One morning in the mid-1970s, Massachusetts lawmakers arrived at the State House to find their parking garage barricaded by tow trucks. It was a “sit-in” by lobbyists for the state’s service stations, who were pushing for franchise reforms to get their Big Oil overlords off their backs.
That barricade was just the beginning. After much grueling work by Burlington native Carl Olson, president of the state’s gas station association, the bill informally known as the Dealers’ Bill of Rights, written by Olson and Cambridge attorney John Campbell, finally had its big day in the House.
Make that several days. Olson and his allies milled around the State House chambers awaiting word. Every day, House Speaker Thomas W. McGee would emerge saying the same thing: “Don’t worry, today it will come out of committee,” meaning it would come to a vote. But every day, nothing happened. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
On day four, Olson lost it. “I confronted Tommy McGee in the hall, in front of everybody. He said the same thing, about the bill coming out of committee tomorrow. I punched him in the face. He went back in there with a bloody nose.” Violence gets you nowhere in a civilized society. However, Massachusetts politicians don’t comprise a civilized society. The House passed the bill that afternoon.
Olson had leveraged every contact he had, ranging from Senate President Billy Bulger to Wilmington auto franchisee-turned-politician Fred Cain. He went on to win the war. Soon after Gov. Michael Dukakis signed the new legislation, Ronald Reagan later signed a federal counterpart after some keen strategizing by Olson’s drinking buddy Tip O’Neill, whose private secretary happened to be a regular customer at Olson’s Sunoco station at the junction of Market Street and Broadway in Cambridge.
And so, nowadays, franchisees such as service centers and auto dealerships determine their own hours of operation, prices charged, facility improvements etc., and they enjoy certain protections against termination. Franchise laws existed many years before Olson came along, but, as he puts it, “A franchise wasn’t worth anything. It had no teeth.”
Olson traces his own “teeth,” his tenacity, back to his childhood home at 112 Wilmington Road, near the corner of Westwood Street. His home was a gentle little poultry farm, not a common breeding ground for political agitators.
Carl loved the farm. The Olsons swapped their eggs for the Johnson family’s cow milk down the street. Carl’s father, Hilmer, a Swedish immigrant, would take adolescent Carl on his egg delivery route in the family wagon on Saturdays, to Boston’s North End. “The cheap customers would call down to us, ‘Got any cracked eggs?’ They were much cheaper. Those people always seemed to be on the top floor, though. So I had to run up and down four-story houses in the North End of Boston to make 20 cents on cracked eggs. I guess that’s why I could run like a deer when I grew a little older.”
But all was not pastoral bliss on the farm. Carl’s father, Hilmer, divorced his wife, Inez, and left her with three adult children. They weren’t keen on halting their budding adult lives to pack eggs and shovel chicken poop.
Carl is the first to admit that he and his siblings, brother John and sister Carol, dropped the ball. They should have paid closer attention to the old homestead and what their mother was up to. In September of 1969, Inez quietly sold the four-acre parcel for $30,000 to the town, which promptly turned it into Veterans Playground, on the corner of Wilmington Road and Westwood Street. “That would have been my permanent home,” says Carl, “If I had a choice.”
Lesson learned: If you’re caught napping, or anything less than hypervigilant, you lose. At least that was Carl’s belief, and he carried it into his professional life as a gas/service station owner and lobbyist. “Everyone’s telling me you can’t beat the oil companies,” says Olson. “Yes you can.”
He certainly didn’t get there by pulling punches. Ask Mr. McGee.