Friends tackle legacy of longest-serving Berkshire sheriff
PITTSFIELD — Family and friends gathered Monday afternoon to celebrate the life of the late Carmen C. Massimiano Jr., the longest serving sheriff in Berkshire County history.
While that funeral Mass was private, life was anything but for Massimiano.
This week, he's being recalled as a civic leader ahead of his time on approaches to crime and punishment who fought successfully, decades ago, to secure funding for a new county jail. Others remember his no-nonsense — and at times gruff — manner.
Massimiano died Thursday at the age of 75. At his family's wishes, Monday's funeral was not publicized and no formal obituary has been released. Associates say the family remains aggrieved by coverage about Massimiano in The Eagle in 2010.
Citing the breadth of Massimiano's public service, others are breaking what seems a surprising public silence about the man's passing. Massimiano closed a 32-year run as sheriff in 2010, when he declined to seek reelection, after first saying he would run. He remained on the city's Licensing Board until last year. Earlier, he served on the city's School Committee.
"Carmen Massimiano should be remembered as someone who loved this community and gave his entire being to improving this community," said James Ruberto, the former Pittsfield mayor who had appointed Massimiano to the Licensing Board. "He did it at times with uninhibited emotion, but always with the best intentions. He was rather a unique individual."
Though Massimiano stands a good chance of retaining his record tenure as sheriff for some time, Ruberto says he considers his legacy to be that of an educator, not only a lawman. "I think of him as someone who dedicated his life to the disadvantaged youth of the city of Pittsfield."
Aside from his time on the School Committee, Massimiano was a trustee of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. He sat on the panel that planned the new Taconic High School and in 2014 was inducted into the Catholic Schools of Pittsfield Hall of Fame.
As sheriff, Massimiano's nascent political connections helped him at the outset, when he was appointed in 1978 by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. He had been serving as chief probation officer at the time.
Massimiano took it from there, facing only one challenger, in 1980. Soon enough, he was mounting a campaign to replace the decrepit Second Street jail in Pittsfield.
Former state Rep. Christopher J. Hodgkins was serving both on the Ways & Means Committee and chairing the State Administration Committee when Massimiano came pitching the new jail on Cheshire Road.
"Never would have happened without him," Hodgkins said of the sheriff. "He had a great reputation statewide. And I was the one he pestered when he wanted to build the new jail. We worked hard to get the funding. He was like a dog on a bone about that. He was a leader."
The old jail, built in 1870, was considered fire-prone and seriously out of date, like many such jails in western Massachusetts.
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, was sitting on the former county commission when Massimiano took office and debate about new ways of handling corrections in Berkshire County arose.
"He was way ahead of his time," Barrett said. "He deserves a lot of credit. He started looking for a new jail right from the get-go. He was the new breed of sheriff at the time, believe it or not."
Beyond bricks and mortar, Barrett credits Massimiano with tackling human issues of incarceration, including addressing drug and alcohol problems.
"What was unique about Carmen was the number of innovative programs he introduced," Barrett recalled Wednesday. "He believed in rehabilitation of the prisoner."
Like Hodgkins, he credits Massimiano with getting the new jail up.
"There's no doubt it wouldn't have happened without Carmen. He had very strong political ties and the Berkshire delegation was supportive — and he got that money. He was a masterful politician, being able to establish relationships at the state level."
The new 160,000-square-foot Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction opened in 2001 after an investment of $34 million.
Bill O'Leary, of Richmond, the former state secretary of health and human services in the Weld and Celluci administrations, recalls Massimiano's arrival on the scene and his embrace of progressive correctional policies.
"There weren't many sheriffs who viewed their roles to be advocates of those types of efforts," O'Leary said. "He could be an extremely tough guy to deal with, but he was a significant supporter of community-based programs."
O'Leary also praised Massimiano's ability to build coalitions to get things done in Boston, including efforts to strengthen the Massachusetts Sheriff's Association. One of that group's former presidents, Michael G. Bellotti, refers to Massimiano as an "elder statesman" who knew how to cut through red tape.
Massimiano's wife, Linda, declined an invitation to speak about her husband, saying she did not want to be interviewed by The Eagle. In February 2010, the paper reported that Pittsfield police had interviewed a man who claimed he had been sexually assaulted by Massimiano in 1971, when he was 7, and in 1976. No charges were filed against Massimiano related to the man's allegations, which concerned incidents at least 28 years earlier at the time of the first police interview, the paper reported.
A month before the story appeared, the accuser, then in his late 40s, convened a news conference outside the Pittsfield police station to speak of the alleged assaults — and followed up the next day by calling in to a live radio show.
Massimiano did not respond to repeated inquiries from the newspaper before publication, according to the story that appeared. Several days later, he issued a statement in which he said, "I want, first and foremost, to state unequivocally that there is no truth whatsoever to the allegations against me."
The sheriff later purchased a full-page ad in the newspaper to refute the man's claims, in which he asserted that his accuser had "a history of mental health issues." He refuted the man's claim that he had received an apology from the sheriff.
"I had nothing to apologize for," Massimiano said in the ad. He speculated that the accuser was being used to advance someone else's agenda, without specifying what that might entail.
Massimiano also accused The Eagle of producing a one-sided story and for quoting too little from the statement he submitted after the article appeared.
The issue generated community debate and letters to the editor, one of which called for Massimiano to be considered innocent, in the absence of proof of guilt.
A close friend of Massimiano said Wednesday he believes the allegations were unfounded. "What they did to him was outrageous," he said, speaking of The Eagle.
"They were allegations that never, never went anywhere," said Barrett, the lawmaker and former North Adams mayor.
The man whom police interviewed in 2004 and 2008 continued to stand by his claims.
Two people interviewed Wednesday said the allegations embittered Massimiano in his final years, as he dealt with health problems. When he announced in 2010 he would not seek another term as sheriff, Massimiano disclosed that he was receiving regular blood transfusions to treat a bone marrow deficiency — and had been for several years. He mentioned his health when stepping down last year from the Licensing Board.
Monday afternoon's service at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Pittsfield was presided over by the Rev. Peter Gregory, its pastor emeritus. Among those who attended were former Supreme Judicial Court Justice Francis X. Spina, a cousin, and Michael J. Ashe Jr., the former Hampden County sheriff.
"I just thought the world of Carmen," Ashe said. "Carmen was at the forefront of humanizing corrections. He believed you could change inmates' lives with quality programs and could motivate and inspire inmates."
"He was a real strong believer in education," Ashe said. "And he certainly brought a lot of humor and a lot of wit to the sheriffs as a whole."
Gregory said that in deference to family wishes, he would not speak about Massimiano's passing. But he agreed to describe the message he imparted in his homily during the funeral Mass. Gregory said he had known Massimiano since he was 15 and his lifelong friend was just 10.
"God sees all of us as perfect," Gregory said, recalling his words Monday. "It's mankind who sees imperfection in man."
"No one has the right on this Earth to judge anyone," he said. "Carmen has reached perfection."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.
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