In Memory of John Bewick

John Bewick, for whom I worked when he was Secretary of Environmental Affairs in Massachusetts, died this morning, surrounded by his family and celebrated by his friends. With all due respect to my various deans and chairs, I think John was the best boss I ever had, and a week doesn’t go by that I don’t teach off my years in EOEA, shamelessly retailing what I learned from him and from the rest of the gang he assembled.  Ed King, the governor in whose administration we served, was a sort of Harry Truman/business-oriented Democrat from whom almost nothing was expected on the environmental front, but John discerned that King (i) liked finished product rather than being asked permission even though King asserted the opposite (ii) was basically indifferent to environmental issues but loved anything with an economic development payoff. Especially at the time, this set was a target-rich environment. Generally regarded as the most successful executive agency in that administration, we put through a series of important environmental initiatives affecting (for example) endangered species, cleaning up the Charles River, a depuration plant that put Massachusetts shellfish back on menus up and down the East Coast, a whole series of environmental regulations implementing delegated environmental powers, and an innovative hazardous waste facility siting law.  It was an exciting time in environmental policy and we had the unusual opportunity to make up a lot of it as we went along.

John’s achievements in public service, when I worked for him, are inseparable from the team of assistant secretaries he chose by a rule of never hiring anyone not smarter than he in at least one useful way, and no two people alike.  I (and the others) remember our first meeting together, when we all looked around the table at the Newton fireman’s son who finished a GI Bill BA at U.Mass in two years, the dollar-a-year hi-tech exec, the pointy-head MIT professor, etc., all thinking, “I have nothing in common with anyone here. This is going to be awful!” We were completely mistaken. John made the team work by being patient with everyone who wasn’t smarter than he in all the other ways, namely all of us, by being almost radiantly committed to each of us as individuals and to the public good, by forcing us to educate and challenge each other, and by his terrier-like obsession with getting the science right and understanding the politics of the current issue. It’s significant that the whole team, including various commissioners and other staff, have had well-attended reunions every five or ten years, the last this past summer.   Here is a brief formal biography.

If you fall out of your dinghy into the Charles and don’t get sick, or see an eagle flying around the Quabbin, or for that matter if you think you learned anything in a course I taught, thank John Bewick.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.