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#23: Looking Backwards to See the Future

That is what historians do! That is what preservationists do! Many a wise man has said that we can’t see where we’re going if we have no awareness of where we’ve been. Human nature remains the same. The lessons we need to navigate forward are all there in our history. Two late Brookline people who knew that were Jane Holtz Kay and Dr. John "Jack" Little. It seems Jane was born knowing it, raised by her eminent lawyer father, Jackson Holtz, to read, read, read, which brought her as a student at Radcliffe College to stand before Brookline’s 19th Century ornate and beautiful Town Hall in her famous and futile attempt to save it from the wrecking ball. That led to her book, Lost Boston, (1980), which told in words and remarkable pictures how many of Boston’s great homes and buildings of earlier times had met a similar fate. I clearly remember when first looking at that book how sad I was to see how development had won over good sense. It was In Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took over America and How We Can Take It Back (1997), that the prescient Jane Holtz, expanding on the ideas of Frederick Law Olmsted, America’s most renowned landscape architect, that Kay hit full stride as an exemplar of urban design and the conservation of natural and urban environments a generation before others got on board. She demonstrated the deleterious dominance of the car on American culture and climate. To prove it Jane sold her car and got along very well without it living in Boston’s Back Bay. She opted for trains, bicycles, less cars, and living densely. What a lady! What a generous person in my own life, always helping me in my early efforts as a writer.

And what about Jack Little, another Jewish preservationist whose mother, noted historian, Nina Fletcher Little, lived at Brookline’s famous palace of Jewish learning The Maimonides School, named after the famous Jewish 12th Century philosopher. Well, not really, not at all. The school stands on the grounds and in the structure of the former affluent Fletcher home where Nina lived as a child looking out on Boylston Street and its horse-drawn carriages, now Route 9. In later years Nina returned home in 1978, by when it was the Maimonides School, to give a reading of her work, “Reminiscences of the Philbrick Road Neighborhood,” which the home and now the school partially bordered. She and her husband, Bertram Kimball Little, both noted preservationists, brought Jack Little up in the same tradition in an old house not far away on Warren Street. Besides preserving and building early TVs, radios, and autos, Jack, as President of the Brookline Historical Society, preserved old houses such as the famous Devotion House which dated back to the 17th Century and where the curator of the Society lives. In his college years Jack and a friend drove an old Model T Ford 12,000 miles over four months seeing the USA, and repeated the exploit in his Army years in Europe in a French Citroen. That led to his collection of vintage cars and old medical apparatus. Truly, Jack Little preserved the past! Indeed Dr. Little even found time to become one of the most famous radiological researchers in the world during his long tenure as a Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, writing five hundred or more published articles, and receiving many honors. Whenever I ran into Jack he always met me with a big smile.

Listen to hear me tell more about these two incredible people!

People, always people!

ABOUT THE PODCAST

Launched in August 2021, "A Life Lived Backwards: One Man's Life" is a new podcast from Larry Ruttman and Jordan Rich. Larry Ruttman makes the case that old age can be the best time of life. You'll hear stories of friendship, mentors, romance, the love of learning, Larry's dedication to his faith, his passion for music, history, the law, and, of course, baseball. Tales told by a master storyteller with a razor-sharp memory and a wit to match! Subscribe and enjoy "A Life Lived Backwards: One Man's Life," available on all major podcast platforms.

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