John William Ward grew up in Dorchester and Brighton. As a high school student at the Boston Latin School, Bill was known less for his academic promise than for his social skills. He developed an affection for neighborhood pool hall, was captain of the football team, and graduated the six-year course of study in five years.
Bill Ward learned important, enduring lessons at Latin School. He learned that everyone should have an opportunity to compete; a good education is essential to making that opportunity meaningful; competition school be free and fair; and individual issues should be judged on their merits, without preference for the powerful or the popular.
In 1941, after graduating from the Latin School, Bill Ward enrolled at Harvard. He left at the end of his freshman year to fight with the Marines in World War II, landing with them on the beaches of Normandy.
After the war, Bill graduated from Harvard and later became a professor of American Studies at Amherst College, and was appointed to be President of the College in 1972. In 1979, he resigned that position to serve for two years, without pay, as Chairman of the Commission Concerning State and County Buildings in Massachusetts.
The Ward Commission, as it came to be known, was established after two State Senators were convicted for taking bribes in connection with a legislative study of public contracting. The Commission was formed to investigate corruption in public housing contracts. Public corruption occurs when official decisions are secretly influenced by the payment of money, rather than decided on matters of merit.
After two years of investigation, the Ward Commission concluded that in public contracting, ‘corruption was a way of life in Massachusetts,’ and that political influence, rather than professional performance, was the prime criterion in the granting of public contracts. This situation had serious consequences for the people of the Commonwealth.
Corruption makes government very costly. The Ward Commission found that between 1968 and 1980, Massachusetts spent almost $8 billion on construction projects with severe defects. This cost each Massachusetts taxpayer more than $3,000.
Corruption also has real victims. Any time that influence is for sale, it is the poor and the powerless who are disadvantaged. The Ward Commission documented repeated instances in which corruption caused the construction of unusable libraries and other facilities at state and community colleges. In this way, corruption cheated many of those who have looked to public higher education as their best chance for improvement.
Public corruption also has a demoralizing effect on the aspirations and institutions which have historically made our nation the world’s best hope. We seek to have a ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ in order to secure our ‘inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Generation after generation has left their homes and often risked their lives to immigrate because of this. Public corruption is a betrayal of the promise of America.
The Ward Commission made a major contribution to combating corruption in this community. As a result of its efforts, some officials were prosecuted, public contracting procedures were improved, and new offices were established to prevent abuses, such as the Office of the Inspector General and the State Ethics Commision.
But Bill Ward recognized that the Commission’s work was only a beginning. He concluded that what was needed most in Massachusetts is the confidence that we have the intelligence and will to create good government. He knew, however, that “to that we need confidence in government is not to create confidence in government. [Rather, this would] depend on engaged citizens to become informed and demand good government. . . . It [would] take political leaders [who] manifest the will to serve the public good.”
Bill Ward was not sure that any of this would be accomplished. Public corruption has a long history in Massachusetts. The many convictions of public officials since 1981 demonstrate that Ward’s skepticism was, unfortunately, well-founded. But Bill Ward believed that “skepticism means that, whatever one’s doubts, one must act as if one can make a difference.”
Bill Ward said that it would take more than ten years to see if his Commission made a meaningful contribution to creating confidence in government. He did not live to make this judgment himself.
As the Commission’s work concluded, Bill Ward was highly acclaimed, but also controversial. He was Boston Latin School Man of the Year, but also accused by powerful people of conducting an unfair investigation and a witch hunt. This community never created the special job necessary to accommodate the special man Bill Ward was, and in 1985, he took his own life.