John Winthrop Sears would have been 84 years old last Thursday. He died November 4th. As far as I can tell, he was the last of a breed. Family and friends gathered the evening of his birthday at Christ Church Longwood in Brookline. The event was a musical remembrance, a magnificent program he had planned himself, obviously as a gift to those gathered.
A patrician in the best sense of the word (to whom much is given, of him shall much be required), Sears gave of himself in public service and philanthropy. Many of us knew him as the Republican Sheriff of Suffolk County, or in his terms as state rep or Boston city councilor. He also led the Boston Finance Commission and the Metropolitan District Commission and was active in many civic organizations. Perhaps you connected with him when he ran for governor or secretary of state, or headed the state Republican Party back in the day, when GOP meant Herter, Saltonstall, Hatch, Sargent and Brooke. A really smart and decent man, grounded in a sense of mission to improve the world while preserving the best of our historic past.
He came by his commitment naturally, proud of his lineage going back to the 18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony and, before that, to 13th-century England. It all came together at his memorial service, in the Sears Chapel at Christ’s Church Longwood, an interdenominational gathering place built by his great, great grandfather and restored and maintained by John. His family tree includes abolitionists, philanthropists, financiers, doctors, national tennis champions, a United Nations Ambassador. The Sears family was a prominent thread in the Massachusetts landscape for centuries, and John Sears was imbued with the history of Boston. I fondly remember when, during a national meeting of editorialists convening here more than 20 years ago, John agreed to lead us on a bus tour of the old and new Boston. He was spell-binding, and he clearly relished every minute of it.
John’s GOP was liberal on social issues and conservative on fiscal matters. He believed in cultivating young talent, including women and minorities, and he knew when people were authentic and dependable. He hated the politics of sound bites, and his nuanced parsing of issues was not necessarily salable in this era of slogans and twitter feeds.
As quoted in a 1998 Commonwealth Magazine article by David Denison, John differed from many of today’s Republicans, who oppose all but the most minimal government. “Government is not the problem. Bad government is the problem.”
He loved classical music and gave us Bach, Handel and Mozart and the Battle Hymn of the Republic in his memorial service. His selections signaled his deep faith that the very best of the past has something significant to say to us today. I hope others are listening.
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