The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 12, 2008


Tom Rourk: a good neighbor on Craigie Circle


Tom Rourk describes an 1818 Alpheus Babcock piano that he is restoring in his basement workshop. The restoration of instruments such as this takes up most of Rourk’s time these days. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)

In stark contrast with the new multi-million dollar homes that represent Carlisle’s future, quiet, modest Craigie Circle serves as a reminder of Carlisle’s past. It remains a safe, neighborly neighborhood of residents who care about each other.

Tom Rourk, who lives at 81 Craigie Circle with his brother Danny, embodies the spirit of his neighborhood. Tall, slim with a blonde ponytail, Rourk hosts large parties, knows his neighbors’ names, and gives biscuits to dogs passing by. From his small porch overlooking the street and woods and wildlife in back, Rourk enjoys the best that Carlisle can offer.

But Rourk’s way of life may end soon. There’s a “For Sale” sign out in front because, he says frankly, “I can’t afford to live in Carlisle.” When the house does sell, Craigie Circle won’t be the same without Tom Rourk.

He was born in Woburn and has lived in this house since 1961, when he was six. His parents, Jim and Jeanne Rourk, bought the house when it was barely framed. “Our family was in the wave of families that changed Carlisle [in the sixties],” Rourk notes, “because we lived in one of the first developments.” Before long, the Rourks were a family of ten – Tom’s five siblings, Sheila, Eileen, Stephen, Michael and Danny; their parents; and their grandparents, Jack and Helen McLean, who came to live with them.

The neighborhood was more or less completed by the late 1960s, says Rourk, and not much has changed, except the occupants. After 43 years of living across the street from the Rourks, Marcella and Shep Shepherd moved away last month. A new, young family has moved in. “Soon there’ll be another family in this house,” he says.

Growing up in Carlisle

A gifted storyteller, Rourk paints a vivid picture of life in this small town in the sixties and early seventies. “When we moved here in 1961, there was the Highland Building, the Red Brick Building and the Spalding Building [at the Carlisle School]. We had classes in each one. Our prime teachers were Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs. Peckham, Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Lapham,” he recalls. “They interacted with all the kids. I saw the Timothy Wilkins Building being built [in 1963], and I saw the Robbins Building being started before I left for high school.” The school population then was large: “People had large families. There were six in ours, the Donovans had 12. That wasn’t unusual then.”

Asked about fun things he did as a kid, Rourk smiles. “We rode bicycles everywhere. In those days if we saw three cars in a row coming down [Route] 225, we’d all stop and wonder what was going on!” He describes another favorite activity: “We would get an empty grocery bag from my mother and start walking from here, over to Brook Street, toward the center of town. We would walk along the side of the road and pick up bottles that people had thrown from their cars. By the time we got to the center, the bag would be full of bottles. We could turn them in to Frank who ran the store there. We would get a quarter or 30 cents and take it directly to Bates [now Kimballs ice cream stand] and buy ice cream.” Looking back, Rourk notes, “There were so many problems that got solved there – we had something to do on a summer day, the roadside got picked up, the glass got recycled, we got ice cream and Mrs. Bates made some money! If we wanted ice cream on a summer afternoon, that was the easiest way to get it.”

Cooking for ten

Every night Rourk’s mother and grandmother cooked in their small kitchen, and served dinner to ten people. Rourk remembers being invited to dinner at a friend’s house on Stearns Street. “He was an only child, so his mother would encourage him to bring friends home from school. I remember watching her start dinner – I thought she was playing with one of those child’s Easy Bake Ovens! She had these tiny pots and pans. I had never seen pots and pans so small. Everything in our kitchen was huge because everything was directed to feeding ten people!”

Mrs. Clifton, a retired art teacher, was a Craigie Circle neighbor. “Every Thursday night in the summer she would have all the kids in the neighborhood over to her basement,” says Rourk, “and we would do arts and crafts, or paint, or build models. She provided all the materials, and we loved it. Imagine something like that happening today.”

When Rourk was at Concord-Carlisle High School, he and his friends had after-school jobs – “we would help someone paint their house or clean their yard, or respond to an ad for ‘sturdy youth needed to scrub my chimney!’” Eyeing the aluminum canoe in the yard, Rourk says he bought it when he was 16: “I worked at McDonald’s in Bedford in the summer. Our shift would end at one in the morning, and they would leave us to walk home in the dark. It was a long walk – it would take a couple of hours to get home. That would never be allowed now.”

The piano man

In 1976 Rourk went to the North Bennett Street School in Boston, where he learned to tune and adjust pianos. “I was always interested in music, but I never had lessons when I was small,” says Rourk, “so there was nowhere for me to go with that. For a while I worked with concert pianos for specific pianists or voicing instruments for the concert hall.”

His Irish background and his piano work lured him to Ireland’s southwest coast in 1979, and he stayed for 14 years. “Ireland has a very musical culture, and there are pianos all over the place,” Rourk explains. “Lots of concert musicians like to start their tours there before they hit London.” But piano restoration is his true passion, and when he returned from Ireland, he set up a workshop in his Craigie Circle basement, restoring pianos for customers. Today restoration occupies most of Rourk’s time, and he fits in visits to customers’ homes. An Alpheus Babcock piano made in Boston in 1818, and a John Broadwood from London, dated 1790, are Rourk’s current projects. Among other materials, Rourk works with ivory from the Warther Museum in Dover, Ohio, which sells legal “trophy” ivory acquired before the total ban on elephant tusks in 1989.

Carlisle is a different place

Having spent most of his life here, Rourk has a unique perspective on Carlisle. “When I read in the Mosquito about noise complaints or quality of life complaints that people in town make, I think, ‘If they were only here in the sixties.’ O’Rourke’s piggery was going full blast. We would never smell it, because we were around it all the time. But whenever anyone came to visit, they would always ask, ‘What’s that smell?’ And in the sixties Hanscom was one of the ten busiest airports in the world. These massive transport planes would fly over, two or four at a time, very low, and drown out every possible sound. Of course, as a ten-year-old I thought that was pretty cool!”

Rourk turns philosophical. “Carlisle was still a rural community when my family moved in,” he points out. “There were still a number of active farms around. Now it’s sort of a garden-urbia. I wonder what direction this is taking Carlisle – it takes a half a million dollars to buy a building lot. I think the stability of a community is built on the families who stay here. I don’t think that’s going to happen in Carlisle any more.”

But his face brightens at the thought of his own neighborhood. “Here, even though occupants have changed, there’s still a sense of neighborhood. We can do a neighborhood cook-out and everybody comes. We know the kids on a first-name basis. It’s such a safe area for kids – you see five-, six-year-olds in the street riding their bikes with training wheels. That’s because there’s no traffic passing through here. If someone starts driving too fast through the neighborhood, others will get on them pretty quickly. I think this kind of neighborhood is becoming very, very rare.”

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito