Meet five eternal optimists

By  Pamela H. Sacks
WORCESTER QUARTERLY
2005

Most of us know someone who believes attitude is everything. With the hope of spring upon us, Worcester Quarterly thought it appropriate to build its first issue around profiles of five upbeat people.

Optimism guides the life of Kevin O’Sullivan, who plays a lead role in promoting Central Massachusetts as a location for biomedical research. Robert Thomas has helped hundreds of people find successful career paths, and Linda Cavaioli has taken the YWCA in a new direction. Deb Cary has created an urban wildlife sanctuary, while Jim Welu has led the Worcester Art Museum into the top ranks of cultural institutions.

Through their personalities and accomplishments, these five people make Worcester a better place to live and work.

—–

Jim Welu is a celebrated entertainer. He has picnics in his back yard and hosts dinner parties fopr dozens. Friends and family members fly in from Paris and London for his annual masquerade ball.

Welu is director of the Worcester Art Museum, and his stately gray Georgian Revival home on posh Massachusetts Avenue in Worcester is the scene of many museum events. The rooms are large, the furnishings minimal. Persian carpets are scattered across the hardwood floors. “It’s a busy life, never dull,” Welu says as he sits in his living room on a dark print Victorian-era couch. “People say, `You must get so stressed out.’ I really don’t.”

Welu dresses impeccably and speaks in the cultured manner one expects of an art historian. Yet, there is something different. He is relaxed, gracious, unpretentious. He points to a watercolor he painted many years ago in the earth tones of the Great Plains. It depicts his father’s ice cream store in Dubuque, Iowa, where Welu grew up as one of six children in relatively austere circumstances.

“Our parents taught us the key to a good life was discipline, hard work and education,” he says.

He worked at the store every day after school and did all sorts of odd jobs to save money for college. He remembers his father’s kindness and generosity and the encouragement he received from both parents to develop his artistic talent.

Welu’s father made his own ice cream. He kept the price low and handed out huge cones to his children’s pals. The family tradition has endured for another generation. Among Welu’s present circle of friends, he has become known for his homemade ice cream, created in flavors such as cinnamon, cardamom and butter brickle. At a museum auction a couple of years ago, two bidders each paid $1,100 for five gallons of Welu’s ice cream; last year, the frozen treat was again sold to two bidders, each of whom paid $2,200. “I was teasing them,” Welu says, his warm, wide smile in evidence. “`Are you going to be able to raise the price next time?’”

Welu describes his career as the “classic American success story.” Even as a small child, he was unusually artistic. He majored in studio art in college, but while teaching at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana, he found himself drawn to art history as well. At one point, he thought he would join the faculty of a university. In 1974, while completing his doctorate, he came to WAM as assistant curator. It was a move that would change his life.

By 1980, Welu was chief curator. After mounting two important shows in his area of expertise, 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art, he considered moving on. Major institutions in Chicago and Montreal were pursuing him.

Then, in 1986, the job of director opened up, and Welu did some soul-searching. He realized that WAM, considered one of the finest museums of its size, had many of the attributes of the country’s largest museums, albeit on a smaller scale. And he liked living in Worcester, with its diverse mix of ethnicities, storied past and fine cultural institutions.

The museum, however, was in financial straits, and Welu had no business experience. The trustees assigned him a mentor, and he entered a management program. Welu turned out to be a masterful fund-raiser. WAM now has an $80 million endowment. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Welu says, reflecting on that time. Welu is a leader in his field. He has served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors and is a commissioner of the American Association of Museums. He is on the advisory councils of the art museums at Princeton University and the University of Notre Dame.

His passion for art has been the driving force in his life. “To me, life is all about following your dream, or you won’t be a very happy person,” he says. “Have a passion. I don’t care what it is – gardening, stamp collecting. It’s what makes you tick.”

Welu brings balance to his life by mentoring young people and gardening. And, of course, there are the parties with the best ice cream in town.

James A. Welu

Age: 61

Education: Bachelor of arts in art, Loras College; master of arts and master of fine arts in studio art, University of Notre Dame; Ph.D. in art history, Boston University

Birthplace: Dubuque, Iowa

Personal: Single

Outlook on life: “Everyone benefits when you follow your dreams.

—–

Kevin O’Sullivan is the quintessential people person. He remains genial even in the most trying circumstances. Back when he was a state representative for Worcester, O’Sullivan voted for a hefty tax increase. Hundreds of calls from angry constituents poured into his Statehouse office. He returned each one, asking if he could have a minute to explain his position. “The adrenalin flows,” he says, smiling at the recollection of that time. “People energize me. It’s what makes me go.”

