Suzanne Besser Receives 27th Annual Beacon Award

At the Beacon Hill Civic Association annual meeting held Monday May 20, at the Somerset Club, Suzanne Besser was honored with the 27th annual Beacon Award, which publicly recognizes an individual or group each year whose long-term leadership has made a sustained and lasting positive impact on the quality of life in our neighborhood.

Besser was described by Russ Gaudreau, who presented the award, as “a compassionate and giving person.”

Suzanne Besser, winner of the 27th
annual Beacon Award, and Russ Gaudreau, chair of the Beacon
Award Nominating Committee, are
seen on the steps of the Somerset
Club on Monday, May 20, ahead of
the Beacon Hill Civic Association’s
102nd annual meeting.

Gaudreau, who has now chaired the Beacon Award Nominating Committee for several years, said the committee had around a dozen good candidates to choose from this year, but as almost always is the case, one individual really stood out above all the others. 

“The uniqueness of Suzanne is the breadth of her involvement with the community,” said Gaudreau, who added that no previous Beacon Award winner has been as involved in as many community organizations as Besser. He also noted her significant  involvement in community organizations focused on helping others in need.” 

Besser thanked the more than 150 neighbors present for all their support and friendship over the years.

“By all working together, we have created a neighborhood that offers us a wonderful quality of life,” she said. “and I have loved every minute of living and working here.”

A native of Connecticut, Besser relocated to Beacon Hill in 1998 when her spouse took a new job in a Boston law firm. Many years earlier she and her family attended a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. On their way they walked through Beacon Hill where she got a glimpse of Beacon Hill’s charm. “I totally fell in love with Beacon Hill the very first time I saw  it,” she recalled, and hoped sometime to live there.

In the 1980s, Besser began her career in non-profit management while raising four children. She served as executive director of a nonprofit regional tourism district in Connecticut at a time when its residents thought the best feature of the area was that no one would want to visit it. Consequently she wrote a speech on the importance of tourism to the area’s economy and delivered it to the Kiwanis Club and other men’s groups, which ultimately helped sway their opinions on the matter. Several years later, she was named the state of Connecticut’s ‘Tourism Person of the Year.’

The experience, she said, taught her how to work with disparate types of personalities on a board of directors  – a skill she would later put to good work in other nonprofits.

After responding to a classified ad for what was then only a part-time job, Besser joined the Civic Association as its executive director in 1999. She soon found a mentor in Gene Clapp, the group’s chair at that time.

“Neither of us had any idea what we were doing in these positions,” Clapp said. “So we began ‘co-mentoring’ each other.”

Early on, Besser unwittingly found herself in the crosshairs of a longtime neighborhood resident when she was quoted in this publication saying how excited she was to hear of Whole Foods’ plans to open in the Charles River Plaza space formerly occupied by Stop & Shop. One Sunday morning about a week after Besser’s seemingly innocuous remark was published, she awoke to find that a longtime employee was ruffled by her remarks and had disseminated fliers throughout the neighborhood impugning her character. A distraught Besser called Clapp to tender her resignation, but Clapp, whom she credits for his unwavering equanimity, quickly convinced her this was only a minor matter and certainly nothing worth quitting over.

Besser and Clapp found another ally in Ben Colburn, then the second-ranking board member who would later succeed Clapp as chair, and together, the three of them worked to “professionalize” the organization, said Besser, whose job soon grew into a full-time position.

“The three of us did a lot,” Besser recalled of working with Clapp and Colburn to reorganize the Civic Association.

Besser was BHCA’s first executive director who lived on Beacon Hill, meaning that she found herself answering work-related questions from neighbors nearly every time she set foot outside her door. It didn’t bother her a bit, though, and she credits this circumstance for how heavily involved she has become over the years in the Beacon Hill community.

