Joe Corcoran has come across more than his share of advocates in his 40-plus years of residential and commercial development, but it’s fair to say that no one has made a more lasting impression on him than Eleanor Wessell.
Wessell was a resident of the America Park public housing development in West Lynn in 1974 when Corcoran’s company – Corcoran Jennison – was selected to rebuild it. It became the first mixed-income development as well as the first housing project in the country to go from public to private.
It was a complicated project to say the least, and Corcoran knew he needed the support of the residents, whose de facto leader was the irrepressible Wessell.
“Eleanor was a staunch advocate,” Corcoran recalled. “She was amazing.”
The result of their combined efforts — along with the support of then-Speaker of the House Tom McGee of Lynn and Gov. Michael Dukakis – was Kings Lynne, a nationally acclaimed housing development that remains a success story four decades later.
As a way of ensuring that Wessell’s legacy will endure, while demonstrating support for St. Mary’s High School, Corcoran has established a full scholarship, named for Wessell, that will go to a St. Mary’s student who is a resident of Kings Lynne. The scholarship was announced at a luncheon at the school Nov. 16, at which Corcoran and Wessell were both present.
“Eleanor was such a dominant figure in making t happen,” Corcoran said, recalling a meeting with Dukakis at which Wessell prevailed upon the governor to help fund the Kings Lynne project. “She made such a good pitch. She told Dukakis, ‘We’re ready to go. We have to have this.’”
Today, Kings Lynne has 441 units, a third of which are low-income and the rest moderate income or market rate. “Nobody thought that would work,” Wessell said, “but it’s been the best thing that ever happened. Low, middle, market (rate) – everyone gets treated the same.”
In addition to the affiliation with Wessell, Corcoran has two St. Mary’s connections: He was a BC High football teammate and Boston College classmate of Jim Cotter, father of St. Mary’s Head of School Grace Cotter Regan, and a BC classmate of St. Mary’s alumnus Bill Connell, who bequeathed $5 million to his alma mater upon his death in 2001. As someone who grew up in Dorchester, Corcoran can relate to the importance of the role St. Mary’s plays in an urban center such as Lynn.
“This is a city like Dorchester,” he said. “There are people in need, and nothing can turn someone around like a great education.”
Regan invited Corcoran to a St. Mary’s gathering in Florida last winter and discussed ways in which he might get involved with the school. “Joe was taken by the mission of St. Mary’s and he really wanted to honor Eleanor, who was a formidable champion for housing and justice.”
The idea for the scholarship was hatched and the details worked out. Starting next school year, one student who is a Kings Lynne resident will receive a full scholarship, including an iPad, and keep it for four years.
“This is not only a wonderful way to honor Eleanor, but it will also give a student the opportunity to benefit from a St. Mary’s education,” Regan said. “We are thrilled that Joe decided to establish this scholarship.’’
Wessell, 85, also appreciates the gesture.
“It’s very important that our kids get an education,” she said. “I think this is wonderful and I’m glad my name is on this.”