Robert and Olive "Oggy" Butman
55 Holdenwood Rd.

Interviewed on November 20, 1992

Both ages 72

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

Click here for audio in .mp3 format

The Butmans are original residents of Conantum which last year commemorated 40 years since its beginning.

Butman-- The development of Conantum
Life within the Conantum community
Acceptance by town

-- As candidate for Selectman, 1964 (Olive)

-- Service on school committee
Population enrollment and change

Bob -- I was working in Philadelphia and had a job offer to come to the Boston area to work at MIT's Lincoln Lab, and I guess we just barely landed in town when we got two letters from friends in Concord, Lucy Richardson and Ann Brigham. Lucy Richardson was Oggy's minister's wife in Medford before we were married and Ann Brigham was a classmate of Oggy's. They said there was this funny new place, come look at it if you want a house, which we did. One thing led to another and here we are.

I think I came out here alone the first time in September 1951, but it was a pretty mixed up place. The roads were mud, there were building materials all over the place, half finished foundations - it looked in disarray and in fact, I think it was.

It was Rupert MacLaurin's dream but we don't know exactly when he dreamed it. I often wondered when he woke up at 3:00 in the morning and said, I have this great idea. I think he gets pretty much full credit for starting the ball rolling. He was an economics professor at MIT. I think he felt that the pay the lower level of professors, the assistant professors, were getting was not adequate to pay for a typical house. I think it was his view that by building a number of houses together, by getting a good buy on the land, by pooling resources, he could create a community that was not only affordable but unique. In the sense that it would bring a group of people together who were compatible, and who in fact, became more compatible because of the experience of moving in, and also a neighborhood with common land and the comforts of life that you didn't find in an ordinary neighborhood.

MacLaurin along with architect Carl Koch and builder James Kelly put the Conantum plan together. But the Conantum Realty Trust - put together to do the building - went into overload. While all of the houses were of the same basic design, there were dozens of variations available. The houses were started at different times so keeping track was a nightmare. The watchman stole building materials. The houses were underpriced. The roads were bogs or frozen ruts. It was winter time and pouring concrete was difficult. Hay spread on newly poured foundations to prevent freezing was eaten by deer.

The cost of our house was $11,660. We had an expensive lot, it was $4,300, and the mortgage was a 20-year 4% mortgage. Our monthly payments were about $90 and that covered taxes. It makes you laugh now.

After I had seen this place and said never mind the mud and confusion, it looks great, I had to go back to Philadelphia, so Oggy said she would put $10 down as a down payment.

Oggy -- I thought you were going to say that we didn't have a big amount of money to put down because my aunt had given us land in Nantucket, my family has been there for a long time, and we had just built a summer house the year before, so we didn't have a big amount to put down. But $10 we had, and my father loaned us some money.

Bob -- $10 kept us going until January when we signed a formal agreement.

Oggy -- So we sat with that $10 for about four months. He said, "Well, I've been around looking with you at places where I know you want to have a house, and I think this will be a fine project but I do think it will go bankrupt." He certainly was right.

Bob -- When we first came out here in September, there was a financial pinch. We didn't know it at the time. The land by bought by MacLaurin and Horace Bright. I don't know anything about Bright but he had put in some money, $13,000, I believe. In September he said he wanted his money back. So MacLaurin gave him his money back and that made a cash tight situation worse. MacLaurin went to some of the members and said, "Help me out." Brown, Adler, Levinson, and one other put in $16,000 and MacLaurin matched it with a loan of his own, but it wasn't enough. So by late April of 1952, Conantum as such became bankrupt. MacLaurin then bought it out of bankruptcy, I believe he paid $50,000 for the assets. At that time Conantum still owed something like $74,000 for the land, and I think he ended up with a loss of a hundred thousand dollars or more that he had put in of his own money.

This took a personal toll on MacLaurin's life. I think it broke up his marriage, I'm not sure but it was probably a contributor. He went on to build a few more houses behind us here and he became despondent after that and committed suicide maybe three or four years later. I don't know how much of it relates to what he went through here or how it was influenced by other factors, but it was a sad ending for someone who had done so much for Conantum.

During the bankruptcy I just had faith that it was going to work out. I was young enough and innocent enough that I didn't see that we could get into deep trouble, but clearly we could have if MacLaurin hadn't done his thing.

Oggy -- We had a meeting about the bankruptcy at the First Parish and it lasted until one or two in the morning. I don't remember what was said then but every aspect of the situation was talked about.

