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Needham 2020: a year in review

In what might be Hometown Weekly's most extreme understatement of the still-young 21st century, we at the paper are confident in saying the last 365 days won't soon be forgotten.

With a world-stopping pandemic, contentious US presidential election, and demonstrations for racial equality dominating headlines around the globe, it won't be surprising if 2020 joins the likes of 1968, 1917, 1848 and 1789 as years historians consider especially momentous in the course of human history.

It's also no surprise that these big-picture stories reverberated at the local level as well, with even the most global of issues taking on the unique characters of these small towns we call home.

While we couldn't possibly fit everything we'd like, the following are some of the stories that made headlines in 2020.

Needham's Keating publishes 'Yesterday’s Soldier'

“Needham's Tom Keating, Vietnam veteran and VFW Post 2498 Chaplain, has announced the release of ‘Yesterday’s Soldier: A Passage from Prayer to the Vietnam War,’” reported Hometown Weekly.

“Tom Keating spent over five years studying to be a priest. Released from his vows and further advancement to ordination, he joined the US Army instead of waiting to be drafted. It was 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, and the author proceeded through the Army’s infantry training cycle of weapons and war tactics, earning top honors as an infantryman. This book shares his experiences in the US Army, from Basic Combat Training to Infantry Advanced Training to Infantry Officer Candidate School.

“It was at Officers Candidate School where he faced the hardest decision of his life: to become a non-combatant conscientious objector. His years of religious life forced him to face the fact that he could not kill another human. He risked the Army’s punishment and imprisonment for that decision, and endured the Army’s systematic punishment (‘the Treatment’) during the long months of waiting for a decision in his case. He also defied the demands of his church to withdraw his objection, and faced the anger and dismay of his family.

“’Yesterday’s Soldier’ is a story of his struggle and his assignment to Vietnam one year later, and is available on Amazon Books by visiting www.tiny.cc/TKeatingYS.”

McLeod family wins Good Person Award 

“Each year since 2006, Needham Youth and Family Services has given the Patrick and Patricia Forde Good Person Memorial Award to ‘an adult in the community who has helped make Needham a better place to live through their volunteer work and commitment,’ and who ‘has contributed in a significant way to Needham children, youth and/or families and has enhanced the lives of those with whom they interact.’ On Monday, January 27, at Needham Town Hall, this year’s award was presented to Kim and Brian McLeod for their work in educating the residents of Needham about astronomy.

“Astronomy is something near and dear to the McLeod family. Kim is an astronomy professor at Wellesley College, while Brian is an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysicist Observatory in Cambridge. The pair met at Cornell, where as volunteers, they would open Cornell’s Fuertes Observatory to the public. After moving to Needham in 1998, the two helped update the school curriculum, and for the past eight years, have run Needham’s ‘Night at the Observatory.’

“State Representative Denise Garlick noted that this was the second year the award was named after Patricia, as well as Patrick Forde … Garlick spoke of the “star mentality” of the McLeods, whom have ‘shown our children what stars really are, and that they’re in our grasps.’”

Art in Bloom a feast for the eyes

Audrey Anderson reported: “The Beth Shalom Garden Club presented their 12th annual Needham’s Art in Bloom 2020 on March 6, 7, and 8. A preview was shown at the Needham High School Lobby, the Needham Town Hall, and the Center at The Heights on Friday, March 6. On Saturday, March 7, and Sunday, March 8, the full exhibit was presented on two floors of the Needham Town Library. Five live art and five live floral demonstrations were offered on Saturday.

“On Sunday, there was a buzz of excitement in the library as a large crowd of viewers made their way through the packed exhibit rooms. They paused to reflect on the 71 imaginative works by student artists in Needham High School’s art programs and the floral arrangements that were created to coordinate with the artwork.

“The art pieces included drawings, paintings, photography, ceramics, crafts, digital art, animation, and commercial design. The vibrant, fresh floral arrangements by Beth Shalom Garden Club members, with the participation of the Kalmia and Needham Garden Clubs, wonderfully echoed the colors, shapes, and feeling of the art pieces as companion works.”

Hometown communities wrangle with coronavirus

Amelia Tarallo reported: “Earlier this year, officials in the United States became aware of the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus in China. Knowing that it was inevitable that the virus would reach the United States, officials began creating plans and preparing for various scenarios to handle the illness. In the past few weeks, Hometown Weekly communities have found themselves preparing for the worst, with town officials trying to find the best possible ways to prevent the spread of the virus.

“With a few diagnosed cases already, Needham has advised its residents to practice social distancing. The Needham Board of Public Health is posting regular updates on their webpage. While cancellations have become townwide and a tad bit inconvenient, they are necessary. ‘We understand it's a significant inconvenience and a disruption, but we know that social distancing is the most effective way to combat the spread of the coronavirus,’ wrote Public Information Officer Cyndi Roy Gonzalez. ‘For meetings that must take place in Town in order to continue the operation of government, we're taking as many steps as we can to mitigate risk. We're looking at virtual meetings and take precautions like having hand sanitizer on hand, not sharing pens, etc.’”

