Tuesday December 6, 2011

If someone called Silvio O. Conte the greatest Pittsfield native of all time, you might get an argument. I just don’t know from whom it would come.

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since Conte’s death at age 70. He never lost an election during his 40 years in politics, most of which was spent in Congress as a member of the House of Representatives. Along with Ted Kennedy in the Senate, he was part of a one-two punch that helped keep the local General Electric plant flush with defense contracts for years. To that end, Conte was responsible for the fact that hundreds of people were able to provide a living for their families.

Conte was a Republican in a heavily Democratic state, and therefore considered a conservative in a commonwealth that had been liberal since its inception. Conte was able to circumvent that fact by staying for the most part in the middle of the Democrat-Republican head-on collisions.

He loved to fish and his involvement with wetlands and wildlife made him popular with constituents in the western part of the state. It was Conte who was able to pass legislation to clean up the Connecticut River and reintroduce the Atlantic salmon to the waterway. From his perch for years on the House Appropriations Committee, he was able to enact many such laws that enhanced the lives of people under his wing.

Born to Italian immigrants in the Lakewood section of the city, Conte took vocational courses throughout most of his public education. He followed his father into the GE machine shop and might have made that a career but for the onset of World War II. Conte served in the South Pacific from 1942-44, and when he finished his duty to country took advantage of the G.I. Bill and attended Boston College Law School.

Diploma in hand, Conte returned to Pittsfield in 1949 and in 1950 turned his attention to politics, where he won his first campaign in a race for a seat in the state Senate. In 1959, Conte ran and won for a seat in Congress and subsequently won 17 straight elections for that seat. He was rarely, if ever, seriously challenged in those races, usually collecting about 70 percent of the popular vote.

Conte’s voice was strong and if he was your advocate, things generally happened. He was a strong proponent of federal spending for students and literacy training. He backed special education laws and vocational training and had a role in the creation of the Head Start program.

Conte loved baseball, especially the Red Sox. He often said there was nothing like baseball to bring unity to a polarized group of politicians. For 364 days of the year, he was Silvio O. Conte, but on St. Patrick’s Day he changed his name to Silvio O’Conte and would sport a shillelagh at local parades. If you met him once, you thought you had been close friends forever. He won over people not by being a good politician, but by being a good man.

And no mention of Conte is complete without a curtain call for Corinne, his wife and the light of his life. She was a great woman in her own right, and sometimes the strength he needed to carry on. A Pittsfield native, she died at age 87 in 2009.