Today a crowd of about 100 people gathered to remember the life and death of Det. Tommy Gill. Mrs. Ann Gill, their daughters and other family members sat in some folding chairs at the corner of Warren and East Berkeley sts. Mayor Menino, Commissioner Ed Davis, DA Dan Conley and former Commissioner Paul Evans were on a little dais on the sidewalk. Patrol cars with lights on closed East Berkeley to traffic. The observance also served as a reunion. Ambassador Ray Flynn and Registrar of Deeds Mickey Roache, mayor and commissioner respectively in 1988, were in the crowd, made up primarily of grey heads who had served with and near Det. Gill in Boston’s District 4. Honor Guards from the US Marine Corps and the Boston Police Department posted colors to the accompaniment of Sgt. Joe Cheevers and his pipers and drummers from the Boston Police Gaelic Column. Nothing evokes sacrifice like a well-squeezed note biting the air.
The ceremony, organized by the Department’s history-keeper extraordinaire, PO Bob Anthony, included the unveiling of a street sign to commemorate Det. Gill’s sacrifice.
On February 10, 1988 Boston Police Detective Thomas J. Gill gave his life in the line of duty. As he and his partner Billy Mahoney arrived at an address in Brighton to investigate a stash of illegal guns, a suspect fled and tossed a bag of evidence over a fence onto the railroad tracks that run next to the Mass. Pike, I-90 East. The location was next to the Stockyard Restaurant. Det. Gill made his way onto the tracks and was looking for the evidence when an Amtrak train rounded a curve framed by a bridge. The train killed him before he could react.
His death was representative of the crazy, unknown dangers that characterize risk in the police job. Circumstances of timing, location and acoustics had to combine perfectly. Det. Gill had to be in the precise spot in which the abutment prevented him from hearing or seeing the train in time and preventing the train operator from seeing him.
Today was a blessing of a day: a dry, cool late morning with that soft October light that illuminates the gentleness in things. I suspect thoughts of the improbability of those circumstances were somewhere in the minds of his widow and daughters and all the cops who gathered today in the South End. But no one spoke about that. Indeed, the event was uniquely about just what it purported to be about. It was authentic, with no subtexts. That was the clearest validation of Det. Gill’s character and reputation. Maybe I am naive, but my hypothesis is also that people had aged out of the grudges and grievances that might have informed such an event in years past. Though the old school was there. In front of me retired PO Buddy Summers conversed silently with an old comrade. I don’t know that they had anything negative to say, mind you. If they did it would have been about the bosses, not their pal Tommy. The sides of their mouths moved and tongues shaped words, but no one else would hear them. A skill taught by necessity. “Whatever you say, say nothing,” understood the immortal Seamus Heaney. The only audible talk was about a Southie High sports star, friend, Purple Heart Marine, son, father, husband, skilled cop. None of the speeches mentioned thin blue lines and us versus them nor did the pols make it about themselves.
The tone was best expressed by Paul Evans. Evans and Gill were part of a group of five South Boston buddies who volunteered for the Marines on the same day in 1967 and went to Vietnam together. Tom Gill survived a grave battlefield wound to become a cop, as did his pal, Paul. Today, as he did at the funeral 25 years earlier, Paul Evans choked up as he remembered “Gillzo.”
The memorial sign stands next to the cornerstone of the old D-4 edifice, opened in 1932 by Mayor James Michael Curley. District 4 is legendary in the Department; its lore of heroism, shenanigans and some shameful acts is long and deep. Its new house is on Harrison Ave. next to the Cathedral and the Cathedral housing development. Today the old home is one of the many upscale condo buildings in the vibrant South End. As the ceremony proceeded two energetic little dogs straining on their leashes led a woman, maybe in her late 20’s and of indeterminate ethnicity, down the old front stairs.
The life and energy of the new and old South Ends — where L’Atelier condos and the Villa Victoria housing development live side by side — that’s a part of the legacy,too.