Life on the Corner: Shaw House

Pauline Agassiz Shaw

We live in an era, and in a country, where the government provides a wide range of social and educational services for its citizens. Newly arrived immigrants can obtain housing, food, a monthly stipend and even an education in their native language all paid for by the Federal and State governments. But imagine you were someone coming to America a hundred or so years ago. The only safety net our grandparents had was their family, friends (paesani) and their ability to do the back breaking work relegated to poor immigrants. Health insurance and welfare were unknown in the North End. My parents never had health insurance nor did I until I started college. I remember how strange it felt knowing that if I got sick someone else would pay for it.

Back then public charities were funded by wealthy private citizens who had a social conscience. We in the North End were very fortunate to have a settlement house/social services agency founded by one of the greatest of Boston philanthropists, Pauline Agassiz Shaw. That institution was the North Bennet Street Industrial School.

Pauline Agassiz was the daughter of the noted Harvard Naturalist, Louis Agassiz. When she married Quincy Adams Shaw at the age of nineteen, she became one of the wealthiest women in America. She used her resources to help the poor people of Boston, especially children. For several years, she personally funded 31 free kindergartens. Mrs. Shaw’s portrait hung in the main lobby of the NBSIS, no doubt keeping a watchful eye on all the people who benefited from her gift to the North End.

As a child I spent most of my time at the North End Union because it was right around the corner from my parent’s flat and my mother was secretary to the director, Mr. Frank L. Havey. I joined the NBSIS when I was about eleven years old because my pal Bernie Bamonte was a member and he told me how great it was. Boy, was Bernie right.

Both the North End Union and the NBSIS had after school play groups. At the NEU the play group was held in Hubbard Hall and was ruled over by Mrs. Martha Blum. Mrs. Blum broached no nonsense and children were expected to act with proper decorum. Shaw house at the NBSIS was very different. The head social worker there was John T. Dexter, Mr “D”, aided by Mario DeLeo and later Sam Rimini. Mr.”D” was a classic, taciturn Yankee and he led Shaw house not by intimidation but by example. Always a gentleman and impeccably dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and Glen plaid suit, “D” treated all us boys with calmness and respect. He taught us to communicate with each other not with our fists but with words. Who knew?

Along with Bernie Bamonte and Anthony Cortese I spent a weekend at D’s farm in Wolcott, Vermont where we learned that electric cow fences really packed a wallop, skunks liked out houses and pasture patties were slippery. We couldn’t wait to get back to the safety of the North End.

Pauline Shaw started the after school play group, named Shaw House, to give children a safe place to go while their parents were still at work. Being out on the streets after school was dangerous (but fun) and it supposedly kept us out of the pool halls and gambling clubs so common in the North End. Several generations of North End boys literally grew up in Shaw House and much of the success any of us achieved was due to the vision and generosity of this remarkable woman and the wonderful social workers who oversaw Shaw House, Mr. “D”, Mario, Sammy and, of course, “Uncle Fred” Carangelo.

Sadly, Shaw House no longer exists. The children’s program was transferred to the old bath house (Nazzaro Center) where Pauline Shaw’s work is still being carried out by Patty Tanzo, John Romano and Carl Ameno. North End children are still in good hands.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.”  Read more of Nick’s columns.

22 Replies to “Life on the Corner: Shaw House

  1. Nick,
    I enjoyed reading this. Glad I found your column. Brings back so many memories of growing up in North End. The North End Union added to the quality of our life back then. I was a neighbor of yours back then in 50’s , lived at 36 Prince Street. Best Wishes, Sal Arena.

    1. Hello Sal, My mother’s family lived at 36 Prince St. in the North End for many years – the Giorgianni’s. Did you know them? My grandparents were Carmela and Joseph, and my mother is Rose. Best regards, Analisa

  2. Great job Nick Dello Russo. It did my heart good to read your article. Years ago 1963 I began writing a series of articles on NBSIS when I worked with “D’, Freddie Carangelo, Bill Faria and all those you mentioned in your article. I feel gratified that you thought of me in your article. Working in the North End was not work. It was a pleasure. I enjoyed every minute of it. At 87 years of age I wish I could put together all the great memories I have stored in my mind but my writing days are over, I’d be glad to share them with you. John Pasto, a former North Ender from Charter Street and Professor at Boston University and I are collaborating to right a wrong that was done to NBSIS and NEU by William Whyte who wrote “Street Corner Society” Your article can disprove his accusations. I would be glad to hear from you and anyone who can share their experiences living in the North End. Again, great job Nick and thanks for remembering me. Sometimes I often wonder whether my work in the North End has ever made a positive impact with the boys I dealt with. Your article made me proud.
    All my best.
    Mario Di Leo.

