John Finigan

100 Keyes Road

Interviewed May 3, 1989
Age 67

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

Click here for audio in .mp3 format

Finigan, John.I think you can really trace my family back to 1849 or 1850 when a couple of the old great, great aunts came over, one by the name of Costello and the other my the name of Moynihan and found their place here in Concord and wrote back to the Finigan family in County Mayo and suggested that this would be a great place for us to immigrate to. In the 1880's, I guess it took that long for them to respond to the invitation or whatever, somewhere around 1879 or 1880 James and Kathryn came here with their oldest child and only child at that time, Thomas, came over on the boat, got on the train and headed west out of Boston and passing through Concord where the train stopped at the station that was in the western side of Lake Walden, got off there and decided to stay here in Concord.

They ultimately went to work for the Chase's, whose home was what is now Park Lane, lived in the loft of the barn for four or five years and worked for Chase on his farm. James and Kathryn bought a piece of land as soon as they got some money together in six or seven years, across the street from the easterly gate to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the house is still there. Their house was reputedly the first Irish home to have an indoor bathroom somewhere in the late 1880's. They brought up their family there. There was Thomas who came with them, Bridget a daughter who scalded herself to death as an eight year old youngster in the kitchen, a very tragic accident, Patrick, James, John, Martin. Martin operated M. J. Finigan clothing store at 8 Walden Street for years and years and was the first permanent fireman and driver of the first vehicle in the fire department in town. William who later became a Catholic priest and monsignor who was very close to me; Aunt Mary a school teacher well known in the Concord school system, she resigned in 1919 when her mother died and the boys decided she would run the house and they would take care of her; and Michael my father, the youngest. Of them all John was the entrepreneur, an auctioneer, founded an auctioneer business with the Sheehan's. Later Arthur Magurn, Sr., was an apprentice of his. At one time he owned all the land that is now the Concord dump, all the land that is currently under debate and zoned for business lying between the westerly side of Route 2 and the southwesterly side of the town forest property, and also the corner of Walden Street and Route 2 on the south side that adjoins the rest of the property of Walden Pond, which he sold to Judge Prescott Keyes. Then without getting into too much of the details, John came down with Parkinson's disease or would have been a very successful entrepreneur. Patrick ran away to the Boxer Rebellion, joined the Rainbow division in World War I, and came back and settled his family in Philadelphia where there are still descendants of his strain of the family there.

Aunt Mary I guess would be 110 or 115 years old now. There are still people that remember Mousey Finigan as she was known because she did continue to substitute in the school system after the 1919. As a matter of fact she substituted in the early and middle '30's when I was going to grammar school. On occasion I would have my aunt as the teacher. She was very strict.

Michael married in 1921 to Mary Derby from Cambridge. The interesting story is that they wanted to buy a house, which they did right after they were married. It is the second house down Lexington Road toward Lexington from the Antiquarian Society, now currently owned by the Antiquarian Society. But the owner wouldn't sell to a Catholic in those days, and my father's first cousin was very close to Judge Fenton, who at that time was about to be appointed as a chief land court justice; and Tommy Cummings, that was his name, was the clerk; so he had the secretary buy the house from this gentleman and then the next day passed title to my father, and they walked over the hill because it was a straight line from the house on Bedford Street over the hill down to Lexington Road to take possession of the property. I forget, and it is probably just as well, the man's name that owned the property, but when he saw my mother and father coming over the hill to take possession he was chopping wood out back; and when he realized what had happened, he sunk his ax into the chopping block and couldn't get it out. I remember years later, we used to have a chicken coop out there, my father would show me that chopping block with the metal ax head, and he said, "You know, that is the perfect example of what prejudice really is when you get so mad that you have to lose your ax," which of course back in those days, I am talking about the 1929 or '30 period, an ax was an expensive item.

So I was brought up there, and then by that time my Uncle Martin had the store, my Uncle John was a successful auctioneer, my father and John bought property and we ran a farm. My father also worked in the post office on Chauncy Street in Boston. He would leave in the morning at 5:30, take the train in, be home around 5:00 in the afternoon, and work weekends, etc., on the farm. Our farm land was on Walden Street, everything from the police station driveway down to and including the court house land and stretching back quite a ways from the road and all the land on the easterly side of Hawthorne Lane, which the town now owns. Lawrence Kenney sold it to the town. We had a barn on Walden Street and a shed down there. Collectively, we had about thirty acres with a roadside stand which was well known because a lot of Boston people used to come out to get their potatoes for the fall and their squash for the winter and the asparagus and various things that we sold at the stand as well as shipped the stuff in to the Boston market. The stand was on Lexington Road just beyond the Antiquarian Society on the front yard of the property I talked about earlier that my mother and father bought and adjacent to the next farm stand which belonged to the Flavin's, old Doc Flavin, Jack Flavin, Dr. Flavin's father's family had a little farm and a roadside stand.

