sort. Fortunately, it didn't get out of hand, although at one point it was relatively close.

Then the morning of the bicentennial on the Buttrick hillside all of 25,000 plus that were there under the permit had been there all night and it was drizzly rain and they had been drinking beer and smoking pot and other stuff, so the hillside was a complete shambles when we arrived in the morning for the Concord Independent Battery to shoot off its guns. Fortunately, the Battery did arrive and I was delighted to see them because they cleared a place for the guns to be in place and go off, and as soon as the first gun went off, The People's Bicentennial group and all the kids that were smoking pot and drinking beer realized we were pretty serious about this and they scattered. It was a wonderful feeling to see the Battery come in and take this property back for the town. After the shooting went off then Seymour DiMare representing Prescott arrived on his horse and delivered the message that the British were coming.

We didn't get much sleep the night before because we had attended the ball and then we had a lot of kids staying at our house. They had been on the Buttrick hillside along with all of the others. Two of them were in college at the time and the others were in high school. We got up for the dawn salute and we were driven by a driver from our house to the Buttrick hillside. When we arrived there, there was this huge mess that we were confronted with which was pretty discouraging. But they dispersed when the Battery started firing their guns.

There was discussion as to what the Town's bicentennial gift should be. There was a bicentennical gift committee that I think was headed by Bruce Old. Bob Bowen, who was a Minute Man, and I formed a charitable corporation to see if we could persuade the Barrett Farm to be conveyed as a bicentennial gift, but that wasn't to be unfortunately. The owners of the Barrett Farm at that time, the McGraths, were not interested in selling it. I don't criticize them for that. It was their property, and if they didn't think it was a good idea, they were the people who made the decision. But then the Committee turned to the old Veterans Building and decided that would be a good rededication for the town's bicentennial gift and it worked out very well. They had a play there a couple of nights before called The Flurry of Birds which was written specifically for the bicentennial, which I think was a very successful play. We all went down after the parade to dedicate the Veterans Building as the bicentennial memorial to the town. I think there is a plaque there that says that.

In talking about the Concord Independent Battery, in 1977 on Memorial Day, there was an accident that resulted in quite an issue of whether the Battery could continue to fire. That was a terrible thing to have happen. It just so happened that on that particular Memorial Day I was out in Colorado attending my daughter's graduation from law school, so I wasn't present when this happened. As the Battery was firing at the Catholic cemetery which was their first stop on Memorial Day, one of the Battery members, Bill Andersen's son, was one of the gunners. He was loading the barrel with powder and the thing went off by mistake and his hand got shot off. It was a real tragedy. Subsequently, the Selectmen appointed a committee to investiage the accident headed by Bert Newbery, a former selectman, and moderator. He had distinguished people on his committee like Tom Hudner, who was a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and resident of the town, and they did a fairly comprehensive study about the cause of the accident. Also subsequently, and I don't blame them at all, the Andersens brought a suit against the town and the Battery including the Selectmen individually to recover damages. There was finally a settlement of the case where they were compensated for the damages incurred. After that incident the Battery was silenced for a good many years while they reviewed their training procedures and so forth. I can't remember the day when the Battery resumed firing, but it must have been at least five or six years after that. In the meantime they spent a lot of time reviewing their procedures and their safety measures and so forth. Fortunately, the Battery is now going strong again and continuing to fire at various ceremonies in town.

The Open Meeting Law came into effect during my term as Selectman. I think it's a good law. I don't have a problem with it. I see no reason why the town Selectmen's meetings and all the committee meetings shouldn't be open to the public. They have to be duly notified by a notice put on the bulletin board so that people know when they are going to take place and where they are going to take place, and I think it's a good thing to have these open meetings. I think one of the problems that you can get into is whether or not the people who are attending the open meeting have the right to speak. They certainly have a right to be present and listen and if they are recognized, they have a right to speak. I take the position which I thinnk is the right one is that unless they're recognized, they have no right to speak at these meetings unless it is a public hearing where they do have a right to speak. If you wanted to speak at a Selectmen's meeting the procedure was to request permission for a meeting at the board level and then they would be put on the agenda and then take up any issues that were necessary. But they were regularly scheduled. Sometimes people that attend these meetings as listeners try to participate in the deliberation, and I don't think that's the purpose of the Open Meeting Law.

Our bicentennial kicked off the nation's bicentennial as it should be historically. We celebrated ours in 1975 which was when the shot was fired heard around the world. A lot of bicentennial celebrations in the nation occurred in 1976 as well as ‘75. But I guess since April 19 1775 was the first resistance to the British took place and I think Lexington claims it took place in Lexington and we claim it took place in Concord, but at any event, we did celebrate in ‘75 and I guess it was the leadoff event to the whole bicentennial process.

We did have some liaison with Lexington for the bicentennial planning so we wouldn't conflict, particularly when the President was going to go to which town. Generally Lexington has made their celebration more in the afternoon and we in the morning. They do have a reenactment of the battle in Lexington early in the morning, then generally the town things are later on in the day. What had happened in ‘75 was that President Ford after he left the North Bridge as I recall he didn't go into the reviewing stand at all, but he motorcaded to Lexington and had a celebration over there before he finally took off back to Washington. He landed at Hansom Field and was helicoptered to Fenn School playground and then motorcaded from the Fenn School playground to the Bridge, and then after the celebration at the bridge, he was motocaded to Lexington.

Lexington didn't give The People's Bicentennial group a permit. They didn't have the National Park Service problem we did because they had maintained control over their historic sites so they didn't have to worry about that. They just denied the permit, which we would have done if we had had the power to do it. At any event, we really felt the National Park Service did not fully realize the impact of having 25,000 people on the hillside all night. We did manage to survive. It was sort of like we had been planning a birthday party for six years, and then two days before the party someone comes in and says we're going to set up a loud speaker and a band in the lot next door and try to disrupt your celebration, which is what they tried to do.

Phil Suter

Text mounted 23 February 2008; revised and images added 12 June 2013 -- rcwh.