If you are a fan of John Ford’s movies, maybe you remember “Ditto” Boland (actor Edward Brophy), the funny character wearing a Hamburg hat in the “The Last Hurrah.” The real-life Ditto Boland, after the James Michael Curley years, became an elevator operator at the Massachusetts State House. He worked there during the 1970s, which is when I met him.
Our State House reporter had told me about him, “warning” me not to ask Ditto about his past because he’d launch into a long-winded conversation about his storied days with the legendary Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. Okay, I was warned.
One day, I was the only person on the elevator with Ditto. It was an old elevator that groaned as it slowly went from floor to floor. Ditto said nothing until letting me off.
He smiled and said, “Hi, Mr. Armstrong. I know you’re new to Boston. If ever I can give you any help, just let me know.” That was all he said. Not a single James Michael Curley story.
Ditto did help me. As the new reporter in Boston, he pointed out key political players in the stories I was assigned to cover. Boston is a complicated town — especially politically. If you didn’t know who was who, you could be lost trying to correctly cover political events.
I was nervous when assigned to the State House because I didn’t know the backstories of the various Boston politicos. I felt I couldn’t do adequate justice to these assignments. Ditto and a couple of other old-timers rescued me many times over the years. Eventually, I was able to rescue others, too. One good turn deserves many more.
A few years after our first meeting, I ran into Ditto at “The Capital Dome,” a popular bar on Beacon Hill frequented by politicians, lobbyists, political reporters, and hangers-on. I was sitting in a corner – alone – because I really didn’t know that crowd.
Ditto approached, asked if he could join me and I nodded. I found his politeness charming because “polite” didn’t usually work well around the State House. We sat, nursing our drinks for long minutes.
Finally, Ditto told me he liked me because I was “friendly and polite.” I nodded. Then he said, “And, you never asked me about James Michael Curley.”
I laughed, longer and harder than I intended. Ditto just sat there, beaming broadly.