A lot of things happened. I think you can draw a clear, defining line of the political life of the town and really I suppose in the life of many of the immigrants, whether they be Irish or Italian, Swedish, Polish, or what they be and that line I think would be drawn between the beginning and end of World War II. Prior to World War II there were few of us that had the opportunity to go to college. My brother and I and my sister later on after the war, of course, both had that opportunity, and it was almost a foregone conclusion that we would go to Boston College, and the monsignor, my uncle, graduated from BC, and it was inexpensive. We paid $67.50 a quarter to go to BC, and I was accepted at several schools. I happened to have done very well in the educational field, thanks to the monsignor who tutored me quite a bit in four years of Latin in high school. In those days you could take Latin, and my aunt a school teacher who had great interest in both my brother and me; so we both graduated very highly in our classes, he is a year younger than I am, and we went to BC. He later went to MIT, I finished at BC, and then the University of Michigan. But the war drew a line, and I know in my life, I suppose if it hadn't been for the war I might have still been a little farm and country boy as I like to say on occasion when it is appropriate to say, "Don't ask me about those things, I am just a little country boy." I might have still been one of those. But when I came back from the war, I was gone three years, three months, and two days, I was discharged on the eleventh of November in 1945. I always thought that was the real reason for the holiday, not Armistice Day.

When I got home I did take some interest in the town. I had a college education. The farm had been passively successful. The young people, my brother and myself were pretty well gone. Martin had died, John had died, Aunt Mary wasn't well, the property was about to be sold, and it was a new era. Between 1945 and 1949 when I got married I took interest in recreational things, etc. I think my maiden speech at town meeting was in 1947 when I became active in the twilight baseball league, and it was a good league, there was a major cut by the recreation department for the simple things, like the bases, the balls, the bats, and a couple of gloves, for the returning veterans to continue to have this league; and it was very hectic, very hectic. There were eight or ten teams, in a very competitive field, and it was great to have something to do when you came home from work. I took the floor of town meeting and damned if we didn't win the vote. The moderator at that time I guess took some interest in maybe the logic that was involved or whatever, and his name was Herbert Wardwell. Herbert Wardwell belonged to the Tuesday night club, was the president of the insurance company down town, he was extremely active and good for the town in all respects.

There had been much discussion with the changing of the times with the political environment, with the new developments being built, and younger people coming here, that there should be a newer element brought into the political life of the town on a friendly and not in a competitive, irritable, mean way. I think part of that probably in discussions behind the scenes was one of the reasons that Wardwell asked me to serve on the finance committee; and I accepted and I served for nine years, two of which, the last two, I was the chairman. I think in passing, since this is part of the evolution of the Irish people, Catholic people in the town, it was rather obvious when Harold Smith was the chairman of the finance committee and he was elected to the board of selectmen that I would be elected as the new chairman. I say that very humbly, but of course it was rather obvious. In an effort to block that, the presiding officer at the time of the election suggested that as a senior member and probably the best qualified, I should make the first nomination for the new chairman. God bless Eleanor Fenn, she took exception to this and requested that I turn over to her the honor that the chair had been to me so that she could place me for nomination. She did and it was a relatively close vote. That would be in 1957, there still was a little bitterness out there. I think I did a good job as chairman of the finance committee. I think I was capable to project in a layman's simple language the difficult problems and understanding of schedule A, B and C so that the average person could understand what the total assessed value was, what the total monies needed were and how their tax rate was determined as well as take a broader view of some of the articles presented. I do pride myself in saying that I learned from those people that I rubbed shoulders with in town government that the term "what is for the best interest of the town" is a statement that cannot ever be broken, and I hopefully measured my decisions in that vane.