This was to be a community of 100 houses. I didn't blame the Concord public then since we were the first development, and it caused a big stir. I would imagine, for myself who loves the out-of-doors, it must have been uncomfortable for them to think of all this woods being developed. People used to hunt here and do all kinds of things. The houses were going to be very different. The houses didn't fit the colonial stereotype. We were the only ones that had the big windows then and people used to come by after we were in them to look at the windows because obviously we didn't have curtains right away. That was one thing that was quite interesting to people. Our deeds said no discrimination of any kind, race, creed, color, national origin of the people moving in. So the people of Concord didn't know what kind of group was coming in. I suppose they were somewhat fearful of the kind of people coming in but we didn't know that at the time. Sam Kent, Editor of the Concord Journal at the time, felt the town was over anxious and in his editorials stood up for Conantum. He felt it should have a chance, that we might be an asset.

Bob -- Being the first development, the people must have thought of it as an invasion of sorts. It was a huge group of people to them suddenly showing up in town, about whom they knew nothing.

The town was very conservative and Republican at that time, and this group moving in was more liberal, definitely Democrats. We had some Jewish families and of course this town must have been very waspy at that time, and that probably worried people a little. Out of the 100 houses there were probably about half a dozen Jewish families.

Mostly the town services were provided to the area with no problems. The one thing I have in my mind was going into Concord Lumber and he asked me if I wanted to charge it. I said, "Yes", and that was fine with him. I felt we were well accepted right away, though we were so busy with our families and our own troubles here that I think our early interaction with the town was minimal, but there was certainly no trouble.

Oggy -- One of the things that I looked up before we talked today was that in 1953 one person from Conantum was put on a board, the Board of Records and Archives. I thought that shows that they were accepting us and by 1957, the number had increased to seven, and in 1958, there were nine. Then, it kind of kept around that mark, and the highest was 13 in 1980. I felt very pleased that all those people were serving, and they all were excellent people. They really knew their stuff, and I felt that showed that the community began to accept us. They were pleased to have us in the schools. They were worried in the beginning, but they found that kids were kids.

Bob -- I think it is fair to say that it is a fairly bright neighborhood in the sense of the professional mental abilities of the people who've lived here. It was virtually 100% Harvard or MIT when we moved in. I don't mean to brag about it, but that was just the way it was.

Oggy -- That was because MacLaurin was at MIT and that was where the publicity was in those two schools.

We had and still do have our own neighborhood association, actually a board of directors.

Bob -- Actually the Kalmia Woods Corporation is the governing body, and it has a board of seven directors and a president and a treasurer. We have a community budget to maintain the common land and do other things that we may want to do, like have parties now and then. It was initially very active when we were involved with the construction, but since then it has tapered off. Over the years the community was sort of the governance of the board as we built tennis courts, bought a water pumper for fire protection in the early days, we converted the corn field into a what we call a ball field, we have community gardens. There was a lot of community activity, has been and, though maybe not as much now, more than average.

Oggy -- Socially, also we have a Christmas sing around the tree that's been right from the beginning, with open houses afterwards. On the 4th of July for many years, we had a band made up of people who played instruments and they marched down at the ball field, and the kids all had floats there. I remember our three children doing the signing of the Declaration of Independence, powdered wigs and everything. That was really fun. But as the kids got older and we got older and maybe had more money and a lot of us weren't around as much in the summer, the 4th of July celebration kind of dropped. But the Christmas tradition has always been done.

We have a women's sewing club that is still going and a garden club. We did a lot of social family activities. We skated on the river, cross countried all around, and hiked all around. As new people came in as time went on, we tried to get them involved and get to know us, and most of them did.

About 30 houses are original residents like us, but they're beginning to move away, retire, etc.

Bob -- I think all but about 15 houses have had substantial modifications which to me means those houses were adequate and people didn't want to move away so they modified.

In the beginning we were not hooked to town water. We had seven wells down by the river, a 250,000 gallon storage tank up on the hill, the highest part of the land, the original construction included 8-inch water mains. In 1953 it was decided to form a water district to take over the public utility we had established. The newly formed utility borrowed about $50,000 to buy the assets from the members. We each got $450 out of the deal, which we of course had to pay back in fees for water. When the town extended water mains to this area in 1956, we shut down our wells and bought wholesale from the town. Finally, in 1980, after somewhat rancorous negotiations with the town, the district was dissolved and we became ordinary water customers.

ButmanBob -- Conantum is a wonderful place to live, we and our children have thrived on it. It is truly an extraordinary neighborhood of congeniality and friends. There is still a strong sense of community here. We take on community projects of a smaller scale but we think our early feeling of independence has been replaced by an allegiance to the town.

