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Former Cambridge Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci Dies

Politician was known for trying to turn Harvard Yard into a parking lot

By Susanne C. Chock, CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Alfred E. Vellucci, the former Cambridge mayor notorious for his zealous feuds with Harvard, died last Thursday in Cambridge City Hospital. He was 87.

Vellucci’s conflicts with Harvard began in 1956, his first year on the Cambridge City Council, when he proposed separating the University from Cambridge.

His most famous threat was a plan to purchase Harvard Yard by eminent domain and pave it over for public parking, thereby solving Cambridge’s parking problems.

“We will cut all their trees and all their landscape after confiscating their land by police force if necessary,” a 1988 Crimson article quoted him as saying.

In 1964, Vellucci proposed using urban renewal laws to raze Harvard buildings—including Straus, Lehman and Mass. Halls—in order to solve Harvard Square’s traffic problem.

His plans for the Yard changed again in 1968 when he proposed the city government dig out Harvard Yard to build an underground garage and bus depot.

Vellucci’s animosity toward Harvard existed since his early childhood, said Robert W. Winters, a longtime Cambridge political observer.

Born in Somerville, Vellucci dropped out of school in the sixth grade to pursue his first job delivering telegrams to Harvard dormitories for Western Union.

During this time, Winters said, Vellucci developed contempt for everything Harvard.

Vellucci once drove to New Haven for the Harvard-Yale football game and found his way to the Bulldogs’ locker room to deliver a beat-Harvard pep talk.

But proving that your enemy’s enemy is your friend, Vellucci switched allegiances in 1965 when Yale researchers announced that Norwegian Leif Ericson, rather than Italian Christopher Columbus, had discovered America. According to a 1971 Crimson article, Vellucci, an Italian, was incensed.

Along with 50 Italian East Cambridge residents, he purchased a block of tickets for the Harvard-Yale game to root against the Bulldogs. For their victory, the Harvard football team was rewarded with an Italian feast.

Still, Harvard did pay for the mayor’s love for Columbus, as he changed Harvard Square’s name to Christopher Columbus Square for a limited time. Most, however, agreed that this title was better than Piazza Leprechano, as he named the Square one St. Patrick’s Day.

Vellucci held a special animus for the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization which used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.

Among other suggestions, he proposed turning the Lampoon building into a dog pound. He later passed a proposal through the Cambridge City Council that declared the Lampoon a public urinal.

According to Winters, Vellucci’s attacks on Harvard were not merely personal but also bore political utility.

“Ganging up on Harvard is like shooting a fish in a barrel,” he said, explaining that very few votes come from Harvard and that locals are often eager to bash the school.

This policy supplemented his populist approach to politics well, winning him three terms on the Cambridge School Committee and a seat on the city council from 1955 to 1989.

He was elected mayor in 1971 and served three more two-year terms in office.

Glenn S. Koocher ’71, a family friend and former school committee member under Vellucci, said Vellucci’s antics never really hurt the University.

“It was all bullshit, and everybody knew it,” Koocher said.

Harvard students were actually an asset to Vellucci, carrying his reputation with them even after they left Cambridge, Koocher said.

Vellucci is among the very few Cambridge politicians to become known outside the city.

In 1976, Vellucci gained international recognition by leading a campaign against DNA research at Harvard.

“I actually sat down and talked with Al about that campaign,” Koocher said. “And, Al didn’t even know what DNA was.”

Vellucci is described as a colorful, flamboyant and outspoken leader by his associates.

“He was one of the most engaging and entertaining members of the city council,” Winters said. “Things were just never the same when he left.” But Vellucci was never gone for long.

Even after a recent brain hemorrhage, Vellucci returned to many council meetings and was a vocal participant in city affairs until the last week of his life.

Current Cambridge Mayor Michael A. Sullivan described Vellucci as an indispensable part of politics in the city.

“At times he banged on the table and argued furiously...but behind all the issues were people...He always fought for the underdog,” Sullivan said. Vellucci’s politics, Sullivan said, live on in Cambridge.

“His key principle was that there’s nothing wrong with helping someone who needs help...Styles may have changed, but the fundamentals are still the same,” he said.

Vellucci is survived by four daughters, Joanne Castriotta, Theresa Ferranti, Mary Ann Almeida and Jurina; four sons, Pasquale, Alfred Jr., Peter and James; and many grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

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