Delivered by Jim Correale
at Sacred Heart Church on February 4, 2010
at Sacred Heart Church on February 4, 2010
Wally Bowe was my friend, my colleague and my mentor. We grew up a few doors apart just two blocks from here, and we worked together at the Salesian Boys & Girls Club and later at Savio High School. There was a stretch of time -- from the day in 1975, when I first signed up as a member of the Boys Club, to June of 2001, when I finished my first stint teaching at Savio -- when I saw Wally almost every day. In those 26 years I saw up close what a remarkable, caring and dedicated person he was. I also saw how tough, smart and incredibly funny he was. I watched and I learned.
Wally understood people at some deep psychological level that is imperceptible to most. He was an unfailing judge of character, and he could relate to just about anyone. He was confident enough in himself that he didn’t need to treat others with anything less than genuine decency. He was exceptionally humble. He had no desire to be publicly recognized or to be in the spotlight. He was happy if those who he respected understood his work and his value and respected him in return.
Wally handled discipline with children and teenagers better than anyone else I ever worked with or saw. He was the absolute and unquestioned law in any room he was in or at any event he attended. The toughest kids wouldn’t tangle with Wally because they knew that he was tougher. He was big and he was strong, and just a few sharp words or even just that intense stare – eyes narrowed and mouth in a tight, disapproving grimace -- would quickly grab the attention of an individual who might be up to a little mischief or even an entire classroom.
But behind that tough exterior was a gentle and thoughtful man. Wally was upbeat and encouraging to those teenagers who were making an effort to get back on track after being in some kind of trouble. He never gave up on someone willing to try. You knew that he was in your corner if you lived up to his expectations. And if you were a quiet kid or not very athletic or lacking a bit in self-confidence -- well, then Wally was in your corner, too. He attempted to engage every club member or every student with a few kind words or a joke or even the creation of a nickname -- and some of those have stuck permanently.
Wally was hands down the best coach I’ve ever seen. He could coach anything -- basketball, floor hockey, flag football … even soccer. What did he know about soccer? Not a thing. One team tries to kick the ball into the other team’s net. That’s it. But after a particularly undisciplined season, Savio put Wally at the helm of the boys’ varsity soccer team -- and they went to state tournament. He knew that coaching is much more than X’s and O’s. He was an absolute master at motivating young athletes, with an ability to reignite their passion for every game … even every practice. You were never sure what strategy he’d employ, but he was ready with an approach and a few words that brought the most out of his athletes.
Wally was also, of course, a fierce competitor. I played against him enough to know, and I usually came out on the losing end. He was an incredibly smart athlete, especially on the basketball court. I played for many years with a bunch of guys on Sunday night at Savio and more recently Sunday morning, and everyone wanted Wally on their team. I watched as he dominated entire games without taking a shot, controlling the flow of action with his passing or rebounding.
Wally was the most genuine person I’ve ever known. He was straightforward with everyone. He said what he thought, and he did what he thought was right. Wally was as dependable as anyone I’ve ever known. One time I had a flat tire on Route 1, I called Wally. Whenever I needed help moving, I called Wally. He was also as loyal as anyone I’ve ever known. He would do anything for people he knew, whether close friends or casual acquaintances. He was also loyal to this neighborhood. Sure, he lived his early childhood years in Michigan and later he, Darlene, Janae and Jillian moved to Saugus, but his heart never left East Boston. And everyone in Eastie knew him. You couldn’t take a drive with him in this neighborhood without people waving him over; you couldn’t sit down to eat somewhere in East Boston without someone stopping at the table every few minutes to greet him.
Of course, Wally’s life was dedicated to the young people of this community. For more than three decades he worked with the children and teenagers of East Boston -- first at the Boys & Girls Club, then at Savio and, most recently, at the Umana Middle School. Hundreds and hundreds of people were deeply affected by his guidance, his advice, his encouragement, his compassion, his kindness, his enthusiasm, his support, his unwavering belief in the ability of each to be a good person and to find success on whatever path he or she chose. He knew the impact that his life had on those around him. He understood that he was planting seeds that in some cases wouldn’t blossom for years.
Now, in the past few days, anyone who may have been unaware of what Wally means to East Boston has started to understand. Those who’ve seen the Facebook page dedicated to him have witnessed an outpouring of affection that surpassed even what those of us who knew him well expected. More than one thousand people joined the online group within 36 hours. Dozens and dozens of comments mourned, praised and remembered. Some said they were about to drop out of high school until Wally pulled them aside and, with a few words, set them back on course. Others mentioned his presence during difficult moments in their lives. Still others admitted that that they were not easy to deal with as teenagers, and that Wally stayed on top of them and that now, as adults, they are able to appreciate all he did.
Last night, of course, there was an incredible turnout at the wake. People waited in line in the cold for as long as two hours because they just had to pay their respects. From his family members to his childhood friends, from past Boys & Girls Club members who may not have seen Wally in 20 years to the students he worked with more recently at Savio and the Umana – they cried and laughed as they talked about the impact that one man had on so many of us.
The last time I saw Wally was -- no surprise -- at Santarpio’s a couple weeks ago. I walked in with some friends and, as happened frequently there, a waiter said to me, “Hey, you know Wally’s back there.” He came over to sit with us and, as usual, he and I prepared for an exchange of insults. “Big Wall,” I said, my usual greeting, and he smiled back, “Big Jim.” And then one of us would begin. I might say, “How many pizzas did you eat? What … did they run out of dough?” He’d fire back without missing a beat: “Actually, they asked us to leave when you walked in because the weight limit is maxed out.” We could go on like that for quite a while. In addition to all his other admirable qualities, Wally was often hilarious.
Back in the spring of 2007, when Savio High School was shutting down for good, Wally’s presence was probably the key factor in keeping order down the stretch. As the year wound to a close, all of the faculty members were busy trying to find jobs for the next school year. One of my colleagues at the time, Tim Ferrari, said to all of us, “Wherever I go, I want there to be a Wally Bowe there.” I think Timmy got it exactly right.