O’Sullivan leans back into a cranberry-colored couch in the family room of his modern Colonial home in the hills of Worcester’s West Side. His legendary enthusiasm is infectious, his candor disarming. As president of the Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives business incubator, he spends much of his time with scientists and entrepreneurs who are seeking new ways to advance health care. “I love to be around people who are smarter than I am,” he says. “They’re all going to change the world. They’re all going to be Jonas Salk.” A key part of O’Sullivan’s job is to translate for the public the potential benefits of the businesses that can get a foothold at MBI and describe their power to fire Worcester’s economic engine.

O’Sullivan was in college when he recognized his penchant for people and community. Soon after graduation, he took a job running recreation programs for disadvantaged children while also campaigning for passage of a city referendum to build a civic center in downtown Worcester. The facility approved by voters is now the DCU Center, a popular entertainment and sports venue. O’Sullivan had found his niche, and he moved on to a job connected with a corporate initiative to build community relations and encourage development.

By the age of 26, he was vice president of the Worcester Area Chamber of Commerce, where he found himself immersed in promoting the Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park. He readily acknowledges that science was not his favorite subject, and he remembers worrying about how to explain the more complex aspects of the proposal to politicians, businesspeople and community leaders. Their reaction, he says, offered an important lesson. “People would say: “That’s all fine, but what about jobs? How is it going to benefit me? How will it not hurt me?”

O’Sullivan took that knowledge with him when he joined the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served for eight years. Then in 1994, he made a bid for the Third Congressional District seat. His loss to Peter I. Blute was a deep disappointment, yet O’Sullivan has a way of finding the silver lining. His wife, Linda, told him at the time, “When you lost, we lost. Had you won, we might have lost.” The couple decided the time was right to start a new chapter in their lives. O’Sullivan returned to the Worcester chamber, and within several years he had joined MBI.

The O’Sullivans love to travel, and a favorite destination is Manhattan, where they delight in the hustle and bustle, shop and take in a show. The children have always come along on trips, both near and far. O’Sullivan points out framed photographs on a bookshelf showing the foursome standing in the surf in Hawaii and huddled around a fire in a ski lodge in Colorado. Summers are spent at their cottage on the ocean in Rhode Island.

Still, O’Sullivan cannot think of another place he would rather live than Worcester. The seventh of eight children, he was 6 when his parents moved from Connecticut to the city. He grew up in a vibrant, diverse neighborhood off Newton Square.

When he decided to buy his first house, he looked right in the area and picked out a three-decker on Richmond Avenue. He and Linda moved to their current home 16 years ago, but O’Sullivan never sold the three-decker. To this day, he takes care of it himself.

Kevin O’Sullivan

Age: 51

Education: Bachelor of science in health, physical education and recreation, Springfield College; master of public administration, Clark University

Birthplace: South Norwalk, Conn.

Personal: Married to Linda O’Sullivan, who owns and operates Occasional Baskets, a gift basket business; two children: a daughter, Kylle, 14, and a son, Trevor, 11

Outlook on life: “The world is run by those who show up.”

—–

Deb Cary displays her optimism on her T-shirt, inside her jacket and on the wide smile that blooms as she talks excitedly about her family and her labor of love, the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester.

Cary often wears a light green “Life is Good” T-shirt tucked into her jeans. A big yellow smiley face button is pinned to the inside of her jacket, a bow to her late godmother, Frances Herron, who always signed her letters with a cheery drawing of a smiling face. Indeed, Cary is well-known for her upbeat style.

She says she comes by it honestly. Her mother, Martha Densmore, would whistle, even while shopping in the supermarket.

Cary collects quotes that reflect her approach to life, and she dashes off to her office to get copies of her favorites, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.”

“My style is always to be optimistic,” Cary says. “Sometimes, that can be tiring to be around. There are limits to money, resources and time. You can’t always do everything you want. And I want to do everything.”

A glance at Cary’s accomplishments indicates that she has achieved plenty. When she started at Mass Audubon 20 years ago, she was assigned to Worcester as the wildlife and environmental organization’s advocacy and education officer. She worked alone out of a downtown office.

Then, as Cary puts it, “the stars lined up.” A 15-acre estate became available to Mass Audubon. It was a critical link to 260 acres of open land owned by the city and Massachusetts Electric Co. Cary quickly recognized an opportunity to collaborate, and Broad Meadow Brook was born.