  3. Great article, I ,too,was fortunate enough to visit Mr D’s farm in VT. He and the other members of the staff were fantastic.
    We had indoor basketball leagues in the “hotbox” ,chess,checkers,Chinese checker and ping pong tournaments to mention a few…such great memories ,,,great article

  4. Thanks for the memories, Nick. Great article. I too was a participant at the Shaw House and North End Union. I also visited Mr. D’s farm.Vermont. It was in February and the cow patties were frozen but we did taboggin down the huge hill across from the farm Great times. Mr. Dexter was a huge influence on many of our lives. He always kept us on the straight and narrow path and if you strayed you would get the famous “JTD Look” and that look had a way of making you change your ways without any words spoken.
    I met Mario at the Friends of the North End reunion. We sat across from each other and reminisced about the days of Boxford Camp, Maplewood Caddy Camp and the North End Union Camp, “Camp Parker”..
    I too, like Sal Arena, lived at 36 Prince Street and joined both the North End Union and The Shaw House.
    Thank you for all your articles. I know it is time consuming, but so many of us enjoy the walk down “Memory Lane”.

  5. I remember the last few years of Shaw House when it moved from the NBSIS to the North End Union, What great times. Always had kids great programs, arts & farts, pottery, leather works, bumper pool and air hockey, ski trips and Caddy Camp and Camp Ponkawisset.

    Always thankful for all those who were there for us kids: Tricia, Carl, Robert Tanso, Gina Ferrara, Olivia, Patty the Nurse, April and Berna and Anne in Teen Lounge, their mentoring and support still resonate today, even though I was “bard” by all of them at one time or another. I was also a Counselor at the Union in my late teens and got to bar the younger kids! (Ask Marco Imbergamo).

  6. Mario I remember you very well my father’s name was Mario’s and you look just like him and I think I remember your two sons they were around the club also and Steve was in charge of the Boy Scouts and vibrant ran the front I guess were the girls were along with Freddy calendula fit it in this Mario you did a heckuva job there buddy and you made a difference in my lifei’ll never forget you call Mr. D are used to beat them at chassis and he would buy me a Coke a Coke was a nickel then and we have the ping-pong tournaments and it always find Joey Manfra dusty Tragno his cousin I pretty much know the n e from one end to the other and still have all the memories I’m only 70

  7. Nick, that was a great article. It is always a pleasure to read stories of growing up in the North End. There were many good times there after school. We not only had games and tournaments there. We also had woodworking classes with Joe DiPrima. I look forward to reading more articles in the future.

  8. Nick I’m glad I found this page. I remember taking piano lessons at the Industrial School. And another venue at the time for me was the after school programs at the library

  9. Nick:
    I stumbled upon your article and thoroughly enjoyed a rush of great memories – the Shaw House, NEU, Maplewood, Camp Parker, Mr. “D’s” farm – and on and on. Names I hadn’t thought of for years. We North Enders have memories that no one else any where can match. Thanks for the trip thanks for reminding me how lucky and fortunate we were to have lived and grown up in the NE.

  10. I was also member of both the North End Union and NBSIS. Mr. D made sure he’d tease us about ever being a member of the NEU.

    I was actually in the nursery at the NEU. I think you might have been too Nick. I was active there until pre-teens. There was a social worker from Harvard University that was assigned to our group. His name was Thor Thors. He was from Iceland and his father was Iceland’s Ambassador to the U.N. He took us all over Harvard University. It was practically our second home neighborhood.

    After that, I spent almost every day but Sundays (during the winters) at NBSIS. Many here have retold the wonderful memories of the place. I remember a couple of additional ones. There was that Coke machine in the hallway outside the club. After playing basketball in that hot house gym, we always ended up with a nickel Coke in small bottle. The machine was really cold and the cokes were always frosty.

    Finally, when we misbehaved, Mr.D would give us a coupe days off. We could only return if we brought him three school pictures of ourselves. He must have chronicled them over the years. What a prized possession that must have been for him.

    1. I don’t know, Sal. I find that somewhat disturbing. Why would “D” want those pictures?

  11. If only our current crop of elites had the social conscience of the Shaws. The delight of the scions of this echelon
    seems to be murdering noble animals (see Trump sons with dead elephant, etc.).

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