NHS students stay social despite COVID-19

“It’s Thursday night and per usual, my friends and I are debating weekend plans in our group chat,” wrote Maddie Gerber.

“Except nothing about this night is usual, nothing about this weekend will be usual, and our weekend plans certainly won’t be usual. 

“Normally, the debate is about which restaurant to go to, whose house to meet up at, or which sports game to attend. But tonight, due to coronavirus, none of these options are on the table. In the end, we decide to set up a movie night where we can all watch Netflix together using an extension on our laptops called ‘Netflix Party.’ It’s as close as we can get to being together, but somehow, it still isn’t enough.

“As coronavirus continues to spread and we are becoming more and more cautious, social interactions are shrinking exponentially, especially for Needham High students, who are accustomed to interacting with their peers almost all the time. As a junior at NHS, I can vouch for the fact that it has been an extremely hard transition to go from seeing my friends almost every day - whether it be at school, sports practices, or just meeting up for brunch - to not seeing them at all. It feels strange, and honestly, it feels really lonely. 

“However, during this time, NHS students have been utilizing technology to hold on to these connections in any way they can, whether it be through Facetime, gaming consoles, or simply texting.”

Needham’s Mathias, O’Brien make own marathon

“Needham High School junior Kate O'Brien and senior Avery Mathias each put in a ton of work to train for the 2020 Boston Marathon throughout the past year. Last Thursday, the event was cancelled for the first time in its 124-year history due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those set to compete in the event, such as O'Brien and Mathias, were given the option to run a virtual marathon in the event's place later this year,” reported Mike Flanagan.

“Instead of just calling it quits, O'Brien and Mathias decided to put their training and athleticism to use, running the sidewalk of the 26.2-mile marathon course on Saturday with friends and family cheering them on. The Needham High School swim and dive team, for which both Mathias and O'Brien compete during the winter, live-tweeted the event.

“Both runners completed the course, with O'Brien finishing at 4:19.14 and Mathias at 3:57.11.”

Social Distance Files: open for business

“As the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded in Hometown Weekly's communities, I've been making it a point to drive through them on a monthly basis and report my findings,” wrote Stephen Press. “Today's drive will be my third overall, and the first since attempts to open the economy have taken hold in earnest. I'm expecting to see some notable differences since my April 29 jaunt.

“Needham is much the same. The scene looks far more inviting than the ghost town that awaited me when I visited here in March. There are masked individuals browsing in storefront windows, and blue signs remind shoppers that the businesses are open for curbside pickup. There are more occupied parking spaces along the road than I can remember in a while. Still, it's nowhere near the boisterous sight I would normally see at this time of season; I'd honestly expected a bit more life. There is one very obvious reminder that things are normalizing, though: as I pull back on to Great Plain Ave to make my way towards Chestnut, my path is impeded by a commuter train pulling into the station. Obviously, it's a normal thing to see if you're driving around these towns, but this is the first time I've waited at a railroad crossing since March.”

Needham High students tackle racism 

“On Friday afternoon, hundreds of Needham High School students, teachers, and other community members gathered together for a Black Lives Matter rally, inspired by the unjust murder of George Floyd and the protests and activism that have ensued as a result,” wrote Maddie Gerber. “While many NHS staff members were in attendance, including Principal Aaron Sicotte, this event was organized and run entirely by students, who felt that Needham had a responsibility to address racism and took it upon themselves to courageously start this conversation. 

“In a majority white and overwhelmingly privileged area, it’s very easy to dismiss racism as an issue that exists ‘out there,’ but certainly not in our safe suburban bubble. According to rising senior and rally organizer Katie St. Peters, ‘We learn about the history of racism in school, but it is always made to feel like a distant issue.’ For St. Peters, the purpose of the rally was to spark a conversation in Needham about the racism that exists not only in our country, but also inside of our community, infiltrating our educational system, our stores, and our streets. She and the rest of the student organizers hoped that hearing the stories of fellow Needhamites would help educate others on the issues that still plague our community and inspire them to be part of the necessary change.

“The rally started at Memorial Field, where a group of current and former NHS students addressed the crowd from their perch on the infamous hill. Many of the speakers had been affected by racism themselves and told stories of racial profiling and discrimination that they and people they knew had faced. Additionally, many white students joined their black peers on the hill, discussing ways to be a good ally and how to go beyond ‘performative’ activism to make a lasting difference. According to recent NHS graduate Adi Arbel, oppression has happened and continues to happen at the hands of white people, meaning that they also have a responsibility to help dismantle it.”

