NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Port in Progress

April 13, 2007

Famed doctor helped save Port a building at a time

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NEWBURYPORT -- Even though she was in high school at the time, Mary Wilkins Haslinger remembers well the fateful night in 1965 when Mayor George Lawler made a trip to her home at 299 High Street to see her father, Dr. Robert Wilkins.

"I noticed a strange car parked in our driveway," Haslinger said in a recent interview. "I went to my mother and said, 'Mama, there's someone parked in the driveway.' She said, 'Yes dear, I know. It's the mayor.' I asked her if we should invite him in, and she said. 'No. We'll wait till your father gets home."

The night Haslinger -- and Lawler -- remember so well changed forever Newburyport's urban renewal experience, and possibly that of many other cities as well.

It was the night Lawler persuaded Wilkins to join the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority, the agency charged with redeveloping the tattered downtown.

It was the night that changed Newburyport's future by recognizing the value of its past.

"I've always thought that George Lawler is the unsung hero of Newburyport's urban renewal story," Haslinger said, sitting in the den of the house she now calls her home at 299 High St. "If George hadn't written that resolution that asked the NRA to consider preserving the old buildings instead of tearing them all down, everything could be gone now."

But Lawler, 38 years old at the time, needed someone to make sure his suggestion held firm, and so he placed his trust in Dr. Wilkins.

That night in 1965 was the result of about two years of unrelenting work by Wilkins and others in Newburyport who believed Newburyport's economic revival did not depend upon nearly everything in the once prosperous city center being torn down. Today, some may wonder how a busy doctor could spare the time to organize, strategize and implement the grassroots effort that eventually preserved most of Newburyport's historic downtown.

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