Former Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone Receives Presidential Medal

The award recognizes his long service to the city and his collaborative partnership with Tufts 

Joe Curtatone, who served as the mayor of Somerville for 18 years, was awarded the Presidential Medal from Tufts President Anthony Monaco at a ceremony on November 21. 

The award recognized Curtatone’s distinguished service as the city’s longest-serving mayor, from 2004 to 2022. His leadership helped Somerville earn an All-America City Award from the National Civic League and prompted the Boston Globe to proclaim it the “best-run city in America.”  

“Joe put Somerville on the map and Tufts University is so fortunate to call it home,” Monaco said in presenting the award.    

The medal, established in 1976 to recognize people or institutions that have had a special impact on the university, also reflected Curtatone’s efforts as a collaborative partner with Tufts University. 

Dayna Cunningham, dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, praised Curtatone as the kind of leader who understands that universities “are an integral part of the community and, at the same time, that we have a responsibility—and a great opportunity—to be in community with the people who live around our campuses. To break down the silos and the traditional ‘town and gown’ tensions with an eye to the greater good.” 

Cunningham enumerated some of the projects that have brought Tufts researchers and students into the community, including studies on pollution from highway and roadways; work with the City Elections Office through JumboVote; and long-standing student placements with the Welcome Project, Somerville Homeless Coalition, Community Action Agency of Somerville, and the Somerville Public Schools.  

Perhaps most famous was Shape Up Somerville, the world’s first community-based approach to reversing the trends of childhood obesity, led by Friedman School professor and dean ad interim Christina Economos. Curtatone noted how the research inspired First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative and brought Curtatone to the White House in 2010.  

“The university leads with values,” Curtatone said. “It not only talks about civic life and civic commitment, it embeds it in everything they do.  

As close as the university and its host city were before 2020, Monaco and Curtatone agreed that the COVID crisis forged an even stronger bond.  

Curtatone recalled: “It was Tufts and Tony who reached out before the pandemic officially hit and said, ‘Mayor, this is going to be bad. Here’s what’s going to happen, and here’s how I want to make the university available to protect our community.’” 

It began with the university offering campus space for first responders and led to a Tufts-developed pooled testing model for Covid being implemented in Somerville public schools “for testing our kids to get back to school safely,” Curtatone said. 

The testing initiative “was completely frowned upon by state leaders,” Curtatone said, and yet “that was the model that saved lives.”  

From the very early days of the pandemic, Monaco said, Curtatone understood the gravity of the situation and the swift action that was needed to keep our communities safe. “It helped that we both liked numbers and evidence-based decisions,” he added. 

The two leaders began talking on an almost daily basis. “We knew that if we were going to make it through this pandemic that we needed to work together,” Monaco said.

More than 200 of the former mayor’s friends, family, staff, and fellow elected officials, as well as many of the Tufts staff and faculty members who worked with the mayor’s office over the years, attended the event on the Medford/Somerville campus.  

Curtatone’s successor, Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, spoke about his “excellent heart and grit” as well as his long list of accomplishments. During Curtatone’s time in office, Somerville developed a comprehensive net zero climate action plan, created housing and jobs by redeveloping former industrial districts, built a new high school, added a new Orange Line station at Assembly Row, and began work on the Green Line Extension.  

In accepting the award, Curtatone credited city administrators, community workers, and his staff.  

“This is for you, all of you,” he said. “We’re the best public administration in the country.”  

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