Profiles in Carnage: Tim Santry

Timothy Santry, 91, founded Winn Street Service, the tow truck company now located on Wall Street near Donahue’s Furniture.

His body contains so many steel fragments, airport security forces him to strip. And strip. And strip. And they still think he must be hiding something somewhere. He has countless steel shards inside both hands and up his forearms, and a few big ones embedded near his shins.

They’re not medical implants. They’re steel splinters that have randomly shot into his body during decades of hammering and chiseling at truck frames. “After I’m down to nothing, they finally say, ‘Okay, get your clothes back on.”

Besides attending to car accidents with his fleet of tow trucks, Santry was the de facto town mechanic who fixed, modified and outright built municipal trucks, including fire tankers.

Santry’s bloody battles with vehicles started early. He might be the only person in Burlington who can say he’s been run over by a Model A Ford. He was under the car at his lifelong home, 3 Newbridge Ave., tinkering with the brakes, while his buddy was behind the wheel. “I told him to move it a tiny bit. Well, he moved it right over my chest, the crazy nut. It didn’t hurt that much, though.” He was eight years old.

Dapper Tim Santry graduating St. Charles in Woburn

Dapper Tim Santry graduating St. Charles elementary in Woburn

At the advanced age of 11, Santry started chalking up victories. During the hurricane of 1938, his father called from nearby Lowell Street to say he was stranded due to downed trees. Tim used his family’s tractor to yank the trees out of the way. In the aftermath of the same hurricane, a gas station around the corner on Winn Street was without power. Tim removed the tire from his bicycle’s back rim, turned the bike upside down, ran a belt from his rear rim to the gas pump motor and hand-pumped gas when customers pulled in.

In his early 20s, he operated a gas station on the corner of Mountain Road and Winn Street. He bought it from the Sylvester family, the namesake of Sylvester Road in Winnmere. Here’s a “then and now”:

Tim Santry's Calso gas station, 1953, corner of Mountain Road and Winn Street

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He used the revenue to start his flagship business, Winn Street Service, across the street (pics below), where a Dunkin’ Donuts is today. Santry owned it from 1953 to 1970 before he separately sold off the gas station part to Angelo “Sonny” Morandi, the Winnmere barber. The towing business now belongs to Edward Igo, who has since expanded to tow truck sales and service at its current Wall Street location.

Long before the Jaws of Life came to town in the late 1970s, Tim’s fleet of 12 “wreckers” did the dirty work. Multiple trucks would hook up to crushed cars and yank them apart. “I’d straighten out the cars and pull people out. I’d pull them out dead or alive. Some of them had their arms missing, or heads. Then I’d go home at night and think about those people.” He has letter after letter from accident survivors thanking him for saving their lives. And he’s written a few thank-you letters himself, even when things turn out badly.

But never mind the on-the-job heroics. Even when he’s off duty, Santry seems to be in the right place at the right time. Or maybe the wrong place at the wrong time.

  • In the mid 1950s, he witnessed a car leave the Mass Pike in Framingham and plow into a pond. He pulled a mother and daughter from the car before they drowned.
  • Soon after, he became an impromptu lifeguard on Plum Island and saved a 200-lb boy with a deflated inner tube. That episode almost cost Santry his own life.
  • In the 1960s, he saved two people from a capsized sailboat in Boston harbor.
  • One day he was simply looking out his window on Newbridge Ave. and saw a tractor-trailer flip over on Route 128 and land on two cars. He used his wreckers to lift the trailer and free the cars.

Here are some other disasters. An overturned fire truck, a mangled tractor with a nasty crack in the windshield left by the driver’s cranium, and a routine car-tastrophe.

When blood is shed, the sharks move in. Lawyers. They like to quiz Santry about what he’s witnessed, but Santry doesn’t like quizzes. During one courtroom hearing, he ran out of patience with his interrogator and took a swing at his face, barely missing.

