Nancy Caruso’s North End Legacy
By: Nina Zannieri
Over the course of the North End’s deep and rich history, women have played a key role in shaping or, in many ways, changing its history. While some of the names are familiar, most are less well known than their male counterparts. At the very least, the list of such notable figures would include: Zipporah Potter Atkins (c.1645-1705), Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), Dr. Harriet Keziah Hunt (1805-1875), Pauline Agassiz Shaw (1841-1917), and Clementine Poto Langone (1898-1964). The contributions from all of these women can be further explored on the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail’s website www.bwht.org. Respectively, these women grasped freedom and homeownership in overcoming an enslaved youth, founded the Seamen’s Aid Society, advocated for women’s rights and health education, founded North Bennet Street School, and supported the North End Union in its work with immigrant populations. If we could ask these remarkable women, I am sure they would agree that a new name should be added to their ranks.
Nancy J. Caruso recently passed away at the age of 91. As is so often the case, her death has caused those of us who knew her to review her personal accomplishments and her deep commitment to the neighborhood she loved – the North End. It is a story worth recording and sharing.
Nancy was born in Sicily, the fourth child of Carmelo and Carmela Caruso. The Caruso family had actually settled in the North End in the early 1900s but returned to Sicily so that Carmelo could serve in the Italian army during WWI. Nancy’s older siblings, Mary and Michael, both of whom were born in America, along with their mother, settled in with Carmelo’s extended family on their Sicilian farm. It seems the return to Sicily was always viewed as temporary, however. In the year before Nancy’s birth in 1929, the family had already begun the slow process of relocating back to Boston’s North End. Mary returned first, and was followed by Michael as each reached the age of 16. In 1938, Nancy and her mother Carmela reached the North End, and were joined shortly thereafter by Carmelo. Nancy’s brother Joseph, who like her was also born in Sicily, was conscripted into the Italian Navy and served in WW2. As a consequence, he did not leave Europe until 1947 when he moved to the North End with his wife and son.
Nancy, new to America and speaking very little English, began her American journey in the 4th grade at the Cushman School on Parmenter Street. When asked about growing up in the North End, Nancy shared tales of cold-water flats, going to the public bathhouse at the Nazarro Center every Friday night, helping at home, shopping for locally made fresh pasta and bread, and engaging in her studies. College was not a forgone conclusion for women in the 1940s, let alone one from an immigrant family, but that was her goal. Northeastern University’s Cooperative Education Program (Coop) accepted Nancy as its first female accounting major. Thus, Nancy began the pattern of pathbreaking roles that would eventually fill her resume.
In 1951 she graduated as the top woman scholar in her class. Her award for academic excellence was conferred by Northeastern President Carl Ell and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. After completing her Masters in Education at Northeastern, she joined the faculty, teaching accounting in the College of Business Administration. In doing so, she was once again a trailblazer as she was the first female teacher in the business school. By 1960, the University recognized that Nancy was uniquely qualified to lead the effort to expand opportunities for young women at Northeastern in the fields of engineering and business. She created Coop placements in major corporations both in the United States and abroad. Her innovative approach proved a model for other universities and prompted her promotion to full professor. She continued in her role as a scholar, teacher, mentor, and innovator until her retirement in 1991.
But Nancy didn’t really retire; in fact, she took on the role that she is most remembered for in the North End. A major challenge loomed in Boston: how to update the massive elevated Central Artery that carried the Expressway through the heart of downtown. The plan, eventually dubbed the “Big Dig,” was driven by then Secretary of Transportation Fred Salvucci and backed by Senator Edward Kennedy. It involved putting the road underground so that the new road could be completed “out of sight” before the old elevated structure was demolished. It was a massive state and federal venture that promised to reknit the North End and downtown, improve traffic flow, and convert large swaths of land into parks and new community facilities.
However, the project also raised the specter of history repeating itself. The construction of the elevated road that would now come down had taken out a small portion of the North End, but had essentially removed Boston’s entire West End. Would this new construction be the death knell for the North End? Not if Nancy Caruso had a say. She established and chaired the North End Central Artery Committee. In fact, I met her when I joined the committee just as the community was bracing for an extended period of significant impact from the impending construction that seemed likely to cut the community off from downtown. Amidst concerns of devastating business losses, damage to buildings along the construction alignment, along with noise, dust, and vibration from heavy construction, Nancy stepped up and led the effort to exact promises of critical impact mitigation from the Commonwealth. It was a thankless task that often left Nancy in the middle between warring factions, as angry North Enders squared off against project engineers and state officials. Though it took a personal toll, Nancy was more than up to the task, driven by her unwavering love of her neighborhood. Though at times she seemed unwilling to negotiate on issues, in truth she was amazingly adept at the art of compromise. She was known to everyone connected to the project, from the dump truck drivers on the night crew to the Bechtel Parsons engineers, and from the local liaisons at city hall to the Governor. No one was too “lowly” to work with or too important to fear.
As time consuming and drawn out as her Central Artery work (1991-2010) proved to be, Nancy stayed involved in scores of activities and organizations, including the Paul Revere Memorial Association, the Boston Port and Seamen’s Aid Society, St. Leonard’s Church, NEWRA, the Kennedy Greenway, and so many more. She also served as the first female president of the alumni association at Northeastern.
If you visited Nancy at her Endicott Street home, her residence sported pictures with politicians both foreign and domestic, celebrities, U.S. Presidents, Northeastern bigwigs, and North End community leaders; endless shovels from groundbreaking ceremonies; articles in magazines and newspapers; and numerous awards. Just a few of the honors included the 1979 Amita Award for Achievement by Italian American Women, the 1995 Freedom Foundation Award, an Honorary Doctorate in Community Service from Northeastern in 2000, and the Don Orione Woman of the Year Award in 2008.
Nancy often noted that one of the best things about the North End was running into people you know, and she knew everyone. She was a friend and mentor to many but she made a special effort to support women. In her role for many years as a board member and then emeritus director, the Paul Revere Memorial Association benefited from her interest and generosity, and she personally opened many doors for me over the years. As much as she loved a good fight for a worthy cause, she also thoroughly enjoyed sitting down to a lovely meal with friends and colleagues at one of the neighborhood’s many restaurants. She was a force of nature whose life and contributions sustained and changed the North End.
*While the errors in this piece are my own, much of the information relied on a wonderful booklet created for the presentation of the Don Orione Woman of the Year Award.
Nina Zannieri is Executive Director of the Paul Revere House