In Boston's Battle Over Busing, J. Anthony Lukas Finds Common Ground Among Three Disparate Families

updated 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was a memorable moment for J. Anthony Lukas. A young black man named Wayne Twymon rose from his seat at Boston's John F. Kennedy Library one afternoon last fall to confront the indignant, middle-aged white woman. Everyone in the audience knew her. She was Pixie Palladino, a longtime foe of the court-ordered school busing that had ripped the city apart in the 1970s. Her anger unabated years later, Palladino complained, "I look around this room; there's no 'common ground.' How many of you are going to love me, no matter what color I am?" Twymon turned to her and said with dignity, "Pixie, I do love you."

Lukas, 52, recalls the scene warmly because he was indirectly responsible for bringing Twymon and Palladino together. Their face-off took place at a forum to discuss Lukas' best-seller, Common Ground (Knopf, $19.95). The book is an examination of how desegregation divided the city of Boston and, in particular, its cataclysmic effect on three families, one white and middle-class and two working-class (one Irish and one black). The 659-page opus has earned Lukas excellent reviews as well as the prestigious American Book Award. Most surprisingly, Common Ground has been optioned by Lorimar Productions, the company that produces Dallas, as a possible miniseries next year.

Common Ground hooked the TV producers—and readers—not with sociological theory but with meaty human drama. Lukas interviewed scores of families before selecting the Twymons, the Divers and the McGoffs. The author was drawn to these families by what he calls their "special intensity" and "engagement with life."

The Twymons are headed by Rachel, a proud woman raising six children alone. Within an hour and a half of meeting her, Lukas notes, "I knew this was the woman I wanted to write about. She was so passionate, so articulate and so interesting." Rachel's daughter, Cassandra, was bused into Charlestown High School, where she was a classmate of Lisa McGoff. Lisa's mother, Alice, is an Irish Catholic widow living with her seven children in a deteriorating Charlestown housing project. While toiling to keep her family together, McGoff and her older children became active in the antibusing movement. The third family, Colin and Joan Diver and their two boys, lived near the Twymons in the South End but came from a very different world. Affluent and liberal, the Harvard-trained lawyer and his wife moved to a gentrifying neighborhood only to find themselves armed with baseball bats, chasing muggers. "Almost everyone in my book had good intentions," says Lukas, "yet nothing quite worked out for them."

Sitting in the book-lined apartment he shares with wife Linda Healey on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Lukas is surrounded by exotic artwork from India and Africa, mute testimony to his distinguished 10-year career as a Pulitzer prizewinning correspondent for the New York Times. As a newspaperman, he recalls, "I'd work on a story for a day, a week, a month, and I'd hand it in. But I always thought, 'If only I had more time...' " Lukas vowed he would give Common Ground all the time it needed. "For once in my life," he says, "I wanted the experience of knowing everything about a subject."

In 1976 when he began the project, Lukas figured it would take about two years, with summers spent in the Hamptons. Reality wore a more haggard face. Lukas' research took 7½ years to complete. It encompassed 556 hours of interviews, a nearly three-year residence in Boston, trips to Ireland, Nova Scotia, Virginia and Georgia. He even took an unsalaried position at Charlestown High, sometimes addressing classes. During a "not atypical day," says Lukas, "I would spend the morning attending classes and have lunch with a teacher, then drive over to see Rachel Twymon after work. I might interview a mayor's aide in the late afternoon and have dinner with the Divers." Lukas says he spent an average of 10 hours a week with the families.

The decision to undertake Common Ground came at a crossroads in Lukas' life. "I was 43," he explains, "and I think I said to myself, 'The time has come to become a writer of books.' " Even though he had already authored three—on such subjects as the student rebellion of the 1960s and the Nixon years—Lukas still felt that he hadn't done his best work in book form. "It was time," he says, "to go for broke."

An offhand query at a dinner party rekindled Lukas' fascination with an incident at Boston City Hall in 1974. Ted Kennedy was jeered by a largely Irish Catholic crowd opposed to busing, forcing him to flee into a building named after JFK. That Irish Bostonians could turn on a Kennedy astounded Lukas, and by the time he got home that night, he was mapping out the idea of focusing on families to depict a city rent by race and class issues.

The years of research had their share of disheartening moments. The worst experience was sitting with Rachel Twymon when one of her sons stood trial for rape. "Seeing her torn apart like that was terrible," says Lukas. The most frustrating moment came in 1980 when he realized that a Charlestown family with whom he had spent four years wasn't going to work as part of the book because they were too withdrawn from society. Lukas promptly switched to the McGoffs. Common Ground offers no solutions. "If I had the answers," Lukas says, "I would have stated them. I do not believe busing in Boston worked as well as it might have." On the other hand, he says, "I do not believe we should give up our quest for social justice."

Lukas describes himself as "a hopelessly 1950s person. I wear tweed jackets and button-down shirts. I am a 1955 graduate of Harvard University who drives a 1968 Mercedes." The son of a lawyer and an actress, J. Anthony (the 'J' stands for Jay) was a fledgling actor as a boy growing up in New York and Vermont; he performed in summer stock as a teen.

In spite of his privileged background, Lukas had an undeniable rapport with all of his subjects. "Tony is a very, very compassionate man," says Rachel Twymon with feeling. "No matter what I said, he never condemned me," comments Lisa McGoff (now Collins). "He really researched the story. He didn't do a halfhearted job." Colin Diver, who eventually moved from the city to the suburbs because of crime, says that Lukas "convinced us that the story should be told. I kiddingly used to refer to him as my shrink. He really tried to put himself into my skin. He's as close to being nonjudgmental as a human being can be."

Lukas' next project is a book "about democracy in a small American community." Looking out the window of his apartment, Lukas reflects on his long-ago decision to become a writer instead of an actor. "If I couldn't be onstage," he says, "I pledged myself to write about the great dramatic stuff of life." Common Ground is the uncommon result of that youthful pledge.

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