Thursday, April 10, 2014

LAKEVIEW PAVILION FIRE: Former foe - Bill Milhomme- of Pavilion sheds tears

Time was when Bill Milhomme would have been the last person to shed a tear for Lakeview Pavilion.

Back in the late 1980s, concerned about the safety of kids on the narrow, residential Lakeview Road, Milhomme would badger selectmen about the risks of allowing alcohol at large functions in a neighborhood.

"I fought them for years and kept them from having an all-alcoholic liquor license," Milhomme said, referring to the Kourtides family, which bought the property in 1988. "There was a lot of animosity. We were deathly afraid -- we were just concerned for our children."

With Milhomme, a strong-willed and outspoken Foxboro native, beating the anti-alcohol drum in Town Hall, Lakeview's owners for years had to settle for obtaining one-day liquor licenses from selectmen for their weddings and other functions.

All that has changed.

The town finally granted Lakeview an all-alcohol license in 1994, according to town records.

Milhomme said he agreed to end his campaign against the liquor license application on condition that the owners create a charitable trust to provide annual scholarships to Foxboro High School students.

He said the Lakeview Pavilion Charitable Trust has been awarding three scholarships a year, many of them to students going into culinary arts, for nearly than two decades.

The trust also paid for many new museum passes at Boyden Library.

But there is so much more to the story of why Milhomme, a 1968 graduate of FHS, had to dry his eyes Monday when talking about what Lakeview's owners have done for the town, the neighborhood and his family.

Milhomme, 63, an abutter of the banquet hall, choked up while speaking of the care which sisters Anastasia Tsoumbanos and Natalia Kapourelakos showed for his wife when she was battling breast cancer.

Donna Milhomme has tested cancer free since November, 2012. When she was going through 16 weeks of chemotherapy, "someone from the kitchen would show up at our door with an aluminum pan and in there would be the dinner that they were serving for that event," Bill said.

Whatever Lakeview's guests were eating, his family was served. "They knew what we were going through."

Then there were the holiday gestures to various abutters. The day before each Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, he said, "we would come home from work and there would be a turkey or a ham, sometimes chocolates, a bottle of wine, and a holiday card from the staff."

More importantly, Milhomme said, Anastasia and Natalia established trust by running their business with distinction.

"That family plowed tons of money into that building," turning it into a attraction to be proud of, he said. "They did their best to keep their word in everything they did," Milhomme said. "They always tried to meet us more than halfway. They really are concerned about the neighborhood."

"They always tried to address our concerns," he said, including by busing wedding parties from area hotels, which reduced traffic impacts and helped prevent drunk driving.

When neighbor and retired Foxboro school principal John J. Ahern died, "they put on a spread at Lakeview Pavilion for everyone at the funeral," and accommodated many community events.

When the town lost electricity for days in a warm-weather storm "they opened their freezers -- anyone on Lakeview Road could come down and get ice," he said.

Calling the owners "sticklers for cleanliness," he said that in the spring they would rent two, 30-yarddumpsters for neighborhood residents to dispose of yard and garage waste.

Because the pavilion's grounds are beautiful, he said, some people would use the gazebo for graduation photos or other pictures -- even when not attending a function there.

"That ballroom was more than just a structure up there," Milhomme said. "That's where all of my kids learned to ride bikes, that's where my children learned how to park cars...I even saw a hot air balloon land there. People take walks along Lakeview Pond. People park and fish there during the summer."

Referring to the fire last Saturday, which he witnessed, he said, "This just breaks my heart."

At about 6:45 p.m., he and Donna were driving away when they saw a fire truck coming down Lakeview Road. Because there have been many false alarms over the years at Lakeview and many other businesses, the Milhommes at first were not concerned.

But with many trucks and police cruisers arriving fast, he said, Donna insisted the couple, now at the nearby Stop & Shop, head home.

"As soon as we pulled into our access road we could see the flames and Donna just broke down in tears. She said, 'Oh my god.' She started shaking and crying."

The parking lot was full of the wedding people and wait staff, and four hoses were pouring water onto the structure.

"I honestly thought they were going to put this thing out," he said, adding that he had two other thoughts: for people's safety, and for history.

For 20 years, Milhomme was the reference supervisor for the Massachusetts Archives in Boston, and has chronicled the life of the ballroom in photos and videos.

"People were waiting, literally, to go back in. Then came a point where I thought, 'Oh my God. They're not going to put this out.' It just took off."

Among the spectators, he heard comments like, "Is that water or gasoline they're putting on there."

At that point, he went home. "I wasn't going to watch it die," he said of the building.

A TV reporter, late on the scene, knocked on his door and he agree to share his phone video footage, which ran on Channel 5 and CNN.

He said his wife was "brokenhearted," and they both remembered that a relationship that began in strife long ago evolved into a shared family history, as the two sisters each raised their two children and the Milhommes raised a family.

"They've proven to us over 28 years that they are who they say they are," he said.

He went back to the fire scene Sunday morning, and he saw Natalia.

"I looked at her, she looked at me, we hugged, and she cried."


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