“Leave it to Beaver” Neighborhood

Beth Hinchliffe writer
Larry Buckley photographer

World War II utterly changed Wellesley.
Profoundly grieving the loss of 52 of their sons, during those devastating war years, residents forged a deep and unshakable bond. To support their nearly 800 young men and women in uniform, neighbors came together as never before, to wrap bandages, knit scarves, form town canning kitchens, pool ration booklets and scarce rubber, and welcome dozens of evacuated British children. Students in the elementary schools became pen pals to boys from Wellesley on the front lines, and families served as host to the Navy men who took over parts of Wellesley and Babson Colleges for training.

Then it was over. And the town celebrated not only the closing of a desperate era, but also its own unique place in looking toward a future of hope with the awarding of the 1946 Nobel Peace Prize to longtime resident Emily Balch.

At the end of World War I, Wellesley residents had planted more than 300 trees on Hunnewell Field, one for every town man who had fought. But at the end of this war, they wanted to do something more than a symbolic gesture. Resolved to heal together, the citizens of Wellesley were determined to welcome home young veterans with the warmest embrace, giving them their best chance for a strong, bright future.

And so David Babson’s Veterans’ Emergency Housing Committee came up with an unprecedented idea. To house the returning servicemen and their infant families, the town would provide them with land to build their own first homes.

It looked like the best spot for this neighborhood of new beginnings would be the undeveloped area to the west of Weston Road leading up to Morse’s Pond. So, the town bought 42 acres of land from the B&A Railroad and from Wellesley College, christened it “The Woodlands,” and presented it as a thank-you and a promise to 132 boys who had grown up in Wellesley, survived the anguish of war, and returned home.

“I can’t tell you what it meant, having our hometown provide for us this way,” says Joe Fortini, who was born on Seaver Street in a family of ten, saw action in the Battle of the Bulge, went on to work in Wellesley’s water department for 26 years after his return, and still lives in the MacArthur Road home he and his brothers Bill and Ferdinand built with their own hands in 1947.

At first the town provided barracks housing in Quonset huts shipped from Fort Devens and set up on the land, opposite Strathmore Road. The first veteran to move in was Paul Nahass, who had also been the first Wellesley boy to enlist. He later built his home and raised his family on MacArthur Road; his son Peter is now a lieutenant with the Wellesley Police Department.

Soon the town had installed the roads and utilities, and had mapped out 10,000 square foot lots. To honor the tradition for which these young men had risked their lives, the streets were named after their leaders and heroes: General Douglas MacArthur, General Omar Bradley, General George Patton, General Courtney Hodges, General William Simpson, General George Marshall, Admiral William Halsey, and Admiral Richmond Turner.

In the cozy brick home they built on Bradley Avenue just after they were married, Dorothea Kelly, widow of Tom who had enlisted in the Navy at age17 and retired from the Wellesley Fire Department, now lives with her daughter Brenda Sullivan, Brenda’s teenage children Gerard and Kelly, and an elderly poodle named Butterfly. They are one of a number of multi-generational families here.

“I love the history and area,” says grandson Gerard Sullivan, who has made a study of the streets’ namesakes and knows all the details of his grandfather’s service. “It’s so much more than just the neat little houses — it’s the stories, the identity, the sacrifice of these men when they were just a little older than me. It’s a privilege to grow up here. I hope everyone who lives in The Woodlands always appreciates the people who came before.” Gerard, Kelly, and their four cousins are proud to tend the memorial at nearby Kelly Field, dedicated in honor of their grandfather’s two brothers who died in the war.

The names of the families who started their new lives here reads like a familiar roster of honor. Most worked for the town in the fire, police, school, and public works departments, including Fire Chief William Donahue and Police Chief Robert MacBey. A number of sets of brothers helped each other build their homes on neighboring lots, like the Belfortis, Balbonis, Donahues, Fumias, and Fortinis.

“We were all growing families starting out together, full of hope, full of joy at having our own homes,” says Dorothea Kelly, remembering back nearly six decades. “We didn’t have much, but what we did have, we shared. We all looked out for one another. I called my neighbors ‘my sisters.’ We embraced this golden opportunity for a new beginning, for the chance to put the suffering of the war behind us. We cherished what we had and took nothing for granted.”

Gradually the empty land turned into a neighborhood. Most of the veterans built their homes themselves nights and weekends. Tiny ranches and capes snuggled in together, and baby carriages and bicycles began to fill the once-quiet fields in an explosion of post-war optimism. It was a protected enclave, a self-contained neighborhood with only two entrances from the main road, a quiet place where children could safely play in the streets.

