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the boys of saugus


photograph of Tom Sheehan and John Burns

John Burns and Tom Sheehan have a lot in common. Both are descendants of Irish immigrants. Both studied English at BC. Both experience a touch of schadenfreude any time Notre Dame loses. Both served in the armed forces (Burns in the Second World War, Sheehan in the Korean War). And both have lived almost their whole lives in the working-class town of Saugus, Massachusetts (population: 26,000), some 10 miles north of Boston.

This last fact makes them rare. Mobility has become an integral feature of U.S. culture--during a 12-month span in the late 1990s, for example, more than 17 million Americans relocated to another county, state, or country. Burns, a retired educator, and Sheehan, a retired technical writer, find this troubling: The memories of a place fade fast, they feel, when people aren't rooted there. So, two years ago they took action. "I was dropping by to see John every day," Sheehan says. "We found ourselves bouncing names back and forth, and suddenly we realized that there were things on the very edge of our memories. And it dawned on us that if we forgot them, they'd just be gone, forever. So we said, 'Let's do it. Let's pull together a book.'"

The result, which Burns describes as an attempt "to put a hold on forgetting," is A Gathering of Memories: Saugus 1900-2000. It's a lovingly compiled volume, 488 pages long, that's full of a century's worth of personal recollections: tributes to resident public servants, athletes, and musicians; stories and photos of white-bearded Civil War veterans; accounts of harvesting ice on Lily Pond; histories of vanished buildings.

The book has been a hit among Saugonians (as town residents call themselves), and profits from the volume, which has sold out its initial printing of 2,000 copies, will provide a college-scholarship fund for Saugus students who have demonstrated a commitment to academics, the humanities, community service, and--of course--Saugus.

Sheehan talks fondly about how working on the book has made him realize that the whole town of Saugus is his extended family. Burns is a bit more philosophical about what he's learned. "Go near a memory," he says, "and it strikes back and does things to you. Touch other people's memories and you come to know your own better."

Toby Lester

Toby Lester is a freelance writer living in Boston.

Gary Wayne Gilbert

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