I decided to run for selectman in 1959. It was a joint decision, I guess, made by me and my then wife of 10 years, and we had six children, and so there had to be a judgment there. This was not a candidate that was running opposed to someone. This was a candidate that was running because he felt he had something to give and had spent the years in preparing himself from a financial point of view, and of course from an old family point of view the integrity of our family had been established over many, many years. The election took place in 1959. I think there were five people that were running. Of course, in those days there were only three precincts, and it was a rather bitter campaign. There were those that thought I was too young. There were those that thought that the town wasn't ready yet for an Irish Catholic, with a name that is so clearly Irish Catholic, to assume a position on the board. There were many little internal battles, but I guess if you went back and looked at the list of the people who endorsed me, not really because they knew me that well, certainly had no social ties to me, but thought it was time for someone who might be qualified of our background to take a place in the government of the town. You know, names like Buttrick, Lovejoy, Bert Newbury, if you go down the list of those that are on my political ad, you'd find that it wasn't just the list of the Irish running against the Yankee just because it was the thing to do -- Eleanor Fenn, Hope Chase, as well as my own Irish farmer, Irish Catholic and Italian friends, the east quarter and the Hubbardville Irish people that we grew up with that we had much in common with prior to the war. It made a rather interesting conglomerate, and I guess when it was all said and done, I led the ticket in two of the three precincts, and John Damon just beat me out in precinct 2, which was West Concord, and John and I clearly carried the election.

The first year was really an educational period, but I served with some brilliant people. I served with Bob Sheehan, who was probably the most practical politician, down-to-earth guy that I had ever met. He lacked a full formal education that most all of us had, but his education came from practical applications. Bob Sheehan used to visit every Concordian who was sick at Emerson Hospital every Sunday. Then there were people like Harold Smith, great understanding person, owned the Colonial Press up in Clinton; Freddy Robbins today is a senior partner, just retired of Goodwin, Proctor and Hoar, an outstanding attorney, Herbert Wilkins a Supreme court justice now, one of the most brilliant minds that I served with, John Damon who goes back to the days of Damondale, had a great interest in the town, well educated and very practical. Bob Rodday, a most interesting guy, W.E. Rodday was his father, one of the big contractors in West Concord. Bob, extremely successful, his brother Nick everybody knew, had the Elmbrook stables down on Old Virginia Road.

But the fun we used to have on the board you can't have anymore. The open meeting laws which we have now are very important I am sure, but our board would meet after the regular meeting at the Colonial Inn, ten o'clock at night. We'd meet at one of the individual's houses. We'd discuss appointments. We'd discuss balance - shouldn't West Concord have representation here in this particular problem, are the Catholic people being represented, are the, as Otis Whitney used to call them, swamp Yankees and not in a derogatory way but meaning the Scandinavian people, and the newer kind of people versus the old staid moneyed people, are they being correctly represented? We would discuss this, and we would have our battles, we'd bury the hatchet, forget all about it, and we would be the best of friends. We would all go to the balls together. I remember once all going in tuxedoes at the time of the major concern of underground protection from an atomic bomb. Everybody was talking about this. I remember deciding as a board to go over and see Brad Morse in his office in Lowell at 7 o'clock at night before the policemen's or firemen's ball, we all went in our tuxedoes. We'd do that and then come back. We all went to the balls.

I remember the fun we used to have on the 19th of April. I lived two doors from the armory so we would all come over after the grand march to my house, go back and there usually would be some activity after one o'clock, which after we probably took our wives home, we'd participate in. One of the things was a long discussion we had about the calling of geese. Bob Rodday claimed that he probably could call more geese at any time than probably anybody else and we had a long discussion. Ted Nelson was then the town manager and we got in the car and the selectmen went to the Old North Bridge and we stood in the center of the bridge and Rodday started calling geese and there must have been five hundred geese appearing from the Great Meadows and all around the minuteman statue. Somebody in the neighborhood heard all the calling and the excitement and called the cruisers. So here are the five members of the board of selectmen and the town manager and four hundred geese at the Old North Bridge when the cruiser comes dashing down. Ted Nelson said, "What are you doing here?" Well we had a complaint about some noise. And Nelson says, "Oh, that noise was up on West Street in West Concord and we could hear it from here and I suggest that you boys go up there immediately and see what you can do about it." And it was all done in fun. But sometimes humor or fun in relationships for five people that are on the governing board of the town all from different backgrounds, different social fields, sometimes that helps add to their ability to get along together when it comes to making a judgment for the common good. But most of us were long time Concordians in those days. We are not what is now considered a long time Concordian if you are 12 or 15 years in town.

I don't think really the problem of having a Catholic appointed any more is as serious as it was then. It's served its purpose and doesn't have to be discussed any more, but it did have to be discussed and in '59 it was discussed. I think it is interesting that three years later I had no opposition. Damon and I were elected with no contest. I made a judgment that two terms were enough and that's kind of an unwritten rule.

