Closing down a year infected with incivility as a national ethos, I revisit with affection a woman, indeed, a politician and community advocate born to privilege but electing to roll up her sleeves, who was ever mindful of the value of words and deeds, both her own and those of others.
Mary H. Boatwright, a Marine Corps general’s daughter and direct descendant of Cotton Mather, was called Billy from birth. She was a slender and quick-witted woman who was a force in Stonington culture and life, in local and state politics and on the national scene as a Republican national committeewoman. She was a confidant, and occasional tennis partner, of Lowell P. Weicker Jr., former U.S. senator and governor, and was both a faithful reader of newspapers and attended daily Mass at St. Mary Church in the borough.
She died at age 82 in 2002. A folder in one of my drawers is filled with postcards from her (her husband, Victor, also sent his share, mostly correcting my grammar). It is a cherished collection of encouragement and friendship, despite political polarities.
One of her favorite, and fiercely guarded, turfs in town was the book sale table at the annual Stonington Village Fair in August. Donned in an apron, she commanded it astutely, having spent a good part of each year sorting books. The proceeds benefited the Stonington Community center, or COMO as it’s better known.
Perhaps the first postcard from “Billy B.” arrived a few years after I began working for The Day and wrote a column about, of all pressing worldly matters, washing the dishes. In Billy’s inflexible style, the postcard bore just a couple of words of approval, and the signature “Billy B” or “Billy Boat.”
Or maybe the first one came after the piece I wrote about the ageless Charlie Weyant throwing up his one-handed set shots from midcourt in the Over-30 basketball league at the Stonington Community Center.
In any event, it was long ago — could it be 40 years? — that she adopted me, welcoming me, a newspaper writer, into her circle of correspondents.
Through the years, she would share stories about national politics and political leaders, mindful to caution about what was off the record. She once told me what it was like to walk by Nelson Rockefeller. “I felt the need to immediately straighten my stockings,” she recalled, with that brash and fearless laugh of hers.
When Weicker, who lived near her in the borough for a few years, was around, they would team up as doubles partners at the Wadawanuck Club, and made quite the pair: He, at 6-foot-6 and hulking, and she, perhaps 100 pounds with her glasses on, as agile as her fragile, clay-court knees allowed.
She was, to the end, a Republican, and no fan of the dominant Democrats of her later years: the Clintons, particularly Hilary Rodham Clinton. The last postcard I received from Billy came in October 2000, after an outdoor political debate in Mystic between then-Congressman Sam Gejdenson and the GOP challenger, Rob Simmons of Stonington, who would unseat the 10-term Gejdenson. It was a raucous and colorful debate, orchestrated with team chants and hoots on a splendid autumn afternoon, a throwback, looking back, to politics that were spirited and bare-knuckle but still relatively respectful. “Almost a nostalgic day,” she wrote to me.
Among the annual college academic scholarships awarded by the COMO is the Mary H. Boatwright Endowment Fund, established by family and friends the year she died and awarded every year since 2003. Her civic, social, political, literary, environmental, church and humanitarian work speaks, as they say, volumes. Through the scholarship, the essence of who she was lives on. That and a collection of postcards to remind me that whatever our political differences may have been, there was always a welcome hand of cordiality.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at email@example.com.