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Kevin Cullen

The PC isn’t PC enough for some, but he keeps on truckin'

The city's first Black police commissioner was a fish out of water when he came to Boston as an adolescent from rural Maryland. Now he swims, unapologetically, in his own lane.

To understand Police Commissioner William Gross, it helps to have a sense of his life’s arc, where he comes from, what made him and what makes him tick.
To understand Police Commissioner William Gross, it helps to have a sense of his life’s arc, where he comes from, what made him and what makes him tick.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Willie Gross, the Boston police commissioner, has been in the news of late because he met and posed for a photograph with Attorney General William Barr.

This has been greeted by those who consider the AG to be Donald Trump’s Beelzebub as high scandal if not misdemeanor, evidence of some enormous flaw in Gross’s judgment.

I don’t share that view, at least of Gross. I’ve known him for almost a quarter-century, and he is his own man and afraid of nothing and nobody. Meeting and posing with Barr might have hurt his image with some, but it is completely in keeping with his character that he was game to talk to an AG that his boss, the mayor, and a good many Bostonians don’t like.

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That said, Willie Gross is more progressive on matters of crime and punishment than his critics might think. That doesn’t stop him from criticizing judges he considers too lenient or pushing back against the ACLU, which doesn’t win him any fans on the left.

The PC, as he is referred to at headquarters, is not exactly PC. It is what it is.

But to understand someone like Gross, it helps to have a sense of his life’s arc, where he comes from, what made him and what makes him tick. In a series of interviews with me long before the current crisis, Gross told a life story that puts his views and character in clearer focus.

With his father out of the picture and his mother and two sisters trying to get settled in Boston, he grew up on a farm in rural Maryland, where he was temporarily raised by Robenia Frame, a close family friend he considered his grandmother.

As a boy, his most important male influences were Robenia’s brothers, proud Black men and Vietnam veterans who were like uncles. They taught him how to box when he was just 5, and encouraged him to not back down from anybody.

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His pugilistic skills came in handy when a white boy called him the N-word.

Young Willie dropped him with a right hand.

Robenia was disappointed.

Gross says she told him this: “You know, baby, just because of the color of your skin, people are going to think that if you hear something you don’t like you’ll resort to violence. I taught you better than that.”

Willie Gross says he took Robenia’s admonition to heart.

“I never threw the first punch again,” he said.

When he was 9, Robenia’s diabetes worsened, and Gross had to inject her with insulin. He looked after her as much as she looked after him.

By 1975, when he was 12, his mother, Deanna, had become established in her new hometown, working at Sears, first at the warehouse in South Bay, then the store outside Kenmore Square. She sent for Gross. He didn’t want to leave Robenia.

“It was us two against the world,” he said.

But Robenia was resolute.

You need to live with your mother, he recalls her telling him. Robenia died four years after he headed north.

His mother found an apartment at 92 Esmond St. in Dorchester, next to St. Leo’s Church.

The adolescent Willie Gross was a hick. Kids laughed at him when he asked what time “Hee Haw” was on TV. He also watched the “The Lawrence Welk Show,” something that hardly earned him street cred.

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In the wake of school desegregation in Boston, racial tension was exceptionally high. Gross was shocked at the intense hostility between some whites and Blacks. He had encountered prejudice and bigotry in Maryland, but the racial animosity that greeted him in Boston was hard to get his head around.

There weren’t a lot of white kids at the Holmes School, and Gross and other Black kids were protective of them.

“We didn’t let anybody bother the white kids,” he said. “You had to rep your school. You couldn’t let the white kids get beat up.”

Football grounded him, gave him the discipline and outlet he needed. He played for the Roxbury Raiders for four years, and his coaches, Harry and Dennis Wilson, became mentors. He asked his mom not to watch his games. He thought she’d be overprotective.

“She was a ‘run on the field’ mom,” he says.

He was a good student and had teachers who took an interest and pushed him. His mother wanted him to go to Latin, but all his buddies went to Boston Tech, so he did, too. In high school, he thought he’d become a professional football player or a fighter pilot.

When he was in 11th grade, a guy named Billy Celester and his wife, Maggie, moved in next door. Billy was a superintendent, the highest-ranking Black police officer in Boston. Maggie was one of the first female police officers in Boston.

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The Celesters made a huge impression on him. That said, he didn’t tell them when he applied for the Boston Police cadet program. He didn’t want to impose. Carl Strothers, a Black security guard at a downtown building where Gross was working as a cleaner, had encouraged him to be a cop.

