My Daughter-in-Law’s Relative and the Boston Christmas Tree

I never met Abraham C. (“Cap”) Ratshesky, who died in 1943. But we do have two things in common. One of them is that he lived in the City of Boston, and so do I. I’ll get around to the second thing later.

Mr. Ratshesky led a full, interesting, and worthwhile life. Before he was forty he had co-founded a bank with his brother, served as a Massachusetts state senator, and attended several national Republican conventions as a delegate.

In addition to politics, charity ran deep in this man. He donated a building to the Red Cross for its headquarters, was a founder of Beth Israel Hospital, and in 1925 helped organize the ”Pennies Campaign,” a fundraising effort to restore the U.S. Constitution.

In 1916 he created the A.C. Ratshesky Foundation, dedicated to good works, and in World War I he held a public position as Assistant Food Administrator for Massachusetts. In 1930, President Hoover appointed him as United States Minister to Czechoslovakia (his official title was “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary”).

But the good deed that always comes to mind at this time of the year goes back to December 6, 1917. On that date a French cargo ship, the Mont-Blanc, collided with a Norwegian ship in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia. The French ship was full of wartime explosives, and the collision set off the biggest manmade explosion ever up to that time. Over 2000 people were killed, thousands were injured, and the city was virtually destroyed.

That very day Mr. Ratshesky sprang into action. At 5:30 PM, Massachusetts Governor McCall appointed him “Commissioner-in-Charge” of the Halifax Relief Expedition and directed him to “go the limit.” The Governor’s letter to the Mayor of Halifax, dated December 6, 1917, begins, “I am sending Hon. A.C. Ratshesky … immediately to your city, with a corps of our best State surgeons and nurses, in the belief that they may be of service to you in this hour of need.” The letter concludes, “The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will stand back of Mr. Ratshesky in every way.”

“Cap” helped load supplies on the train in Boston, and at 10:00 PM he and thirty doctors, nurses, and Red Cross representatives climbed aboard. The next morning they arrived in McAdam Junction, New Brunswick, where they learned that all telegraph and telephone wires in Halifax were down, so no one knew they were coming. The remainder of their trip to Halifax was delayed by a blizzard, and they arrived in the early morning hours of December 8. Mr. Ratshesky later reported that “the Massachusetts relief train was the first to enter the devastated city.”

The next year, as a token of their gratitude, the citizens of Halifax sent a Christmas tree to the City of Boston. Then, more than fifty years later, they turned that single gift into a tradition. Every year for the last 42 years they have provided the city with its “official” Christmas tree.

When the tree left Halifax a month ago, it was led by a group of marathon runners to honor the victims of the Marathon Day bombings. It arrived on December 5, a 47-foot-tall White Spruce. The next day, Mayor Thomas Menino held his last Christmas Tree lighting as mayor, and the tree from Nova Scotia still shines over the Boston Common.

Mr. Ratshesky’s spirit lives on, not only in the hearts of Nova Scotia’s citizens but in the foundation that bears his name, now nearly 100 years old. It lives on in my daughter-in-law, Rebecca, as well. Mr. Ratshesky was her great-great uncle, making her the other thing I have in common with this remarkable man.

2017-05-19T20:27:47+00:00 By |