Bound by Their Boston Neighborhood

When Bill Walczak called Meg Campbell to ask her for a date in 2016, he hung up happy. The yes he had received wasn’t particularly enthusiastic, but her hesitant acceptance gave him a lift anyway. Spending time with Ms. Campbell, he knew, would be good for him. His wife had told him so.

Mr. Walczak, 65, and Ms. Campbell, 67, are social activists in Boston. Since 2000, they have worked to steer Codman Academy, which they founded with a third partner, Dr. George Brackett. The charter school serves children from kindergarten through Grade 12 in the Codman Square section of Boston, a neighborhood that saw racial unrest and economic disintegration in the 1970s.

Until Mr. Walczak’s July 2016 phone call inviting Ms. Campbell to a movie, theirs was a purely collegial relationship. “We occasionally would have lunch or something together,” Mr. Walczak said. “But that was pretty much the limit.” Neither, in all those years, had time for much beyond a quick bite. Since both found their way decades ago with their spouses to Dorchester, the diverse part of Boston where they still live half a mile from each other, they have been consumed with improving quality of life there.

“I’ve always been an organizer-type person,” said Mr. Walczak, who grew up in working class Iselin, N.J. His father, William H. Walczak worked for General Motors as a trim repairman; his mother, Irene Walczak, punched a time clock at the Maidenform factory. A scholarship to Boston University took him to the city 48 years ago. Two years after he and his wife, Linda M. Walczak, moved to Dorchester as 18-year-old newlyweds in 1973, he founded the Codman Square Health Center to provide medical care to struggling residents.

Ms. Campbell, who said she is known for having a “bazillion ideas,” is similarly motivated. Before Codman Academy, she was the founding executive director of EL Education, a national network of schools inspired by Outward Bound. In 1989, seven years after she moved to Dorchester, she founded the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail, the first walking trail honoring women in the country. In 2011, she helped found the Margarita Muniz Academy, a dual language Boston public high school. In between, she published two books of poetry, “Solo Crossing” and “More Love.”

Though Ms. Campbell and Mr. Walczak didn’t start working in the same building until 2000, each remembers becoming aware of the other in the mid-1980s. “I had done a lot of organizing around health care issues,” she said. Mr. Walczak’s name came up frequently. They also bumped into each other around the neighborhood. In 1984, when her older daughter, Moriah Musto, was 6 and her younger daughter, Adrienne Campbell-Holt, was 4, she called him for advice on the safest place to have their ears pierced.

His name surfaced again the next year when she hatched a plan to ban liquor and cigarette ads around the city. “At that point my two kids were starting public school, and the school they went to was overshadowed by these large billboards advertising cigarettes,” Ms. Campbell said. “I grew up being told never to put a cigarette near you, that it’s the worst thing in the world. So I started a little campaign around these billboards, and one person who responded was Bill. In 1986, the billboards came down.”

Ms. Campbell grew up in San Diego with her father, Dr. Charles Campbell, a radiologist and oncologist, and her mother, Ruth Mary Campbell, a travel agent.

Her purposeful life was made fuller by her husband and daughters. A rupture came in 1995 when she and her husband divorced. Instead of searching for a new love interest, or even committing to finding someone to occasionally date, she threw herself into her work. “I tried having relationships for a while, but then I felt I didn’t really have the time and that I was done with men,” she said. “And I was O.K. with that.”

By the time she approached Mr. Walczak in 2000 with her proposal to open Codman Academy in Codman Square Health Center, where it is still located, she was deep in the grooves of her single life. In addition to her daughters, she spent time with a cadre of local nieces and nephews and their children. Between work and a growing family as grandchildren came, “it felt like a very rich life,” she said.

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Mr. Walczak’s did, too. His children, Elizabeth Walczak and Matthew Walczak, are now adults with children of their own. Matthew lives in nearby Brookline with his daughter, Penny; Elizabeth and her husband, Kirk Carapezza, live with their daughters, Emilia, 3, and Siena, seven months, in the Dorchester house where Elizabeth was raised. Mr. Walczak sold it to them in 2019 and now lives in its first-floor in-law apartment. That transition was easy compared with the one that preceded it, when he became a widower.

In 2014, Linda Walczak was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “She lasted a little over a year,” he said. Throughout that year, Ms. Campbell showed her support by sending flowers or making soup and leaving it on the Walczaks’ back porch. In response, “Linda would always write me these beautiful handwritten notes,” Ms. Campbell said. At work, “Bill was in denial. I remember him saying, ‘What happens if she doesn’t get well?’ And when I said, ‘You’re going to make it,’ he was like, ‘I can’t even think that thought.’”

“I was pretty distraught,” Mr. Walczak said. “It’s the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to me.” Before Ms. Walczak died at 61, on Dec. 27, 2015, she sat her husband down for what he remembers as instructions.