“We never wanted to move, not even to a bigger house. We would never leave this neighborhood,” says Diana Zucchelli, who has lived on Halsey Avenue for nearly 60 years with her husband Louis, a fellow Wellesley native and Air Force veteran whom she has known since sixth grade. “Who would ever give up the bond and pride of being part of the Woodlands family? We were so grateful that our hometown gave us this chance.”

The closeness and fierce devotion to each other which the new neighbors shared could scarcely be described. They had all grown up together in Wellesley. They had all seen the terrors of combat. They had survived, and came home to a town that offered them housing and jobs. They had married and started families, most within months of each other. They were proud of the homes they had built, the lives they were starting, the future they were creating. They were, in Joe Fortini’s words, simply and truly “brothers.”
And so their children grew up with a deeply-entrenched sense of extended family. Soon “our own little army” started walking together every day across the street to Hardy School, the older ones acting as unofficial crossing guards for the youngest; by the late 1950s there were nearly 400 children living in the neighborhood.

“It was the most closely-knit area you could imagine,” says Mary Fortini, who raised four children, and is now raising two grandchildren, on MacArthur Road. “We truly were a big family. Everyone was there for each other. We shared everything, the good and the bad.”

“I love the memories,” she adds. “Every 4th of July we’d have a huge parade just for us, with little tiny tots in paper costumes and older ones all dressed up with their decorated scooters and doll carriages and bikes. Ray Scannell and Bud McMasters would lead the float-building, and all the men helped out. Once they even made a huge train.” Other memorable floats over the years included a gambling boat and a tribute to the Flintstones.

It seemed that they shared everything. When someone was sick, others pitched in with casseroles and yard work. When someone married, crowds went to the wedding. Houses overflowed with birthday parties, slumber parties, hula-hoop contests. Each family tried to outdo the other at Halloween and with Christmas decorations. Summer evenings meant taking turns at different homes for barbecues. Block parties became regular events; lemonade stands popped up at every corner.

And always, the flags proudly waved in the breeze.

The Fortinis are now living in their original home with their son John, a longtime local scoutmaster, and his sons Diamond and William. “Our grandsons are very aware of the special, proud history of this neighborhood,” Joe says. “It’s a great feeling to see how interested they are, and how they carry on the legacy.” They are the careful custodians of their grandfather’s Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

And they also continue to take full advantage of the same natural treasures that the original generation of Woodlands children enjoyed in the 1950s and 60s, which made growing up here “the best life a kid could have,” as Brenda Kelly Sullivan recalls.

“We’d all meet during the summer to walk down the street to Morse’s Pond for swimming lessons, and then in the winter we’d skate at Morse’s or play hockey at the frog pond at the corner of Turner and Weston,” remembers Terry Cunningham, Wellesley’s current Chief of Police.

By 1950, the surge in population meant that a new Catholic church was needed in the area. Nearly all the residents of The Woodlands were founders of St. James, helping to christen the temporary Army chapel that was first set up on Route 9, then later pitching in to build the brick landmark which saw the baptisms, marriages, and funerals of so many of the families.

But with the 21st century, change has come to the “Leave it to Beaver” atmosphere of The Woodlands. Now in their 80s, many of the original vets are retired or lost to illness or death. The new families laying roots in the neighborhood want places that are much larger, so the still-sturdy 1,000-square foot homes built 60 years ago for less than $5,000 are falling like weary dominos. They sell for $700,000 as teardowns, making way for 4,500-square foot “McMansions” that in turn average over $1.5 million. Of the first eight houses you see driving down MacArthur Road, only three are originals, the rest brand-new.

Even their church is gone after 50 years, closed by the archdiocese in 2004. Some longtime residents, like the Fortinis, refuse to relinquish their treasured spiritual home, and their son and grandsons take part in protest sit-ins, sleeping in the unoccupied church every other Saturday night.

But for however much the 21st century has intruded on The Woodlands, it is clear that the residents of the 1940s and the 2000s share something essential. A strong sense of family still anchors the neighborhood. “Recently, we’ve re-introduced our old 4th of July parades,” says Brenda Kelly Sullivan, who is raising her children in the house where she grew up. “Kids still love to decorate bikes and have an old-fashioned parade. Seeing them so happy brought it all back.”

“I feel fortunate that I can bring up my children where I grew up, showing them the tradition and values that shaped our parents’ and my generations,” says Brenda. “The Woodlands represents a very special part of the American spirit. It’s all about heart.”

Summer 2023