The National Park issue came up when I was chairman. That issue raised it's head because of the federal government's interest in the Department of Interior expanding its parks to the historical and educational area as well as the environmental areas of open spaces. Concord and Lexington were approached as was the city of Boston and Charlestown and so forth in terms of the Minuteman National Park concept. Concord itself was having problems with the Minuteman Park under our jurisdiction. There were debates on the floor of town meeting concerning appropriations of money for toilets and for parking spaces and for expenditure of taxpayers' money and those were trying times. People were rightly protective of their schedule A and their tax bill. So there was an opening for political discussion with the federal government and there was a jealousy and rugged independence in Concordians as it related to Daniel Chester French's statue and to the bridge and what it meant. It was pleasant, unpleasant, difficult and easy all at the same time to negotiate with the national park people. They realized that they had to lease the property under our jurisdiction with us having a right to take it back if we cared to in a lease I executed with the rest of my board in June 1963. The park service took the Buttrick property as their headquarters. The Buttrick homestead itself had no real historical, political significance other than it was built I guess right after World War I. The plaque to Major Buttrick of course is there and they maintain that and the old Buttrick home across the street, the yellow house, that has more significance than the brick mansion itself. There are problems that many people have raised from time to time concerning their methods of maintenance, their handling of people, that kind of question of management over what they already control.

After serving for ten years as the chairman of the bicentennial which began in 1975 and having the opportunity to feel and see and know the concern of the nation, the concern of the Department of Interior as well as the concern of the town for the statue and the bridge and what it stands for during those periods, I'm happy to have the opportunity to serve on the park advisory committee today. I think I've had great exposure to the big picture. I feel the National Park has a place in the town, I feel that the Minuteman and the bridge has a major place in the history of the country. I don't agree that the national park or the federal government has the right to superimpose utopia in terms of their thinking of design of the national park on the people that live in the various towns that made up the battle road. I'm referring to the restoration of the battle road. There were rights that were fought for at the bridge that the participants of the revolution objected to and therefore fought at the bridge and the bitter cold years through Valley Forge against the British for their rights that still exist. And there is no need except for the common good for things like eminent domain, imposition of big government versus the local say of people governing themselves, there is no need as I see it for those things to take place. And I resist that.

Concord has always been a town that runs its politics on the basis of whether you are able to serve the town, is your thinking in line with the thinking of the majority? You know, I was chairman of the democratic town committee which was a no-no in those days when I was elected to the board of selectmen, besides being an Irish Catholic. Somehow or other I feel that kind of philosophy hasn't changed. The citizens of this town in my judgment feel that the individual rights of the homeowners should be protected now to the same degree as they were fought for on the 19th of April in 1775. I cannot possibly visualize the need for a walkway, a right of way, across the rear end of the property on the easterly side of Monument and Main Street in the center of town and Lexington Road down to Meriam's corner for people to walk where the minutemen walked and shot at the British behind the stone walls. History can say it was done there but I don't even think the souls that are buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery who would be adjacent to that path would think it's necessary.

Being chairman of the bicentennial was an experience that called for a lot of sacrifice but it was an experience that you wouldn't give up for all the money in the world. We're talking about a period now from 1966 to 1975. There was first an advisory committee appointed, Bert Newbury was the chairman, of four or five people to decide what was the best format for management quality, programs that were necessary for an appropriate commemoration of the events in April 1775. Once that judgment was made, we reported back to the selectmen within a year or so and a committee of 25 was appointed and I was elected chairman. I took it with a great deal of trepidation because I was now educating from a financial point of view, six youngsters all in college or in private schools, and a great deal of sacrifice on the part of my wife because there was untold meetings, untold aggravation, major difficulties with numbers in the parade, an invitation to the president of the United States, Gerald Ford, and what have you. Patience, yes, but along the way a hard hand. It was necessary to say to a doubting Thomas bunch that 7,000 troops can pass a given point in a parade at the bicentennial in two and a half hours and then prove the point that it was done and it was done. Now we had good advice from intelligent people that knew something about parades other than the meandering parades that we usually have on the 19th which are very appropriate for the occasion. It took considerable discussion to bring the two camps together relating to inviting the president or not inviting the president.

