Aide to Northampton mayors ends 22-year run
NORTHAMPTON — Nobody has had a better view of local government in Northampton over the last two decades than Corinne Philippides.
As executive secretary to three mayors since 1992, Philippides has tracked down answers for — or simply listened — to thousands of residents looking for the mayor, served as a confidant to most of the city’s political elite and lived on the front lines of city government without involving herself in a debate or becoming part of the story.
Now, after 22 years and four months, Philippides is retiring from a job that’s fed her love of politics since 1992.
“I’m a political junkie and this was the best possible job for me,” Philippides, 63, of Greenfield, said Friday morning, shortly before about 50 government officials and politicians feted her with stories, citations and congratulations at a City Hall party.
The journey to her position of “serving at the pleasure of the mayor” began in a small lunchroom of a local health insurance company in the 1980s when Philippides and a co-worker, Mary Ford, would meet for lunch and discuss their shared political beliefs. It wasn’t long before Ford began talking about pursuing local office, first as a city councilor and then as mayor.
“She said, ‘I’m going to run for mayor and if I win, I want you to work for me,’” Philippides recalled. “I couldn’t believe I could make a living out of it.”
So in January 1992, Ford and Philippides walked into City Hall’s corner office to start an eight-year run together. Ford said Philippides became her “emotional prop,” reminding her when to take a break, when to think about an issue before making a decision or, conversely, when to be decisive.
“I could not have become the first woman mayor and done the job without Corinne,” Ford said.
Two days into the job, then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry walked into the mayor’s office to congratulate Ford.
“She wasn’t there so I got to meet him and I said to myself, ‘this is going to be really good,’” Philippides said, noting that she stumbled across Rolodex cards while cleaning her desk Friday for Gloria Steinem, Geraldine Ferraro and Nora Ephron.
Since then, she’s met many of her political idols, from the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy to several state governors including Deval Patrick, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and many more.
Kennedy, in fact, left her a personal phone message one day years ago she still cherishes today.
While answering phones and dealing with a sometimes frustrated public were parts of the job Philippides likely won’t miss, she will regret no longer watching policy decisions come together, working with longtime co-workers and meeting many of her political idols.
Former Mayor Clare Higgins and Mayor David J. Narkewicz both sought to keep Philippides on staff when they were elected, and they often leaned on her guidance and knowledge. All three mayors say Philippides has an uncanny ability to relate to nearly everyone she comes in contact with.
“She’s the best,” Higgins said. “She’s one of the smartest and most compassionate people I know.”
Higgins told a story about an elderly woman who used to call every city department every day. When Higgins asked the woman to only call the mayor’s office, she did so repeatedly. And on most days Philippides fielded the call, listened to the woman and treated her with respect.
“Every person who came in the door got her full attention and compassion,” said Higgins, tearing up. “You can’t find that.”
Philippides said she always viewed the job as triage.
“Everyone wants to speak to the mayor or see the mayor,” she said. “My job is to find out what they really need and can I get them an answer more quickly. This office is the first resource for people when they don’t know where to go and it’s the last resource if they haven’t had a good experience.”
Higgins recalled her early interactions with Philippides in 1994 after she was elected to the City Council. She often called the mayor’s office looking for Ford and wound up shooting the breeze with her future assistant.
“Behind that sort of reserve is an incredibly friendly person,” she said.
Narkewicz said Philippides’ retirement, while great for her personally, will be a loss for the city.
“She has literally touched thousands of lives in the community,” Narkewicz said. “It’s a big loss, but obviously it’s well earned.”
At Friday’s ceremony, Philippides received citations from the office of U.S. Rep. James McGovern, Gov. Deval Patrick, the state Senate through Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and the state House of Representatives through Peter Kocot.
Kocot joked that no one has put him on hold as many times as Philippides, but he also noted that “Northampton is a great place in no small part because of the work you have done.”
Additionally, the three mayors presented her with a framed photograph of City Hall that they all signed. Friday’s party drew several current and former city councilors, nearly every department head and numerous city employees.
In brief remarks, Philippides, in her self-depreciating way, thanked them all for their “patience” and for “putting up with me.”
As for her retirement, Philippides said she looks forward to nurturing her passion for the arts and neoclassical architecture. She intends to take an online course in ancient Greek history taught by Yale University professor Donald Kagan.
She will continue to join her husband on trips to his native homeland of Greece, a country the Queens, N.Y.-native has visited some 20 times but will do so now without having the time constraints of having to get back to work.