In the early 1970s, Tim suffered a repeat of the Model A accident from his childhood, but this time with the ante upped just a bit. He was working on the brakes of this motor home belonging to Donahue’s Furniture when one of the jacks partially sank into the warm asphalt and collapsed. The motor home bounced off him when it came down.

DD17AD13-3115-44C3-9A37-6A8A6472980CHe suffered so much internal bleeding that when he finally regained consciousness in Mass General, he was black from the chest down. Struggling to understand this through the fog of medication, he thought the doctors had performed some custom modifications while he was knocked out. “I thought they attached a black man’s body,” he says with a laugh.

Santry’s career wasn’t devoid of humor:

img090The driver was trying to steal pigs from a Lexington farm, but when he hit the gas to enter the highway, the pigs unwittingly engineered their own escape by stumbling to the rear of the bed. The sudden cargo shift forced the front of the bed skyward, jamming the overhead sign. This in turn vaulted the cab about 10 feet off the street, where it froze in place with the pig thief stuck behind the wheel, too afraid to jump out. He was arrested, the pigs fled the scene, and everything worked out just dandy.

All in a day’s work for Burlington’s commander of chaos, man of steel. Literally of steel. Looking over his hard-knocked body, Tim Santry has zero regrets. “That’s my life. I don’t care about going to a party or something. I’d rather go in the garage and work on a truck.”

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Forget Kings Bowl. Remember the Queen.

Barbara Morrissey

Miss Barbara. Photo credit: Barbara Morrissey

When you think of an iconic figure in Burlington education, you probably default to Noreen Abati at Marshall Simonds. But for thousands of pre-schoolers whose parents bowled at the Brunswick Bowl-A-Way Lanes on Terry Avenue during its 41-year run, their very first teacher was Miss Barbara, ruler of the alley daycare.

With her booming vocal cords and volcanic hairdo, Miss Barbara foreshadowed Abati, but she might have had an even tougher job. Not only did she have to keep the inmates from running the asylum and facilitate some learning along the way, but she had zero resources at her disposal, at least initially. Not even books.

Miss Barbara did have helpers, some of them long-term, such as Carol Moran and Patricia Mason. These women tapped their own resources to handle the ever-shifting roster of children, sometimes more than 80 at once, with mismatched abilities and ages.

Think you could handle that for a week or so? That’s great. Try 41 years. Yes, Miss Barbara ran the kids’ program from day one in 1961 until the last day in 2002. Now she’s almost 80.

The Bowl-A-Way Lanes came to Burlington long before the town had a kindergarten. Young Barbara Morrissey was looking for a social outlet for her son. The alley offered free childcare with a bowling membership. Sold! But it turned out that Morrissey herself had the right stuff to run the kids’ area, despite no formal educator training. She had worked with children at the United Fund and some Boston settlement houses.

The bowling alley quickly became a popular place to unload children for a few hours in the hopes that they’d have fun and perhaps learn something. But a teacher, even at a bowling alley, needs an environment that fosters education, yes? Well, that’s where a bowling alley differs a bit from a school.

School: No smoking.

Brunswick: Yes smoking. Plenty of smoking. In fact, the manager often dumped his pipe ashes on his employees as a joke. He was a serial pincher to boot.

School: Color-coded alerts tell the staff and students exactly how to respond to an emergency. Code red, code blue etc.

Brunswick: Bomb threats came constantly. “The teenagers needed something to do,” recalls Miss Barbara with an eye roll and hand wave. After a while, nobody bothered calling the police.

School: A student might complain that someone stole a pretzel.

Brunswick: Miss Barbara had her Chevy stolen from the parking lot in broad daylight. The rascals didn’t go very far. She found it just up the street, out of gas.

School: Educational materials selected via a strict filtering process and years of collective wisdom.

Brunswick: Books and myriad other materials would magically appear at the bowling alley. Coincidentally, those same materials were AWOL from local store shelves, sort of “borrowed” by teens associated with the bowling alley.

School: The state sometimes sends down videos deemed useful for educational purposes.