Cary soon embarked on several successful capital campaigns for the conservation area.

“I think my work brings out the best in people,” Cary reflects. “If you work hard and try to find common ground, consensus can be found in the most difficult situations. I believe problems cannot be solved alone. You have to team up with the right people.”

Over time, she oversaw construction of a spacious conservation and visitor center off Massasoit Road and expanded the land holdings, in the process creating a 400-acre urban sanctuary with miles of marked trails, the largest of its kind in New England.

Cary is angling to add additional open space to the sanctuary and wants to develop more programming, but she also sees a chance to step back and take stock of all that has been accomplished.

The timing is good. Tossing back her silky brown chin-length hair, Cary notes that she is working to find a bit more balance between her home and professional lives. The wood energy business operated by her husband, Charlie, has grown rapidly, and he is away more than in the past. Cary is spending extra time with their children, 15-year-old Abby and 13-year-old Stephen, both diligent students who help with cooking and housework. Cary has always loved to volunteer in the community, even initiating a program for other young people when she was a student at Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester. She and her husband are pleased that their children are similarly inclined.

The family lives in an old-fashioned farmhouse in Princeton. It once belonged to Cary’s grandmother, and Cary spent many happy summers there. She was an avid rider as a child and has long wanted to own horses again. Recently, the family built a three-stall barn.

Cary allows that she has reason to be even more upbeat than usual. Momentarily, she is off to look at a horse she is intent on purchasing. “It’s nice to have a dream come true,” she says brightly.

Deborah D. Cary

Age: 48

Education: Bachelor of arts in government, Smith College; master of arts in environmental policy, Tufts University

Birthplace: Worcester

Personal: Married to Charlie Cary, founder and owner of Biomass Combustion Systems; two children: Abby, 15, and Stephen, 13

Outlook on life: “Look for the good and let the rest die of neglect.”

—–

Robert Thomas is living a life he could not have imagined when he was growing up in a tough Detroit neighborhood. “It was a dangerous place,” he says, “but if you apply the talent God has given you and you’re living up to your purpose, you can do wonders.”

Few would deny Thomas the right to proffer a formula for success. He is founder, president and chief executive officer of the Martin Luther King Jr. Business Empowerment Center in Worcester, where new entrepreneurs are nurtured and people seeking opportunity are trained for jobs.

Thomas is gracious and relaxed as he takes a seat in a conference room at the center. He rests his elbows on the table; small diamonds sparkle in a ring on his right hand. He slips off the ring and hands it over, explaining that it is a source of considerable pride. The diamonds mark levels of excellence at Compugraphic, where he worked in sales and marketing for 13 years. His success there played an important role in getting him where he is today. But wait. Would he start at the beginning? “Ask anything you want,” Thomas says good naturedly.

He was the youngest of three children. His father died when he was 11. He points to his decision to attend a good high school – one with a largely white student body, he mentions – as a critical moment. He was fortunate because he was athletic and got to know his teammates through their shared camaraderie. He went on to college and worked during summers on a press at a printing company. One day, he happened to notice a salesman dressed in a business suit. Covered with ink, Thomas thought, “That’s what I want to do.” He knew that as a salesman he could determine his own level of success.

After college, he was at loose ends. Then a life-altering incident occurred that put his goal into focus. Thomas soon landed the job at Compugraphic, but after years of success in management, he was passed over for a vice presidency. He and two African-American colleagues left and formed a real estate development company in Central Massachusetts. Although it foundered in the recession of the early 1990s, the experience did nothing to quell Thomas’ desire to run his own business. When Worcester officials came to the Emmanuel Baptist Church requesting help in recruiting members of minority groups for jobs in building what was then called Medical City, he was ready with a proposal that led to the development of the MLK center.

Thomas wears a small enamel pin with tiny multi-colored squares on the lapel of his gray double-breasted suit. “It is a diversity pin,” he says. “It speaks to inclusion.” He has unabashed pride in what the center accomplishes, touching the lives of a thousand people a year.

“Have time for the two-cent tour?” Thomas asks, beaming as he grabs a set of keys. He explains that the sprawling former mill houses 25 businesses, including a tax accountant, a bike repair shop and a real estate office. Job training involves more than learning a skill. “These young people have their pants hanging down, the baseball cap on backward. They’ve been scammed to believe it’s OK. This is culturally sensitive pre-employment training,” he remarks. With a million-dollar-plus grant, Thomas is completing renovations to make space for 25 additional entrepreneurs. His next goal is to win contracts to manage other real estate, a step that would make the center less dependent on grants.

