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50 years ago this month, an explosion

Tension between police and unruly Burlington youth came to a head in August, 1970.

  • First, police broke up a huge party off Blanchard Road, involving about 500 people.
  • In suspected retaliation, vandals smashed windows and damaged property in every corner of the town, from service stations to schools.
  • Then someone slipped a note to police demanding they back off “sex and beer parties.”
  • Then came the flashpoint: An explosion in the temporary police station, now the Burlington Museum. A new station was under construction across the common. It’s now the Town Hall Annex, sporting a second floor. Was it a bomb tossed by a disgruntled teen? A faulty piece of equipment? Improperly stored flammables? It was a mystery.

 

Police station under construction, Burlington MA
Police station under construction, early 1970s.

Bomb or not, this prompted some soul-searching. Were police handling youth unrest the right way? Was the town offering enough activities to keep teenagers occupied? Should the town hold “rap sessions” aimed at closing a generation gap?

Ruth Benishin of Beaverbrook Road became the town’s first drug abuse coordinator. She told the Lowell Sun that Burlington was struggling with the same issues facing the nation:

“The young feel ostracized from the rest of the community because of their different set of values, and their mode of dressing is taken as a sign of physical alienation from the community. But effective communication will not come about until the adult community realizes they are living in a totally different world from their children.”

Benishin started a drug hotline and advertised the phone number in the local paper. Where did the hotline calls go? Her house. Who was the hotline operator? She was. What professional licensure did she have? None.

She’s now 90 years old, and her opinion about professional licensure hasn’t budged an inch. “I don’t think counseling training is worth a lot anyway, whether they got in 1945 or now,” she says. “I’m not terribly impressed.”

She saw a need and tried to help, plain and simple. Ditto the group of young people assembled by Benishin to form the House of Common, a peer counseling effort that won town funding thanks to tenacious effort by Benishin.

The House opened in February 1972. Visitors came right away. Sometimes teenagers, other times parents. Sometimes drugs, sometimes divorce, sometimes domestic abuse. Many cases were referred to state agencies, not handled in the House. It handled 55 cases in May, 79 in June. Suitably impressed with the operation, the town approved funding and staffing by summertime:

The House did employ a few professionals from the region, but Burlington High School students and formed the core. The crew often sat on the floor and role-played incoming crisis hotline calls, then critiqued each other’s responses. The students came up with the name House of Common. It meant common ground among townspeople.

House of Common, 172 Cambridge Street
This house at 172 Cambridge Street became the House of Common. It was the town’s first drop-in counseling center for, among other things, drug addiction. The address now belongs to an office building containing Burlington Eye Associates.

House of Common July 1972, Burlington MA

Here are two student leaders at House of Common. Alberghini is now executive vice president of the Housing Partnership Network.

Screen Shot 2020-08-10 at 4.35.41 PMThe House gained credibility beyond Burlington. “I got a reputation for knowing about drugs,” says Benishin. The Middlesex County Sheriff stopped by her house, keen on understanding more about handling drug problems, but also keen on scrutinizing the HOC’s strict confidentiality policy, which cloaked the identities of its visitors even if they had illegal drugs. Benishin says that despite the pressure, she never divulged any information to law enforcement.

Student volunteer Pamela Nazzaro became an unofficial counselor at the high school. “After word got around school, people came to me in person with their problems. I never understood it. Instead of being anonymous, they would come to me while I sat in the cafeteria.” And it happened at home. “I had a couple people show up at my house on bad trips. I gave them a multivitamin and said the vitamin B would help. The placebo worked!”

In July 1972, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health issued $12,000 to the House of Common. It began working closely with Choate Hospital in Woburn and Woburn District Court. It even became a “halfway house” counseling center for inmates discharged from the Billerica House of Correction.

Middle school students, grades five through eight, became a frequent challenge for the House of Common. It won Town Meeting approval in 1973 for $8,000 to hire two counselors just for middle schoolers.

In 1974, the House became the Community Life Center and moved into a section of the Union School building (now the police station) on the corner of Center and Sears Streets.

Burlington Community Life Center

So when did this whole counseling effort fizzle out? It never did. The Community Life Center has now become Burlington’s Youth and Family Services. And it all started with this woman and her home hotline:

Ruth Benishin

3 thoughts on “50 years ago this month, an explosion Leave a comment

  1. I worked at the House of Common answering the phone when people called for help. One night I got a girl who was threatening to take her life. I convinced her to give me her address and I went there and talked her down.

  2. I worked here as well. I remember Mrs. Benishin and her son Greg. Also remember Lisa being there as well. We would have sessions with Tom upstairs and talk about how to help other kids our age in Burlington. The bombing also fomented another effort in Burlington to quell the “angst” of teenage unrest – The Galley Coffeehouse. My self, along with a small board of other students including Gail Murphy, Glenn Sprangers (from Tewksbury), Jim Gravina, Mary Barry (who sadly just passed away this past May), Mary Beth Miller and others formed a group to create this place in the basement of the Congregational Church at the corner of Bedford and Lexington Streets. Lead by Youth Minister, Bob Bohannon, we created a place for kids to go on Friday nights in the church hall that included a commercial kitchen and space for about 100. The first year we had folk singers as entertainment, and it was slow to gain momentum. Not long after we started (Fall of 1971 as I recall) the High School dances were cancelled until further notice, so we opted to have some local Burlington Bands in for entertainment. It was a hard sell to then Pastor Davis, but his daughter Barbara (also a board member) helped us pith the idea to her Dad. This proved to be an almost immediate draw, to the point that on some Friday’s, the line was out the door like a Hollywood Premier. Chaperone volunteers typically came from parents (Mrs. Geri Miller was frequently there as I recall), high school teachers (i.e. Jay Rutkowksi was a frequent chaperone) helped keep the control needed since we were operating in a 150 year old church and were keenly aware of cigarettes and other flammables that could bring disaster in short order. In the years I was involved (and ran it in my senior year), we only had the needed of police presence to mitigate traffic of parents coming to pick up their kids. We were able to manage everything on the inside for the most part (except for a few fights like the one I had with Bobby Defelice after I had to eject Steve Baia for muling beer into the premises and hiding it in the boy room toilet tank – clever but nasty!)…. 🙂 In 1972, the Galley idea spurred a spin-off for middle school age students on Saturday nights. Not as well attended (and parents keeping a much tighter leash in those days) the Saturday night run only lasted a year as I recall. I have many fond memories of Friday nights when the house was full, the bands like Classified Ads were rocking the house, and the sign of relief on Reverend Davis’ face as we made it through week after week without incident. Both the House of Common and The Galley served a need of the era where unrest visited our suburban hamlet called Burlington. Thankfully, we had kids who were engaged and wanted to do something positive to distract our generation from the misdeeds of a few and provide a place where we could talk, peer-to-peer, and relate to our times…

    Thanks for the memory jog Bob…. a fond trip down memory lane is good for the soul once in a while…

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