When he was a rookie, his partner was Isaac Thomas, who is also Black. They worked out of the C-11 station in Dorchester but covered South Boston, too. They’d come back to the station and the older white cops, he recalled, would sometimes say, “How’s Whitey?”

It bothered Gross, but when he finally spoke up and challenged a white cop, saying he found it offensive that they were referring to people in Southie as “whitey,” the older cop shook his head: “‘No, dummy,‘” Gross recalled him saying, ‘Whitey Bulger. The gangster. How’s Whitey?‘”

As a young cop, Gross confronted the recent legacy of school desegregation and the longer legacy of racism, nepotism, and favoritism on the job.

“There was a lot of animosity about inclusion and diversity in the police department,” he said.

But he said the bitterness withered, in large part because of supervisors who insisted change would come. Some of them — Bob Faherty, Dan Downey, Bob Dunford — were white. Some — Willis Saunders, Billy Celester, Bobby Johnson — were Black. They were all good men.

Gross says the C-11 station in Dorchester is like the community it serves, the most diverse in the city.

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“It’s 64 different cultures,” he says of Dorchester. “You gotta learn.”

A legendary white cop, Walter Fahey, became a mentor. Fahey had acknowledged to me and others that he was prejudiced when he was younger, but had a change of heart as he got older and became a champion of young Black cops like Willie Gross. He loved Gross, and Gross loved him back.

“That’s Willie Gross, and he’s all cop,” Fahey told me in 1997, pointing Gross out at the C-11 roll call. It was like Ted Williams saying someone was a great hitter.

In the early 1990s, Gross and his partner stopped regularly at the Store 24 in Peabody Square, adjacent to the Ashmont T station. Some neighborhood boys routinely approached, and the cops and kids would bust one another’s chops. There was one kid in particular who zeroed in on Gross, teasing him mercilessly. The kid had a quick wit and a fast smile. Gross liked him.

“You get one fat joke,” the less-than-svelte Gross remembers telling him, “then I own you.”

Gross said the boy was shot to death about a year after they met.

“A really good kid,” he said. “We lose a lot of good kids. It’s complicated.”

Working the streets, Gross developed an empathy that sometimes surprised even him. He is a big believer in personal responsibility, but has seen enough to realize that some young people don’t have the support system they need.

Knowing so many of the teenagers who got killed or did the killing hurt him the most because he believes a lot of them could have gone either way. A few good role models, a few good teachers, a few good mentors. Gross came to realize many of these kids didn’t have what he had growing up: positive, caring adults, from his mom, to Robenia Frame and her brothers, to Mr. Ruggiero and Mr. Cunningham, his eighth-grade teachers at the Holmes, to the Wilson brothers, his football coaches, to the Celesters and Carl Strothers who made a career as a police officer seem real and worth pursuing.

“In the ’90s, there were 40 to 60 teenagers being killed every year in Boston,” he said. “Not every kid was bad, either. Not every kid was born with a gun in their hands. There were some predators, but when you think, ‘What if we had the programs we have now?’ We would have saved more lives. We didn’t have that level of communication that we have now, to let people know there are alternatives.”

Gross is as comfortable at the predominantly white Mary Ann Brett Food Pantry fund-raiser at St. Margaret’s Church in Dorchester as he is in Nubian Square’s predominantly Black barbershops. At the annual Brett event, peopled by some of Boston’s most influential Democrats, Governor Charlie Baker regularly points out Gross and jokes that at least he’s not the only Republican in the room. Actually, Gross is registered as an independent, but he is conservative with a small c, as most cops are.

Willie Gross the street cop made Willie Gross the commissioner. Everything he learned on the street he brings into his office. He doesn’t have what he calls “dig me” walls. There are none of his many commendations. Instead, there’s a lot of history because he was and remains a student of the past, knowing that if we don’t learn from it we’ll repeat it. A portrait of the Tuskegee Airmen, including his mentor Willis Saunders. There’s his fountain pen collection. On a credenza, there is a display of biblical history, King Solomon and the Ark of the Covenant.

Gross says he pays particular attention to history because he is determined to learn its lessons, to learn how to change things for the better.

“We gotta take care of the kids,” he said. “I was one of those kids who didn’t think the police liked me. We learned, we changed, we adapted. Look at me. I’m the police commissioner of the city of Boston. What does that say?”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.