Operation T-Rex brings smiles to Needham

“Imagine this: you’re at work, during a particularly grueling day, when someone tells you to look outside. You look out a window, and standing on the sidewalk are several people dressed in tyrannosaurus rex costumes, waving their tiny little arms at you. Chances are, your day just got many times better,” observed Amelia Tarallo.

“That’s the goal of Operation T-Rex.

“Stacey Colarusso is a preschool teacher in Needham and was looking for a fun way to shake up the school’s weekly drive-by parade for students. She made the suggestion that they should get one of the popular T-rex costumes, seen most often during Halloween. The preschool director admitted that the costume was one of her secret bucket-list buys and agreed that they should add it into the parade. ‘We started that with the preschoolers. We had so much fun. We were like ‘we got to take this show on the road,’ recalls Colarusso.”

Needham rallies behind teachers and staff

“It’s no shock that teachers will be facing an enormous number of challenges during this upcoming school year. In adapting to teaching virtual classes, changing their classroom organization and protocol to support social distancing, and even ensuring the safety of their students, teachers are facing a test for which they’ve had very little time to prepare,” wrote Amelia Tarallo. “With this in mind, students and parents took time on Tuesday, September 8, to recognize staff at all eight Needham Public Schools. 

“As teachers drove up to each of their respective schools for their meetings, they were greeted by crowds of enthusiastic parents and students. At Needham High School, students waved pom-poms in the air, while others held signs they had crafted with words of encouragement on poster board and cardboard. ‘Thank you NPS Staff + Teachers,’ read one sign written in gold and blue.”

Needham students drive change through art

“‘This is what America means to me as a black man,’ said Amo-Mensah Amota, an artist from Glastonbury, Connecticut, gesturing to the detailed graphite and charcoal drawing behind him. Amota’s piece is fraught with symbolism, from the recurring depictions of bars and chains to the strong fist wielding a balanced scale of justice,” reported Maddie Gerber. “‘Before I make my art, I usually try to think of a theme,’ Amota reflected, ‘but for this one, I didn’t really have a theme. I just channeled all of the emotions I had and tried to depict what my version of America really is.’”

“This was what Sunday afternoon’s art showcase was all about: using art as a vehicle to express emotions and educate others. 

“After the success of the rally at the high school a few weeks prior, former and current Needham High students wanted to continue their activism in the community, which inspired them to create the Black Lives Matter art showcase. The event was spearheaded by 2018 NHS graduate Kiana Minaie, who was inspired by a project she did during her time at the high school through a class called “The Greater Boston Project,” where she and her classmates helped decorate a traffic box. For Minaie, this experience taught her that ‘art is such a different way of learning and, for me personally, it’s a really fun way of learning.’”

Hometown Weekly voters head to polls

“While record numbers of Bay Staters voted in the November 3 election by mail due to COVID-19, scores of voters still headed to the polls on Tuesday to vote in person at a wide variety of locations,” reported James Kinneen. “But while every ballot had the same options printed on them, every town’s voting locales were a little bit different, whether due to the location itself or the people professing their beliefs outside.

“While other towns have lots of locations, Needham has the most interesting one. Needing more voting locations but seemingly out of suitable public buildings in which to host them, in August, voters in precincts E and H were moved to the Needham Golf Club. This caused a bit of a stir because some town government officials were vehement that voting should be done in a public building, but it was decided that since the only other option was a church, while not ideal, a secular golf club was better than a religious building.

“The golf course was still in use, so voters were dodging golfers warming up on the putting green. But the location was very nice, the bathrooms were very clean, and best of all for the younger generations of voters, the balcony overlooking the course was open, which gave a great opportunity for a scenic, at-this-point-perfunctory, ‘I voted’ selfie.”

New Needham mural a community effort

“Type in ‘Red Wing Bay’ into a GPS-enabled device,” wrote Amelia Tarallo. “You’ll get directions to a road by the Needham-Dover border. There, you will find a section of the rail trail. Turn onto the parking lot beside the Charles River and you’ll be one step closer to a brand new mural decorating a portion of the rail trail fence.

“The idea for the mural began when a resident approached Needham Youth & Family Services and asked if their volunteers could do a clean-up of the fence. For years, it had collected graffiti - some of it being far less family-friendly than one might expect along a leisurely path by the Charles. Youth & Family Services Director Sara Shine immediately knew that the project would be good for the entire community and got to work on making a plan.

“Volunteers signed up for each day of painting and were expected to show up to paint their section. Volunteers ended up representing a wide swath of residents - teenagers, seniors and entire families all came to the site to make their contributions. What was not expected, however, was the number of trail-goers who stopped along their walks to help paint. In total, there were somewhere between 75 and 100 volunteers. With so many people to help, the mural almost doubled in size from the initial plan.”

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