Anne Nigro Umana, the matriarch of the well know and beloved political family from East Boston whose name lives on today, died last month at the age of 102.
Mrs. Umana was the wife of the Judge Mario Umana, a liberal Democrat who inspired his family and constituents in East Boston with the philosophy that we all have an obligation and duty to contribute to the sum total of humanity, Mrs. Umana’s husband was known as a superb legislator and magnificent community leader who had the ability to mix his Ivy League intellect with old school street politics that earned him a distinguished reputation in East Boston while he humbly served the neighborhood for two decades.
But as they say, behind every great man is a great woman.
Mrs. Umana who played piano tunes by ear, started piano lessons at the age of ten, with Herman Shedd, and quickly became his star pupil. At the age of fourteen, she entered a radio contest arranged by Shedd. Playing the Liszt 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, she won the contest. She later studied with Edith Noyes Greene, who was the last living pupil of Edward MacDowell, the great American composer.
In the early 1930’s she studied at New England Conservatory of Music with Alfred DeVoto and Charles Denee. Her professional accomplishments include piano accompaniment for a violin group headed by Marjorie Posselt. She was given her own half hour piano radio program at WHDH in the early 1930’s.
Later she transferred to WMEX where she accompanied her guests Mitzi Greene, Sophie Tucker, Edward Everett Horton and many others for a radio program called Treasury Varieties.
She acquired her own weekly radio show called Keys To Pleasure, sponsored by Royal Crown Cola where she performed solo for several years. During World War II, she performed at army camps all over Massachusetts, as well as at the Coral Gables and the Red Coach Grill. In 1978 she was engaged by The Harvard Club of Boston to play classical music for all of their functions. In 1980, she was engaged by the Winchester Country Club to perform at their functions.
“My earliest recollections of my mother are of her playing the piano,” said her daughter, Anne. “I remember always hearing music when we lived in an apartment above my grandmother’s bakery on Cottage Street. When we subsequently moved to St. Andrew Road when I was six years old, my mother’s piano was front and center, not the baby grand in her present home, but an upright piano that now graces my family room.”
It was music that helped Mrs. Umana cope with the death of her late husband.
“Without her music, I don’t believe my mom would have survived my father’s death,” said Anne. “When she had a massive right brain stroke four years ago, one of my biggest concerns was that she would be unable to play her beloved Steinway piano. Six days after her stroke, I brought her by wheelchair to a baby grand piano in the dining room of her first rehabilitation facility. She sat on the piano bench, adjusted the seat and gingerly attempted to play a classical piece. Initially she was unsuccessful, but she continued to play the same passage over and over again until she played it accurately. I stood with a lump in my throat, providing her with positive feedback and marveled at the miracle I was witnessing.”
Over the next four years Mrs. Umana continued to practice daily, giving a memorable performance to an enthusiastic audience of neighbors and friends at her 100th Birthday Party.
Through her love of music, Mrs. Umana became an early supporter and contributor to Zumix, a non-profit educational outreach entity in East Boston established for the purpose of cultivating musical and performing talent in East Boston youngsters.
Throughout her life in East Boston politics and activism, Mrs. Umana led not merely an unusual life, but an extraordinary one, spanning the American century.
“One of those radio fans in the WMEX days was the man who would become her husband, a Harvard Law Schools student who had just had his first run in 1939 for public office, the House seat from East Boston, where he came in eleventh out of more than thirty candidates,” said her daughter Jean of her late mother and father. “He became her most attentive and devoted fan, who often sent her letters with suggestions and compliments and occasional tweaks, signing off as just ‘Anonymous.’”
When the late Judge Umana was dispirited enough to think of quitting law school it was Mrs. Umana’s who loaned him her trademark true grit. “You can’t quit now. Think of your mother and brother, everyone whose dreams are riding on you. Think of your own dreams.”
When the East Boston politicos, tired of waiting in the wings since ‘39, were itching to get Judge Umana to Beacon Hill in 1948, Mrs. Umana and her husband were up all night bashing the decision to run for the House back and forth.
“She wanted him to run from the less contentious district of Medford, where her Republican father had connections,” said Jean. “Dad’s loyalties lay with East Boston, where he was born and had lived his entire life in the Jeffries Point District and just after sunrise, she gave in. It was what would make him happy, and that was her job, like many another political wife of her day.”
Mrs. Umana plunged in headlong into the politico world after her husband won the race with top billing at 11,791 votes.
“Making friends of strangers with the only means at her disposal – her piano – she would entertain and enchant his constituents at the Boys Town of Little Italy, the Salesian Oratory, the Infant of Prague, the Mount Carmel Women’s Auxiliary, often accompanying renowned soprano and local resident, Estelle Terramagra,” said Jean. “My sister and I would often come home to a musical feast of these two prepping for an upcoming fashion show or women’s tea or fund-raiser.”
During the legendary LoPresti and D’Avolio Senate fights beginning in 1952 Mrs. Umana was her husband’s secret weapon.
“In Precinct 12 where we lived in Orient Heights, she would throw the morning coffee hours and evening soirees where dad would show up all harried and charmingly disheveled from climbing the three-deckers of Charlestown, the North End and Eastie in 90-degree weather, like a deus ex machina to let them know why they, too, should love him and vote for him like his totally loyal wife,” said Jean.
Over the years, Mrs. Umana donated to more than a dozen scholarships to college-bound students from the Mario Umana Middle School Academy, Mount Saint Joseph Academy, now known as St. Joseph’s Preparatory, as well as to Zumix.
She established the Honorable Mario and Anne Umana Family Trust, to which East Boston students are welcome to apply for financial aid for any college or private high school tuition.
Her family’s name lives on in East Boston and adorns the Mario Umana Academy and also the annual Judge Umana Fellowship in Public Service.