Change has come gradually over the past half-century to the cluster of close-knit residential streets near the town’s southeastern boundary known as Bedford Gardens.
Last month, however, there was a major transition, when Jim Pray went to live with one of his children after more than 50 years in a Neillian Street duplex.
Pray, who as a senior citizen has been a walking marketing campaign for the neighborhood, greeting motorists and children day after day, said, “I would like to thank all of those people who have been so nice to me over the past several years.”
The residential lot sizes in Bedford Gardens can’t accommodate large single-family houses with extensive landscaping. “I don’t need that stuff. I’m perfectly happy with my family,” said Pray, who is 86.
“He is a true family man,” agreed his daughter-in-law, the former Susan Hennrikus, who with her husband John Pray has welcomed him into their Chelmsford household.
“It always has been a family neighborhood with lots of children,” Jim Pray said. “The people were absolutely great. I had great neighbors. They were always there to help, and I tried to help them as much as I could”
Bedford Gardens is a network of more than 200 duplexes east of South Road and on both sides of Summer Street, also comprising Marion Road, Saran Avenue, Genetti Street, Genetti Circle, Neillian Street, Neillian Way and parts of Fayette Road and Evergreen Avenue. Assessors’ records say the houses were constructed between 1955 and 1959.
There aren’t many people around who remember the details of the Gardens’ origin. Town Historian Sharon McDonald found an announcement from the summer of 1953 about federal approval of 122 units in Bedford for “defense housing,” with contracts awarded by a Boston corporation called Bedford Gardens Inc.
The statement said “all military personnel on duty with the Air Force Cambridge Research Center (which was the major command at Hanscom Field) are eligible for programmed housing in this area. Also eligible are civilian personnel coming into the area and employed by the electronics, geophysics and atomic warfare divisions of the center.”
James Pray grew up in a part of Pennsylvania best known for coal and lumber. After high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, specializing in radar. When he was assigned to Hanscom Field in 1953, “it was just dirt roads and Quonset huts.” He also spent some time in Derry, NH, on a temporary duty assignment for Lincoln Laboratory.
Pray married Betty Lou Brenton of Lexington in 1956, and they returned to Pennsylvania, where his father owned a couple of businesses. “She didn’t like it – there was nothing there,” he recalled. So they returned to this area, moving to Bedford in 1961.
There were a lot of other housing options on and around the base when Jim and Betty Lou moved into the Gardens in 1967 with their three children, Debbie, John, and Peter. The house belonged to his sister-in-law, Pray said. He paid rent for 53 years. Now he has six grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren between the ages of 3 and 11. “I love them all and they love me,” he exclaimed. Betty Lou passed away in 2001.
Pray was a plumber throughout his working years, but it was kind of accidental. “My wife’s uncle was at the house one Sunday. He was a plumber and he said, ‘Why don’t you come over and I’ll give you a couple of days’ work?’ I ended up going to plumbing school in Boston and I got my license.”
He has seen the inside of a lot of houses around here, occasionally in the middle of the night – “You never get used to that.” One of the larger buildings he serviced was the former Llewsac Lodge senior residence, which 40 years ago was absorbed onto the Carleton-Willard Village. Pray retired from plumbing in 1997.
Over the decades the neighborhood has changed, sometimes obviously, other times more subtly. Many of the duplexes are now condominiums instead of rental apartments. And several of the homeowners have added upper floors.
The neighborhood is geographically closer to the Hanscom Field runway than other parts of town – indeed in the 1940s the main gate to the brand new airfield was at the end of South Road. The squadron of fighter jets attached to the Air Force base departed when the Massachusetts Port Authority took over the runway operation in 1974. Now Hanscom Field is the second busiest airport in New England, and Pray said “I lived there so long I don’t even notice it.”
The railroad tracks connecting Bedford Depot to the world ran behind Evergreen Avenue, but the Buddliner that served the town made its last run in January 1977. Today it’s the Minuteman Bikeway; Pray said he used to access the trail at Loomis Street and South Road and walk to Lexington.
There used to be a little farm at the end of Evergreen Avenue, owned by the Yauckoes family. “We used to walk down that farm road, and Mrs. Yauckoes had geese that would chase the kids,” laughed Susan. A developer purchased the land and built single-family homes a few years ago.
Pray’s neighborly horizons were expanded with the construction of the Liberty Road subdivision on the former Eisenhauer land on the west side of South Road. The acreage was undeveloped for decades while it was leased by Massachusetts Institute of Technology for antenna testing.
“When I walk on Liberty, I meet the kids getting off the school bus. They get all excited because they get to call this old man by his first name,” Pray laughed. “The people on Liberty are wonderful – they treated me absolutely great.”
His walks became legendary on social media. “The neighbors love him. They’ve given him gifts and notes and even rocks they painted with wonderful phrases” as parting gifts, Susan said. He received a note from a commuter who said his morning wave “took their mind off work and they really enjoyed them.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763
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