The picture of Arthur Gustafson you see here is certainly indicative of the Arthur I knew. When I saw it, the face jumped off the screen. It’s Arthur doing what Arthur did best: stirring up a little passion for town issues in his own inimitable way.
I’d never met Arthur until the first time I attended one of the dinners at Prince Restaurant the Saugus Lions Club ran prior to the annual Saugus-Peabody Thanksgiving game. And, thanks mainly to the largesse of John Smolinsky and the Lions, the dinner was always on them.
I went around and introduced myself to everyone as — at that point — the sports editor of The Item. Many times when you go to these types of events, you may run across one or two people who pick that moment to grouse about something they’ve seen in the paper, or to bust on you about some wildly outlandish thing you said (example: I always picked Saugus to win that game no matter what the records were, because my wife and father grew up there). Not here.
Two guys stood out that first night: One was Gene Decareau and the other was Arthur. They were just funny. And oh-so-welcoming. That first night, I sat at Gene’s table, with Arthur at the next one, and they took turns grilling me about everything — the Patriots, the state of high school football, politics (always thorny, of course) and whether I liked the Saugus football coach (I took the fifth on that one!). Whatever I said, they nodded their heads as if I were a combination of Joe Buck and Amos Alonzo Stagg. It’s not often you’re seen in that light, and I can’t say I didn’t like it.
As I grew to understand, that was Arthur. He defined “larger than life.” A 1949 Saugus High graduate, he defined “a portrait of small-town America” in the best of senses.
“He was so smart,” said Selectwoman Debra Panetta, a longtime friend. “He loved Saugus, and he knew so much about the town.”
Arthur could be a bit of a clown, and that’s probably the understatement of the year. He loved being the center of attention in a puckish, mischievous sort of way. He’d roar the loudest at those Lions Club dinners, and he’d actually challenge the athletes — most of whom put on the “too-cool-for-school” persona — to growl and roar right along with him. They always did. As I write this, I’m unhappy to say I did not. My loss.
Arthur would also be the guy walking around town with the sandwich board strapped to him, advocating his latest causes while decked out in patriotic attire.
“He’d always say ‘people underestimate me, because they see me with that sandwich board, but believe me, I know what I’m doing,'” Panetta said.
“He was disarmingly intelligent, but never flaunted it,” said his cousin, Janice Jarosz. “He served as a selectman, town meeting member and assessor, a King Lion, a bingo caller at the Kings of Columbus weekly Bingo games and member of many Saugus political campaigns. He never walked away from a good campaign – and while he was dedicated to both his private and professional life, politics was always his secret passion.”
Arthur did more than just talk a good game, too. He never shied away from making himself heard on fractious issues. He was among those who took the lead, at age 83, in leading the drive for a recall of four of the town’s selectmen after they fired Scott Crabtree as Town Manager.
He won that fight, and the new board hired Crabtree back as one of its first orders of business.
In a year where Saugus has lost so many prominent citizens, from Steven Horlick to Dick Barry to Fred Varone to Joe Attubato, the deaths of Arthur and popular basketball coach Mark Bertrand — who died within a day of each other — have hit the town particularly hard.
“It’s been a horrific year in so many ways,” Panetta said. “We lost all these men who dedicated their lives to this town.”
If there’s ever another Thanksgiving game, and if there’s ever another Lions Club dinner, it will not be the same without Arthur Gustafson leading the roar.
I just hope someone recorded him just once when he did it all these years.