From Island in the Caribbean to Island in the Acres: Clodo Concepcion 1932-2023…
UPDATED 8:03PM: To include additional comments about the late Concepcion.
Clodo Concepion, the Cuban émigré who made his life in Springfield and ultimately his way to the City Council, died Saturday. A presence in labor and a force in 16 Acres, Concepcion became the first ward councilor from Ward 5 in 50 years. When the seat last existed, he was still a relatively recent arrival and the Cuban missile crisis was 10 months away.
Criticized as imperious atop the 16 Acres Civic Association and cantankerous on the Council, Concepcion was a reliable ally of Mayor Domenic Sarno. However, he tried to leverage that loyalty on behalf of his community. How successful he was remains a subject for debate, as he failed in his third bid for reelection. Yet, as one of the initial ward councilors with a standout story, his hour upon the stage in Springfield stands among the city’s more colorful tales.
“I shall return,” he said in 2007 after failing to make the cut in the city’s last all at-large Council election.
That same year, voters approved the revival of ward representation. He would win one of the seats two years later.
“He never looked for fanfare and no one worked harder for seniors, veterans (a proud Air Force veteran himself), quality of life and public safety issues than Clodo,” Sarno said in a statement posted to Facebook.
Council President Jesse Lederman noted his place among the first ward councilors who took office in 50 years and his work on neighborhood, senior and veterans issues. As others observed, he continued to be a presence at the community center in 16 Acres.
“He never stopped being a resource for the constituents that he cared so deeply for, and from time to time would offer advice to me when I would stop by,” Lederman said in a statement.
Congressman Richard Neal also cited Concepcion’s immigrant story and Air Force service. He said he first met Concepcion as a student in a class Neal was teaching as Springfield Technical Community College.
“His advocacy on behalf of Sixteen Acres, Ward 5, and the greater Springfield community was truly remarkable,” Neal said in a statement.
Concepcion leaves his wife, Teresa. He had children, but a full list of survivors was not immediately available.
Clodovaldo Concepcion was born on July 27, 1932 in Cuba. He told The Republican columnist Tom Shea that his family had a farm. Circa 1956, during the Batista regime, he left Cuba to pursue his education in the United States. He served in the Air Force before settling in Springfield.
When the city dissolved ward seats with the all at-large election in 1961, Ward 5 had yet to fully undulate eastward into 16 Acres. At the time, the neighborhood Concepcion would center in office, was only beginning its growth from farmland to suburb within the city.
In 2002 he became the head of the 16 Acres Civic Association, which would become a base in his pursuit of elective office. He sought at-large seats in 2005 and 2007, but came up short both times. However, community activists in other neighborhoods had encountered similar disappointments and the change in the Council’s structure would prove to be a boon.
The heart of 16 Acres formed the eastern end of the Ward 5 district Concepcion would win in 2009. Then, as now, the ward moved westward into the southern end of Pine Point and parts the Hill neighborhoods.
The inaugural ward race in Ward 5 featured a crowd, if not quite the size of the one in the city’s first-ever special election for the same seat. Dejuan Brown and George Bruce, relations of current councilors Malo Brown and Lavar Click-Bruce respectively, did not make it pass the preliminary. Concepcion defeated one-term city councilor Carol Caulton-Lewis in the general election.
Click-Bruce, now Ward 5’s councilor, said he was “saddened” to hear of his predecessor’s death.
“Mr. Concepcion’s life is a shining example of community involvement and making a difference,” he said in the Council office released. “Mr. Concepcion arrived from Cuba in hopes for a better life and went right to work raising his family, and immediately got involved with the City of Springfield and our community.”
While he hated Fidel Castro, he was not a stereotypical Cuban right-winger. Speaking to Shea, he waxed rhapsodic about labor leader Cesar Chavez and Walter Reuther. He loved Franklin Roosevelt and had protested against the corrupt government of Fulgencio Batista, whom the United States had propped up.
“The rich had it all. The poor had nothing,” Concepcion told Shea. “It was a corrupt government. But we didn’t expect Castro to be a communist.”
Concepcion himself was active in the union at the plant he had worked and generally enjoyed labor support in his campaigns. As president of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers (IUE), Local 220, he oversaw at least one successful drive in 1992. The IUE merged into the Communication Workers of America in 2000.
Still, he was somewhat conservative in a very small “c” sense. Rarely did he support regime change in the small “d” democratic elections in and around Springfield. For example, in 2004, he backed the scandal-plagued rep Chris Asselin, pointing to his support for the Greenleaf Community Center.
But more significantly, Concepcion became a key Council ally for Mayor Sarno. The advent of ward representation had almost entirely reshuffled the deck of the municipal legislature. Conflict with the mayor was not immediate. Still, as differences between the branches of Springfield government waxed, waned and waxed again, Concepcion became among the few ward councilors whom Sarno could rely on.
The rare exception was his objection of the sale of the former School Department building on State Street. That notable dissent would prove prescient as the building’s redevelopment has carried on and on.
But support was more common than not. Sarno would not forget it.
“Years later, the community center would aptly be renamed in his honor, The Clodo Concepcion Community Center,” Sarno said in his remembrance statement.
Pointedly, that comment is in passive voice, but the change was anything but passive. The renaming occurred in the runup to the 2013 election. The honor may have been appropriate but it came the same month Concepcion faced opposition for reelection. Kyle Burns and Michael Belanger sought to unseat him with the latter surviving the preliminary. Any fear Concepcion was in danger was misplaced. He flattened Belanger in the general.
On the Council, Concepcion plugged neighborhood quality of life issues. Despite the renaming, he never secured a stop light at the entrance to the Greenleaf and now-Concepcion Community Center. He was generally pro-police, skeptical of social media and something of a Council rules maven. The more complex policy questions were not beyond him, but nor were they his favorite.
He opposed bills from the demolition-delay of historic buildings to the Council pay raise.
What may have been his downfall was not his votes but his narrow attention. In 2015, Marcus Williams outworked him on the ground. By contrast, Concepcion almost refused to campaign—proudly so—insisting his record would speak for itself.
Whether fairly or not, Williams took advantage of feelings of neglect outside 16 Acres. Though a person of color himself, Concepcion made less of an impression in the less white precincts of the ward.
Concepcion did not fade entirely after the defeat. As pols observed, he remained a presence at the Concepcion Community Center even after leaving 16 Acres Civic Association leadership. He was active in the quest to build a new senior center. That facility bears the name of another pol slightly behind his generation, Ray Jordan.
Whether a square or a stick in the mud—among the things this blog deemed him—Concepcion also had a quintessential American story. It was hyperlocal and global, fascinating and frustrating, historic and timeless. Love him or hate him, his was a Springfield story of the highest order.
“I want to make a difference,” Concepcion said in 2005. “I can make a difference. By being thoughtful and trustworthy. My yes is a yes. My no is no. I am my own man. Not a chameleon trying to figure out what you want me to be.”
Clodo Concepcion was 90.