Thomas stops at his office, where he takes a framed picture off a bookshelf. It is a candid shot of him with Muhammad Ali in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. They have struck a boxing stance, while Thomas’ wife, Lois, and his daughter, Avae, stand nearby, appearing amused. Thomas tilts back his head in a hearty laugh as he recounts his reaction when he was asked to pose as if he were fighting The Champ.

He goes on to say that his wife and daughter are the anchors in his life. He met Lois in college, and they married seven years later. Avae is an honor student at Worcester Academy and president of the freshman class. “I love them because they understand what I am, and they allow me to be that,” he says. He has little free time, but he saves every Friday night for them. “I say to them, `Ladies, you figure out what you want to do – dinner, the movies,’” he says.

Sunday begins with church. Then Thomas often sneaks over to the center to squeeze in a little more work on building the life he once could not have dreamed of having.

Robert Thomas

Age: 53

Education: Bachelor of science in graphic communications, Western Michigan University; studying for master of business administration at Nichols College

Birthplace: Detroit

Personal: Married to Lois Thomas, a third-grade teacher in the Worcester public schools; has a daughter, Avae, 14

Outlook on life: “Look at everyone in love and try to help everyone. Through that, you will be fulfilled.”

—–

Linda Cavaioli’s professional and private lives intersect at the YWCA of Central Massachusetts, Cavaioli is in her 14th year as executive director of the Y.

When she is having a rough day, she walks down a flight of stairs to the agency’s day-care center, where she spends some time with two of her grandchildren. The visits rejuvenate her and prepare her for the next wave of challenges.

Cavaioli is a petite bundle of energy. Her thick brown hair is pulled back into an efficient ponytail. Her gray eyes flash behind wire-rimmed glasses as she talks about her commitment to family, work and community.

From her office on the first floor of the Y’s building at One Salem Square in Worcester, Cavaioli oversees programs in child care, youth development, housing, health and career building.

She came to the job after 18 years in fund raising and marketing at the United Way of Central Massachusetts. Cavaioli started her career in the 1970s, when the United Way was inviting women to apply for positions. She loved the work, but also observed the barriers women and minorities faced in obtaining services.

When the top job at the Y became open, she could not resist.

“The racial justice part of the Y was very important to me in human relations, civil rights and all of that,” she says. She was eager for closer contact with the women and children whose interests she wanted to promote.

And the Y offered something else that attracted her: It was poised to take a role in public policy.

With Cavaioli at the helm, Daybreak Resources for Women and Children became a program of the Y, continuing its mission to help women and children break free from domestic abuse and move on to healthy, productive lives. Together, the two organizations have become a powerful force in helping clients overcome obstacles. By reaching into every aspect of recovery, they have raised the profile of domestic violence from a women’s issue to a community issue.

“If you’re not optimistic, the smallest barrier will seem impossible,” Cavaioli observes. “If you stay positive, you can work with others to overcome barriers.”

Cavaioli’s dedication to children hardly stops at the end of her workday. More than two dozen framed photographs of her children and grandchildren take up every inch of space across the top of a credenza in her office.

Two years after Cavaioli married John Medbury in 1988, her husband’s 12-year-old twins from a previous marriage came to live with them. Cavaioli ached to add to the family, and Medbury was willing. When the twins were 14, the couple adopted three siblings, ages 9, 10 and 12, through the Massachusetts Department of Social Services. There were some very tough times. The girl had come from a stable foster home, but the boys had been moved around and had attachment problems.

“You have to change your expectations,” Cavaioli says. “You learn to work with what you have and find the best in what they have and can grow into. That’s true of the people we serve – but also true of my kids.”

Today, all five are young adults in different stages of health and well-being.

Motherhood has been challenging and fulfilling, and now Cavaioli has a new generation to dote on. Her four grandchildren are her greatest joy.

“I started with them at birth,” she says. “It’s awesome.”

Linda Cavaioli

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor of arts in sociology and human behavior, University of New Hampshire; master of business administration, Clark University

Bithplace: Leominster

Personal: Married to John W. Medbury, executive director, Bowditch & Dewey; has five children: twins Kyla and Evan, 28, Paul, 25, Benjamin, 22, and Jennifer Grebel, 24; and four grandchildren

Outlook on life: “Each person can make a difference, but when a group of committed people comes together, anything is possible.”