A mission born when mom chose love over easy path
As originally appearing in The Boston Globe

By Kevin Cullen/Globe Staff

Jim Brett is sitting at a table in Gerard’s, in Adams Village, nursing a cup of coffee, remembering something that happened before he was born.

His mother, Mary Ann, and her newborn, her first born, his big brother Jack, had been seen by a doctor in Boston and the doctor was telling her that Jack would not live a long life or a normal life because of a severe mental disability. The doctor had some suggestions.

“Let us put him in an institution,’’ he said gently, “and you might want to consider not having any more children.’’

Mary Ann Brett had a sixth grade education and was not long off the boat from Ireland, but she looked that doctor right in the eye and said, “He will not be going to an institution. He is going home. And I’m going to have more children and they will provide love for him, and we will love him as a family, and thank you very much.’’

Mary Ann Brett knew more than any doctor about what it takes to raise a kid with a serious mental disability. She went on to have Peggy and Mary and Harry and Billy and Jim and they went on to take care of their oldest brother, just like she said.

“My mother was my hero, and my brother Jack was my teacher,’’ Jim Brett is saying. “There weren’t many programs back then. My brother spent most of his time at home. He missed out on a lot. One thing he had, until the day he died, was an understanding that he was loved, that he was part of a family. But because of Jack, my siblings and I were very sensitive to the idea that we had an obligation to help the disabled, to give them the opportunities to learn and work and lead a productive life, things that the rest of us take for granted.’’

Jim Brett got into politics, in part, to do just that. He was a state rep for Dorchester for 15 years, and one day he came down the stairs of the State House and found himself in the middle of a demonstration by people demanding better services for the disabled. His brother Jack, holding a sign, approached and said, “James, I know you’ll do the right thing.’’

“If he did that today,’’ Jim Brett says, “he’d probably have to register as a lobbyist.’’

Jim Brett is an anomaly. In this era of highly partisan, starkly ideological politics, he is welcomed on both sides of the aisle. A lifelong Democrat, he has served on the Governor’s Commission on Intellectual Disability under three governors, two Republicans and a Democrat. President Bush appointed him to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. President Obama did more than keep Brett on the committee; he made him chairman.

Getting appointed to bigshot committees by governors and presidents is, ostensibly, political stuff. But this isn’t political to Jim Brett. It’s personal.

And so the other day, inside his office where he runs the New England Council, a group that promotes economic growth, Brett was on the phone, trying to maintain transportation services for a 45-year-old autistic man named D’Arcy Sheridan who needs it to get to work.

“His secretary told me he was on the phone for two hours,’’ said D’Arcy’s mother, Joan.

If Jack Brett was Jim Brett’s teacher, Steve Perlman was his mentor. Perlman is a dentist in Lynn and has spent a good chunk of his life trying to improve access to dental care for the disabled. Brett is his ally in an ambitious, nationwide effort to improve access to all forms of health care.

“Jim understands this stuff intuitively, because of his brother,’’ Perlman says. “But what makes him special is his sense of purpose, his belief that we all have a responsibility for the most vulnerable among us. He takes it personally. I wish we all took it personally.’’

Jim Brett is standing in a building just off the Southeast Expressway in Dorchester. It is called Work Inc., and it is a place where people with developmental disabilities come to learn how to work, to be as self-sufficient as possible.

“These are the faces I remember when I’m in Washington,’’ Brett says, almost to himself. “These are the faces I see.’’

They are the faces of Jack.

Jim Cassetta, the chief executive at Work Inc., is showing Brett one of their job training programs, and a woman named Roseann Clark approaches, excited to see him.

“Roseann grew up three streets away from us,’’ Jim Brett says.

Another woman in the program, Darlene Green, comes across the room, pointing at Brett.

“I know you,’’ she says. There’s a pause and then she says, “You’re Jack Nicholson.’’

Everybody laughs and then Roseann and Darlene go back to their training.

Jim Brett is standing in front of a grave, in Cedar Grove Cemetery. The headstone indicates that Mary Ann Brett and her “special son’’ Jack are buried here. She died in 1981; Jack died last year. He was 76.

Brett visits the grave every week. Sometimes he tucks a dollar bill in the grass because he would biff Jack a buck whenever he saw him. He comes here because it reminds him why he does what he does. The dead point him toward the living. And he runs.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.

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