Hillel StavisPaul (Paolo) Parravano, longtime town resident and volunteer. / Photo courtesy MIT

His lack of eyesight never limited him

UPDATED Jan. 6: Paul (Paolo) Parravano, a longtime resident who served on two town quasi-governmental entities, died Dec. 9 in his Arlington home after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer at age 71. Memorial services are planned for March. Meanwhile, family, friends and colleagues honor his legacy as a remarkable man who devoted his life to public policy, science and advocacy. 

Parravano’s life was greatly influenced by his upbringing. His family immigrated from Italy in 1949, and Parravano was born in 1952 in Princeton, N.J. The Parravano family eventually settled in Michigan. His father, Giuseppe, was a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan. His mother, Ernesta, spent time volunteering for several charities. The two raised him and his siblings with an emphasis on the importance of knowledge and generosity, his obituary said.

Parravano was persistent in honoring these values despite challenges. At just 18 months old, he developed retinoblastoma, a childhood cancer that led to the loss of his eyesight.  He continued to grow and flourish, however, guided by the support of his family, who sought and found various ways to keep him included in activities. According to his obituary, he was active in horseback riding and was an avid wrestler in high school. Throughout his life, he was inspired to improve not just his own existence, but also the quality of life for everyone with disabilities. 

Became department co-director

Parravano earned his bachelor's degree in political science and government from Harvard University and went on to obtain his law degree from Northeastern University so as to become ready to commit his career toward promoting accessibility. 

In 1990, he started working at MIT as an assistant for government and community relations. Within seven years, he became the department’s co-director. In this role, he worked with public officials, advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations at local, state and national levels. He also established and participated in regular visits with government leaders in Washington, D.C., to help advance the cause of science and research.

In June 2022, Parravano became the inaugural recipient of the MIT Staff Award for Distinction in Service. At the award ceremony, he was referred to as the “Mayor of MIT.”

“He seemed to know everyone, and everyone seemed to know him,” wrote Sarah Gallop, director of government and community relations at MIT. “Paul’s friendliness and kindness were legendary. He will be greatly missed on campus and in the Cambridge community.” In her email to YourArlington, she noted that she had worked with him for 33 years. 

“Paul was a tremendous colleague in every sense of the word – thoughtful, caring and considerate. It always felt as if we could solve any problem together,” Gallop wrote. 

'We were very lucky'

After meeting his wife, Martha, in Brookline Village, the two made Arlington their home in 1994 and raised their two daughters together here in town. 

“We were very lucky to find a true community of friends and neighbors here. I can’t imagine a better place to have raised our girls.

For years, until Covid, Paul made the commute from Arlington to MIT on the 78 bus, every day, rain or shine or snow,” Martha Parravano wrote in an email.

She recalled that he knew every bus driver and even got to know regular riders. 

Service on committee, commission, board

Parravano was an active town resident, adding invaluable contributions to the Election Modernization Committee and also serving as a member of Arlington’s Disability Commission, those who knew him said.

With the former, he worked alongside the chair of the committee, Greg Dennis, who told YourArlington that Parravano was determined to champion better voting options for blind and low-vision residents. His personal experience of being unable to independently vote due to inaccessible voting machines helped raise awareness townwide. According to Dennis, through efforts reaching out to Arlington’s neighboring communities, Parravano realized that this issue wasn’t just townwide but also statewide.

“He authored a pointed letter to the secretary of state, decrying the declining health of accessible voting machines statewide and imploring the secretary to authorize new machines for purchase, so that voters across the commonwealth would be able to cast ballots independently regardless of their visual acuity,” Dennis wrote.

Additionally, Parravano was a board member of National Braille Press, where he advocated for the greater use of Braille in public spaces, on everything from restaurant menus to voting booths to utility bills. 

Those who knew him say that they will remember him as someone who lived a meaningful life and whose patience, passion and excellent humor were admired by many. Parravano loved good music, food, travel and sports, particularly soccer; he often attended his youngest daughter’s soccer games at Arlington High School.

'Did so much good'

“He was the best man I’ve ever known or will ever know. He did so much good in the world. We will love and miss him forever,” Martha Parravano wrote.

The obituary states that he had requested that his remains be donated to medical research, holding true to his commitment to supporting research and science.

A memorial in his honor, to be held at MIT, is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday, March 23. 

This article based on information from Sarah Gallop of MIT, Greg Dennis of Arlington and Martha Parravano was published Friday, Jan. 5, 2024. It was updated Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, to add the time and date of the memorial service.