The many neighborhood nonprofits Besser has volunteered for over the years include Beacon Hill Circle for Charity – a grassroots group that raises funds for the Greater Boston charitable organizations that support services for women and children – serving as its president and a board member; Beacon Hill Women’s Forum as one of its founding board members; the Nichols House Museum as a board member and chair of various committees; the Rogerson Communities board that oversees the Beacon House and Peter Faneuil House; Vincent Club, which raises funds for obstetrics and gynecology services at MGH, as its communications vice president and a board member; and Mothers Out Front, a grass-roots group of multi-generational women advocating for a transition off of fossil fuels to renewable energy, as a member of its community organizing team.

Besser has also been involved in Beacon Hill Village since the nonprofit’s inception more than two decades ago. She chaired its Kitchen Tours fundraiser for three consecutive years between 2014-16 and continues to handle the organization’s publicity.

“The BHV is one more organization that make living on Beacon Hill easier, so that people, when they get older, don’t have to move out of the city to retirement homes,” Besser said of the member-led community of active, creative and independent adults aged 50 and older.

Besser  also assisted Ania Camargo, then chair of the Civic Association, and board member Suzie Tapson, in a two-year community outreach process that resulted in the ‘Plan for the Neighborhood’ in 2011. The plan identified aspirations for Beacon Hill, including one that resonated deeply with Besser – housing should be made available to everyone in the neighborhood, including families.

The city was then beginning to explore redevelopment options for the West End Branch Library, which opened in the 1960s and has since outgrown the community’s needs.

With this in mind, Besser joined Karen Cord Taylor, founding publisher of this publication, and John Achatz, a past BHCA board chair and longtime housing advocate, in 2018 to form an ad hoc group they named Beacon Hill Committee for Housing and Public Assets And with the Civic Association’s tacit support, they began lobbying the city in earnest to include mixed-income housing in any redevelopment plans for the West End Branch Library.

When the Mayor’s Office of Housing formally solicited ideas for how to redevelop the library,  the deadline was short, Achatz recalled. Their ad hoc committee developed and submitted one of six proposals for the redevelopment of the library – and then, nothing happened, according to Achatz.

“Suzanne lobbied city officials until almost six years later when the city designated a developer to make the project happen,” Achatz wrote in part. “When this is built, it will be a monument to Suzanne’s foresight and persistence.”

(Last December, the city’s Public Facilities Commission tentatively designated the development team of Preservation of Affordable Housing [POAH] and Caste Capital to redevelop the West End Branch Library and the BHCA officially supported the  project. The project as proposed will include a two-story branch library, with 119 units of income-restricted housing above it.)

Besser has also had a hand in organizing some of the neighborhood’s most memorable and festive social outings.

In 2002, she and Eileen McCormick helped establish the Civic Association’s annual Neighborhood Block Party, now called ‘Hillfest.’

In August of 2022, Besser, together with Gordon Burnes and James Houghton, organized a dinner party for the Civic Association, where 250 guests enjoyed a three-course meal seated at one long table extending all the way from Storrow Drive to Brimmer Street. 

In 2004, after five years at the helm of the Civic Association, she left that role to assume the position of editor of this publication.

Besser, who earned her undergraduate degree, with a double-major in psychology and sociology from Brown University, had returned years later to the University of Hartford to pursue a graduate degree in journalism. After earning her post-graduate work there, she spent time as a freelancer writing feature stories for the Hartford Courant in the ‘90s. She would later spend five years as an editor of this publication until returning to her previous role as executive director of the Civic Association in 2009. After five more years at the helm of the Civic Association, Besser briefly stepped away from the organization before returning to serve voluntarily as its president.

Besser recalled how when she was working at the Civic Association, residents frequently petitioned to make additions to their homes. When their applications were opposed by the Architectural Commission, these residents were “horrified,” said Besser, despite the fact that one of the reasons they chose to live in the neighborhood is because its homes are so “beautifully kept.” She also credits the Beacon Hill Architectural Commission, now chaired by Mark Kiefer, for its “wonderful job” in helping to maintain the neighborhood’s architectural character and integrity. Besser added that the neighborhood’s residents take immaculate care of their homes, often undertaking repointing and other costly projects to maintain the upkeep of their residences.

“Our residents are very interested in keeping the quality of life good on Beacon Hill,” said Besser. “I think everyone who lives here cares about keeping the neighborhood such a good place to live.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.