Brunswick: The company sent a video series slated for kids’ room use. The first was called Aunt Polly’s Parlor, and the opening scene showed children jamming crayons up their nostrils. Miss Barbara declined to utilize the series.

School: Teachers generally cover their private parts.

Brunswick: For many years, the gals had to wear blue uniforms with tiny skirts. “If we bent over a little, the kids could see our addresses and zip codes,” says Miss Barbara.

School: Teachers get encouraging shout-outs from the community. Example: “Hey, Ma, I ran into someone at work today who knows you. He says hello.”

Brunswick: Miss Barbara heard much the same, except her son worked at the Billerica House of Correction.

Despite all of these challenges — seedy characters, soiled air, pilfered materials, grand theft auto, constant bomb threats, partial nudity — Miss Barbara and crew did indeed teach the children, and the lessons really did stick. A few years ago, Miss Barbara was vacationing in Florida when a grown man walked up to her with a wide grin that could only come from recognition. He said two words to her: “Rectangle. Red.”

When forbidden fruit surrounds your school

“Don’t pick the blueberries.” That was one of many edicts at the Union School (now the police station), but it proved hard to honor. That’s because McIntire Farm, a.k.a. Grand View Farm, had a funny shape that wrapped part-way around the school, putting blueberries in constant view of seven-year-old Marion Welch. One day, she and her brothers spent a few hours filling two large buckets of blueberries, until —

“Steve appeared out of nowhere. He was the handyman at McIntire Farm. He took them away. We were told not to come back.”

Not long after, temptation knocked again. This time it was the apples at Blodgett Farm, on the other side of the Union School. Addie Blodgett, the owner, had once invited Welch’s mother to pick apples anytime she wanted. Well, young Welch figured she had the same rights by proxy. She boasted to her classmates that he had free rein at Blodgett Farm, and she brazenly picked a bunch, until —

“Back at the school, the principal called me into the office and told me to hold out my hands. She whacked me with the ruler. I never took them again.”

Burlington 2, Welch 0.

But after that rough start, she reformed herself to the point where she held the most sensitive of all local government jobs at the time. She administered Burlington’s ration stamps during WWII. For those unfamiliar, a wartime ration stamp was your ticket to buying things. You could only buy what your stamps allowed, and we’re talking about elemental stuff like sugar, toothpaste, shoes, tires. The war forced myriad factories to serve military needs, not just civilian needs, hence the scarcity of almost everything. Moreover, US enemies sometimes cut off supply routes, pinching supply of basic materials.

You can probably imagine the pressure on Welch. Everyone tried to game the stamp system. One guy claimed his four kids simply HAD TO HAVE new shoes for Easter. When she declined on grounds that it wasn’t time for shoe stamps to be handed out, he took his case “up the ladder” and got his four shoe stamps. That kind of thing happened a lot. At the end of the day, any leftover stamps were such hot potatoes that Welch would take them home and burn them in her father’s furnace.

Her father organized and coached the Burlingtonians, a sports team that pitted itself against the Winnmere Tigers in an intra-town rivalry. It never came to blows, but pretty close. Welch was the scorekeeper. But she was a baseballer herself too. She grew up on Dearborn Rd. close to the common, which had a small baseball diamond at the time. She played ball with the boys until the day she hit a home run. Party over. They shunned her after that.

Years later, when a little league formed, Welch marveled at a little girl named Mary Bennett who showed up to little league games donning a hat and glove, even though she wasn’t allowed in the league. She couldn’t play, but she could pretend. A few years later, Mary joined the women’s softball league and became one of precious few women who made a living from the sport, touring the world professionally. She returned to Burlington and coached until her death in 2014 at age 75.

These stories may leave you wondering just how old Marion Welch is. She’ll turn 98 this fall, old enough to recall the Thomas Street area as a cranberry bog, yet she’s still sharp enough that if you ran a business, you’d hire her as chief financial officer without hesitation. Though you might want to keep tabs on the company garden out back.

Marion Welch, Burlington MA

Marion Welch around 30 years old, in American Legion Auxiliary