Oggy -- I went on the Recreation Commission in 1959 and stayed until 1965. In my whole life, kids and the out-of-doors and conservation have been my main things, so that was a good place for me to be, and I really enjoyed that a lot. We had jurisdiction over the rifle range with the Town Forest Committee. The town dump committee looked at either the rifle range or the site on Route 2 as possible sites for a new dump. The Recreation Commission talked about it and said no way. We were unanimous that it was not to be at the rifle range, and I think it was a very smart decision because it has that swamp. A big dump in that area would not have been very good.

When I was chairman, I got very interested in the land that was Ben Smith's on Sudbury Road. He had a large barn and stable and 22 1/2 acres. So I talked to Ted Nelson, the Town Manager, and told him I really wanted to buy that land for the town for recreation and I had talked to Ben Smith. He said, "Okay, you do this, you do this, and you do this, and then come back to me." After working with him for a while, we finally got it through town meeting. The Riverdale Association said they would help do the development of it, whether they wanted to have a skating pond or whatever. It was so exciting to me and it was so much fun to work with a Town Manager that really made me feel I could make something work. Many people may know that Ben Smith had a terrific collection of Concord arrowheads.

There was no public access to Warner's Pond in West Concord and I thought there should be. I can't remember the details but a man named Anderson who was head of Concord Oil owned the land that could access it. I asked him if he would be interested in giving the land to the town and he agreed. So I felt really good about that.

The Planning Board, the Conservation Commission and the Recreation Commission worked hard when the Fry development went in near Musketaquid Club on Harrington Avenue in part of Thoreau Hills. There was a swamp there that people wanted to protect a certain flower that was there, and we worked on that and we got some land that the town bought there. So those were all really interesting things.

Then in 1964 I decided I would really like to run for selectman. My family was a political family. My father had been a mayor and I had other members in the family in those kinds of situations, so I decided to try it. I thought I did very well. I was the last one of the four that ran, two made it and two of us didn't. Roger Duncan then came to me, he was on the School Committee for six years, I had actually run his campaign for him, and he said he thought I would really like the School Committee much better than being selectman. He was going off and he wanted me to take his place. So I did and won and he was right, it was the right thing for me. It's like graduate school to be on a School Committee, you learn a whole lot. The two things that I was most involved in and felt very strongly about was Metco, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, and collective bargaining. It just happened that the year I went on the committee the bargaining law passed in Massachusetts that made it mandatory. The committee said for me to go to this course on bargaining so I would understand about what would happen and learn about how to do it for the town. It was a fascinating thing. It was a college course really. I came back from it and I was just excited and I told Virginia Biggie, who was the Assistant Superintendent of Schools then, how exciting it was to go back and be learning. She said I needed to go back and get my master's degree in education. She convinced me I could do it and she told me what to do, so I ended up at Tufts for three years part time. I got a degree in guidance and counseling in 1968. I stayed on the School Committee for another three years and when that was over, I got a job as a counselor in Littleton, and I was there for 17 years. So the School Committee was a two way street for me, I didn't plan it that way. At times it was very hard on the committee but I loved it. When I was on the committee, we had three changes of superintendents and that's not always easy.

I was chairman of the Regional School Committee when Metco was first introduced. This was in 1966. We had a huge hearing, supposed to be one of the largest hearings ever in Concord, about a thousand people, I think. I ran that meeting and it was quite a meeting. It was an emotional time, people were angry, people were concerned. Bob Coles was there and he talked very well. The other thing that pleased me was that one of the selectmen wrote me a letter afterward saying it was the best run meeting he had ever been to. The meeting was held at the high school auditorium.

The Metco program was bringing black children from the inner city out to the suburbs as full time students to help their education, and on the other hand to have the community see that there is diversity. The School Committee voted to receive the students - 20 Metco students arrived at the high school in 1967 and 25 students to Willard grades 1-5 in 1969. In the schools every child had a family that they could come to in Concord. One of the families that lives right down here had just put a notice on our bulletin board just this year that their Metco boy who started with them in first grade in now married and is working and he wants to buy a house, about $100,000, and if anybody had any ideas to let them know. I've kept on going to all the anniversaries, and they've been wonderful, enough to make you cry. Kids going on to really good schools and loving it. There were times that were difficult. I still feel very, very strongly about it. Then as soon as I went off the board, Bob went on it.

Bob -- In roughly 1968 I felt I was getting a little bored with what I was doing at Lincoln Lab, and Lincoln Lab was looking for ways to get partially out of the defense business into some civilian projects. I managed to get a sabbatical year and went back to MIT and took courses in psychology and government and did some independent studying in some educational systems, did a little computer work, with the idea that I would come back better prepared to do some kind of a project which involved technology in education. And in fact we did set up such a project, a computer assisted instruction (CAI) development program at the lab. We worked on it about seven years with no particular great end, but never mind. At the time, the computers were not up to the job is what it amounted to. That got me to looking at the education business and I became an apprentice when Oggy went on the committee, so I ran and in a field of six, came in second.

