The Duke Walks The Walk

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  5/11/2003

There, at the edge of the grassy field, it glints in the morning sun, beckoning the well-dressed man with the furry eyebrows. It mars his way to work. To him, it's an egregious sight in an otherwise pristine part of the park.

At 69, he doesn't move as fast as he used to, but he won't let this one get away, no matter what the muddy grounds may do to his penny loafers. With a canvas Amtrak bag in one hand and a fistful of garbage in the other, the son of Greek immigrants darts toward the purple candy wrapper, chasing after it as a sudden breeze lifts it just beyond his reach.

"I mean, look at this crap!" he growls, finally snaring the offensive refuse. "It's appalling, disgraceful. There's just no excuse for it."

It might strike some as laughable that a man who once ran for president and held the highest office in Massachusetts now spends his morning commute indignantly collecting other people's trash and cursing a decade's worth of politicians and bureaucrats.

But for former Governor Michael Dukakis nothing has changed: When you leave office, he says, you don't stop caring.

There are many issues the former governor gets passionate about - teaching, high-speed rail - but this morning, it's all about litter.

"It's enough to drive you out of your mind," he says. "You see it all over the place and you have to ask: Why isn't anyone dealing with this?"

The governor has met with his successors about it. He has harangued officials at the Metropolitan District Commission, which preserves parks in the Boston area, as well as local park administrators.

Frustrated with government excuses about budget cuts and bureaucratic delays, Dukakis tries to lead by example -- every weekday he's around when it's not raining or snowing.

At 7:30, two hours after rising, ripping through two newspapers and devouring slices of his own homemade bread, he sets off from his Brookline home for Northeastern University, where he has been teaching government for a decade. If he doesn't take a bag with him, he either finds one along the way or just collects what he can hold until finding a trashcan.

On a recent morning, dressed in a jacket and tie for a conference featuring the current governor, it takes only a few paces past his driveway for him to barehand an old, soggy newspaper, a used tissue, and a leaky styrofoam cup. The stench doesn't faze him.

"This is nothing," he says.

Down a stairwell and trotting the banks of the Muddy River, he points to reeds and junk waiting to be dredged. "I left a plan for [former Governor William] Weld 13 years ago to do this, and only now are we getting to it," he fumes.

As people pass, some smile but many don't seem to recognize him. If they're younger than 25 years old, he says, it's likely he's a nobody to them.

Seeing the governor gather trash, Dukakis says one man recently told him: "We had higher aspirations for you once."

But picking up trash is what it's all about -- doing what you can, he says. Of course, that doesn't mean he can't complain. Upon seeing graffiti scrawled on a mailbox, he carps: "Who is this idiot? What is this? What kind of gratification do they get from this kind of thing?"

Then there are the leftover encampments from people who have burrowed homes in wooded areas along the way. Seeing all the mangy blankets, old clothes, and cracked bottles in dense piles riles the governor.

He would clean it up, he says, but sometimes there's too much stuff for one person. It would take a truck, he says, adding that the Metropolitan District Commission is not doing its job. Then he points to a bag sitting next to a bench in the Fenway. Filled with sludge he gathered two weeks ago, he says it hasn't moved since.

More proof: a collection of bottles and cans in one swampy section of the Muddy River. It's where Dukakis draws the line. "I don't go into the water," he says. "Someone else has to do that."

Closer to Northeastern in Clemente Park, he sees a sign of hope: a man raking. As if still campaigning, he walks toward the worker and in his signature baritone says: "Mike Dukakis, how are ya?"

Gerard Recupero smiles and identifies himself. "Sure I recognize you," he says. "Good to see you, Mr. Dukakis."

The two chat about litter for a minute, but Dukakis has to go. There's more trash to pick up, and he's running late.

An hour after he started, the two-mile journey ends at Northeastern's Meserve Hall. He finds a receptacle and drops in his last pile of trash -- a stuffed plastic bag. All done without a smudge on his navy blazer. His perfectly combed hair hasn't budged during the commute.

Before taking off for his morning class, he parries questions about whether he's depressed by the way things have turned out. Politically, he says: "This is the worst national administration I've lived under." A conservative Republican also now holds his old job. And, recently, in the course of a week, he lost his mother and father-in-law.

Yet with teaching going well, calls each day from people interested in hearing him speak, and four grandchildren, he insists: "I feel like a million bucks."

For the city's necklace of parks, however, he says things are coming apart. "There's just too much neglect," he says. "Things are worse than when I was governor."

So these days, in the evening, if the weather's right, he may be back out there, picking trash on his way home.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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