I did get much satisfaction saying to two justices of the old school about some poor little Irish boy having the opportunity to be chairman with Gerald Ford. I thought it was appropriate that he come. I do remember, and I'll remember to my dying day, one interview that I had with the press on TV, I think it was channel 5, it was picked up in one of the local papers too, when I said Concord is a neat and clean town, that the president is our guest and as are all the military groups and the political objectors, that the town will entertain in whatever way it chooses. That Sunday morning, the next day, the town will neat and clean and people will be able to go to church as if nothing happened. Now I said that and I felt reasonably secure but I did have my tongue in my cheek, but I must say to my dying day that Paul Flynn, then town manager, assumed the responsibility of the public works performing what I said they would do and every single member of the public works did clean the town to a point where you couldn't find a popcorn wrapper.

There is a letter I have here someplace from the chairman of the board of selectmen in Littleton who was to celebrate their anniversary of the corporation of the town within months after the bicentennial. They were having a great deal of difficulty because of the hawkers and peddlers, balloon sellers, and his committee's interpretation that if they had a state license that they couldn't control them on a public way. He was very interested in how we or I were able to control them because we did have them. I didn't write him back but I did meet him. I told him it was very simple, you just break the law and you just throw the bastards out, and when it's all over, they haven't got any money to bring you to court anyway so it's the end of the ballgame.

A rather humorous thing that happened was I didn't know exactly how to handle Sir Peter Ramsbottom who was the British ambassador to the United States who in his great wisdom decided to come and be with us on this day of his defeat. I thought of Herbie Wilkins and I knew Herbie was very loquacious and his father was a Supreme Court judge before him and they had been over to England. I said to Herbie "Would you take over Sir Peter?" And he agreed. He got hold of Henry Lockland who has this beautiful estate of course up off Monument Street near the Carlisle line and Henry agreed to put the ambassador up overnight. So they picked up his Rolls Royce and took it up to Henry Lockland's house and Henry had a nice dinner party. Early in the morning with the parade of vehicles with the dignitaries, the Rolls Royce with Sir Peter, his secretary in a morning suit and his chauffeur put the Rolls Royce into drive and drove it down the long gravestone driveway of the house he was staying at to get to Concord center. When we arrived after the events at the bridge at the First Parish Church, these cars were permitted to go into the circular drive in front of the church and Sir Peter took one look at his Rolls Royce and said to his secretary, "Get it cleaned up." So we all go up on the reviewing stand, Sir Peter was there, General Whitney, the governor and his wife were there, Ellen and I were there and this secretary showed up and said to Sir Peter, "I'm not able to get any water to wash the Rolls Royce, sir." He turned to me and said, "How can that be handled?" So I said, "Why don't you speak to Dana." Dana Greeley gets this problem and he says "The sexton's at the door, why don't you speak to him." With about the parade halfway gone by, I turned around and I saw this extraordinary sight, the chauffeur with his hat on stripped down to his undershirt and the secretary with a morning suit on with these big high white cuffs where he makes his notes for Sir Peter rolled up and the two of them washing the Rolls Royce because of the dust from Henry Lockland's driveway to get it ready to go to Lexington. It was kind of appropriate to look at that and say "Well, I guess, they still do it in England, you sure couldn't do it here."

You know sitting and talking like this and looking back at some of the interesting things that have happened brings to mind how the town handled the assassination of John Kennedy. Because I think that really puts together everything that I talked about politically. I was the chairman of the board of selectmen the year that John Kennedy was assassination and it fell on me to make certain judgments as to how the town as every other city and town, 351, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had to think about too. I remembered much about the background of the Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds and when they were up in Acton and Concord, as a matter of fact St. Bernard's Church was where Rose received some of the sacraments. So I made the judgment that the procedure for the town should be the same as we did for Lincoln. The town was palled and had its black crepe the same as Lincoln did. And I thought it would be appropriate that the Independent Battery fire at the same position in the same formation at the same time that they fired for the services for Abraham Lincoln, which was done. I do have a magnificent color picture taken of the battery in that formation as it looks the same as the Lincoln firing but the pictures of the dignitaries of the town reviewing this got lost. But then I thought it would be appropriate to have a mass for Kennedy since he was Catholic. The reception showed me that any of this bitterness that existed in my lifetime, thinking back to where the Irish all sat in the back rows alphabetically after all the other kids when I was going to school; it pointed out to me that much of it was gone. There was a mass attended by the full board of selectmen, all the elected town officials, and a complete cross-section of the citizenry. I felt good about that and I'm sure I would have felt just as good about it if it had been some other church. But I've noticed this complete change; oh, there are pockets of difficulty like there will always be pockets of difficulties with people and so forth, but the broad change for the good I've noticed in my lifetime.

Text mounted 26th September 2012; Images mounted 10th October 2012; audio mounted 24th October 2015. RCWH.