I think of that time of two terms on the School Committee as a lot of turmoil. There were a lot of personnel changes, Minuteman Vocational was coming on-line. Chapter 766 was just instituted which was mandated services to the handicapped students, mentally handicapped mostly, but physically handicapped too. We were doing our own collective bargaining still, we didn't have professionals. We had six different unions to deal with within the school system. There were a lot of experimental things going on, for example, open classrooms, big rage. Experimental education of all sorts. Many independent projects being funded in the systems, educational collaborative, for example. I don't think it left any great impact on the system but they were fun at the time and I think stimulated both students and teachers to become enthusiastic about their teaching job which is a plus.

Life education was a big issue - we didn't call it sex. There was one election where that was a big issue. The school was going beyond it's duties. It stayed and people got used to it. It wasn't that bad, and it's probably such a low level of education compared to what is around now. I know one of the opponents came up to me a couple of years ago and said, "Well, my youngest kid is enrolled and it's just fine."

Minuteman Vocational was somewhat of an issue, but I don't think it was a huge issue. I think some of us were just questioning whether it would be all that useful to Concord, whether or not people would go to make it worthwhile. I guess it had been okay. I think one of the things that troubled me a little bit about it that I was afraid that the home based vocational stuff that we had in town would atrophy, and I think it did. But I'm not sure if that is because of Minuteman or because carpentry is not something people do any more anyway. The manual skills that we had at that time became less popular because that was the way the world was going and it had nothing to do with Minuteman.

I was obsessed with population and enrollment projections. It was one thing I spent a lot of time on, but I didn't have any credentials so I was not believable. But they worked out just about right. I thought it would go down. The highest birth rate in town I guess was in the '50s and there were about 250 children born in the town for several years then. By the time we had gotten to 1976 it was down to about a 100 per year. My numbers may not be quite right but this wave was going through and you could see it. The high school was bursting, of course. I said it was going to 1500 and below in the '80s, and we had big arguments about that. We added on where I thought we were doing too much with respect with the addition. We added a new gym, a new basketball gym, and a classroom wing. I thought we should have had a cage, no classroom wing, and a swimming pool, but it didn't work out that way. So now we're in the high school with 800 or so.

Oggy -- I was on the school sites committee for a long time. In 1975 the school sites committee was dissolved because the population growth leveled off.

Bob -- The population is going up again to be sure. There were 173 children born in the town in '91, still that's down about 40% from what it was at its peak. We hear about overcrowding now and I guess there are some areas that are overcrowded, though I think probably our standards are higher than they used to be. It cannot be that the high school is overcrowded, that's for sure.

I guess I came away from the school committee experience feeling pretty hard for a group that works on Tuesday and that influences an organization of 200-300 people who work all week. The leverage that the School Committee really has is in choosing the superintendent and the principals and whatever directors there may be, and that's where you really have your chance to do something that will have an impact by finding somebody who believes whatever you believe, that you think is correct.

Oggy -- I worked with Superintendent Bob Ireland when I went on the committee, then Sayre Uhler came in and then Ralph Sloan.

Bob -- Ralph Sloan was there for most of the time that I was on the committee.

Oggy -- What I wanted to say that I didn't say about the collective bargaining was one of the things that impressed me most, and what I really worked hard at on the committee, was that you have to be acting in good faith with everybody. There is a fine opportunity for communication on both sides so you can understand the roles and problems on each side. I did a lot for that when we first started the collective bargaining. I tried very hard to set it up so it wasn't teachers versus committee. It really did work very well.

The other thing that I didn't bring up about schools that in my tenure we added to a lot of the schools. We did the Willard School addition in 1965, built Sanborn which was ready in 1966, Ripley wing finished in September 1969.

Bob -- It felt many times that we were fighting fires instead of thinking great thoughts. Every now and then we would say we've got to think bigger thoughts. We went off one weekend and spent a whole day thinking bigger thoughts and we came back and started fighting fires again.

We influenced some change, but there were no sweeping fundamental changes. Mostly we dealt with issues that seemed more important to the adults than students in town; touchy subjects like sex, open classrooms, teacher salaries, building projects, Metco, redistricting, new construction, regionalization, special education, managerial organization, and setting the tone of the system by making personnel choices at the superintendent and principal level.

Text added 10 September 2011; audio added 19 May 2012. rcwh.