“Grafton, you know, is the greatest town in the universe.”
I’m sitting next to Charlie Bolack and he’s telling me his Charlie stories. It could be that we’re sitting at the Board of Selectmen, where he donated the podium in the room, he says, with a twinkle in his eye, in exchange for the right to speak whenever he wants. Or he’ll take it back.
It could be that we’re at the senior center, in the Marion Bolack Room, named in memory of his mother, who smiles from a portrait just outside. We might be at a meeting of the 275th Committee, at Town Meeting, or we’ve bumped carts at Stop & Shop.
Or he’s coaxed me into that big white convertible, where a large stuffed Curious George rides shotgun, where for a terrifying 10 minutes we tear around the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine looking for a parking spot at the annual open house, Charlie talking all the while about George’s need for a checkup at the Teddy Bear Clinic because the monkey, poor thing, has developed a rip and did he ever tell me about the time the State Police officer stopped him just to get a good look…
Charlie stories. We tell them, townies and newcomers alike. The old timers tell stories of a younger Charlie, the guy who graduated from Grafton High School in 1944 and sold shoes door-to-door before building — what didn’t he build or found? A shopping center in North Grafton, The Grafton News in 1958, the Grafton Land Trust, the Grafton Water District, the Grafton Suburban Credit Union.
His account at the Grafton Suburban Credit Union, he’ll tell you proudly, is numbered one. People in town will tell you other Charlie stories, about how he approved a loan for their first car, first home, first business. Always with the reminder, of course, that they live in Grafton, the greatest town in the universe.
This is not the Charlie I have known, as my decade in Grafton makes me a mere newbie with a notebook. I’ve met the Charlie in his elder statesman years, as he fought the transition from typewriter to computer, as he embraced the title of unofficial “Mayor of Grafton,” gathered kudos and plaques from various groups. Unique to Grafton, from another time. Early on this blog, I cast him in an extended musical dream sequence at Town Meeting, where he tap-danced in sequins as American flags fell from the rafters.
And… I still find that impression accurate. Charlie is a storyteller, a showman, a patriot. No sparkles, no confetti cannons, but plenty of American flags and the tap-dancing is purely metaphoric. At any public gathering he attended, he would insist on leading the room in a rousing rendition of “God Bless America.” (I saw his request for the song turned down once, by the way. That incident was never repeated.) Most Graftonites just turn on their Charlie faces, that smile of bemusement and indulgence, and let the man sing, or instruct them in flag etiquette as his giant American flag is carried in a Little League parade, or speak at the podium. Let him speak, let him sing. He’s telling us Grafton is the greatest town in the universe, and we probably agree, whether our house has been in the family for years or it was built in the last building boom, the one that necessitated the new high school.
There are Charlie stories about the new high school. He wanted to fill in part of Lake Ripple and build an addition there rather than an entirely new school next door. He swore he’d chain himself to the Municipal Center annex, the office where he’d meet with the superintendent of schools once a week, that was torn down to make way for the softball field. He spoke at the podium where he could speak because he donated it, at length, and town officials smiled their Charlie smiles — he won’t chain himself, he’s too old at this point but I wonder. I would bet a younger Charlie might have done it.
Every Charlie story comes with an ending. Charlie’s own story, that long life lived in the town he loved, has come to an end. He died today, at home, at the age of 87.
I’ll be posting links to other Charlie stories as they’re available online. In the meantime, I think the man would appreciate one final chorus of “God Bless America.”