“We had this conversation about what she wanted our kids to do and what she thought I should do,” he said. “She actually said she thought I should look at Meg as a potential future love interest.” He didn’t want to hear it. “I was so hoping she would survive.”

Six months into widowhood, though, loneliness crept in. Ms. Campbell was not the only candidate he had in mind for a first date to the local cinema. In fact, he put together a list of five women, all divorced or widowed, whom he said had been nice to him since Ms. Walczak’s passing. “I ranked them, too,” he added. Looks or sex appeal were not the criteria by which he was judging. Suitability was. “I wanted someone who shared my belief in social justice, and someone who would not only be a romantic partner but understood they would be a parent and a grandparent figure.”

Ms. Campbell, better than the others, fit the bill. Plus, “Meg was the only one Linda had mentioned,” Mr. Walczak said. It wasn’t just because she had been thoughtful enough to send flowers and make soup. “One interesting thing is that, when I was in the process of moving from the upstairs to the downstairs in my house, I found a pad of paper with some stuff my wife had written. One was ‘Meg and Bill.’ Then she drew a line and wrote, ‘Good person, Catholic, history.’” Both Mr. Walczak and Ms. Campbell both are parishioners at St. Cecilia Parish in Boston.

When he called to ask her to the movies in 2016, Ms. Campbell heard alarm bells. “I said, ‘Why would you want to ruin a perfectly good friendship?’,” she said. “But I also thought, if he took up with some 30-year-old, I was going to kill him.” By the time they went to see the documentary “Weiner,” deciding they would call the outing a “friend date,” each of their children had been consulted on how they would feel about their parents dating.

“My daughter Adrienne said, ‘It’s a miracle, Mom,’” Ms. Campbell said. “Bill is something out of another time and another place. They don’t make men like that anymore.”

Still, the Campbell and Walczak children advised against rushing into a relationship. “All four of them independently said, take this slow,” Ms. Campbell said. “But we were like, ‘We’re in our 60s, how slow can we take it?’ It was a real role reversal.”

After a handful of movie outings and walks around the city, Ms. Campbell’s reluctance about dating Mr. Walczak fizzled. She remembered some words of advice from a therapist she had seen years ago. “She told me, Meg, if happiness knocks on the door, don’t be afraid to answer it,” she said. Mr. Walczak’s steady, not overly insistent knocking had won her over.

Though both are still active at Codman Academy, Mr. Walczak as board chair and Ms. Campbell as chief of innovation and strategy, each is retired. Ms. Campbell left in 2016, Mr. Walczak in 2019. By then, they had traveled as a couple to Peru and learned to cook together (“Neither one of us is a cook, and I wasn’t going to cook all the meals,” Ms. Campbell said). In September, they took a trip to Baja California for a friend’s wedding. There, “we did a lot of walking on the beach and talking,” Ms. Campbell said. “There was no hard proposal, but it was more like emergent situation. We said, ‘Are we proposing to each other?’”

They were. On Jan. 20, Ms. Campbell and Mr. Walczak were married at St. Cecilia’s. The Rev. John Unni, the Roman Catholic priest who led Ms. Walczak’s funeral, performed an abbreviated ceremony for a few dozen guests, nearly all family. Instead of filling pews, guests sat in straight back chairs on the church stage for an atmosphere that felt more conversational than formal.

Father Unni delivered his ceremony in a strong Boston accent, asking the assembled, “Do you know how special these people are?”

Thabiti Brown, head of school at the Codman Academy, has known Mr. Walczak and Ms. Campbell for 19 years. He had an answer to the question.

“These are two amazing people who move through the world the same way, doing what’s right for the community and for families,” he said. “It was a cool thing for them to take the next step.”


When Jan. 20, 2020

Where St. Cecilia Parish, Boston

Hillbillies on the Road Mr. Walczak sings and plays accordion in a local old-time country band, the Savin Hillbillies. James Hanford, a bandmate and fiddler, provided violin music for the wedding.

Matching Reds Ms. Campbell wore a black taffeta knee-length dress, designed by Sara Campbell, under an ivory cardigan trimmed with fur and a red cloche hat, which lent a Diane Keaton resemblance. Her granddaughters, and his granddaughters, all wore red cloches and cardigans to match the bride. Mr. Walczak’s red bow tie complemented his black suit as well as a parade of hats: All six grandchildren accompanied the couple down the aisle wearing matching red hats.

Historic Honeymoon The bride and groom planned a “civil rights honeymoon” in Charleston, S.C., to dovetail with their Martin Luther King Day ceremony. “There’s an amazing history of resistance we wanted to see,” Ms. Campbell said.

Cookies for a Cause A post-wedding lunch on the church’s lower level included marinated chicken breast with potatoes; cookies were from Haley House, a local soup kitchen.

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