A man known as a champion of underdogs — and for provoking city officials — died last weekend in a motorcycle crash.
At the age of 46, James Bickford had strong opinions about a lot of things, including food. With friends, he started Bring Your Own Restaurant, an outdoor pop-up potluck.
“You don’t get invited; you just show up,” Bickford told us six years ago, at a BYOR at an abandoned gas station. “It’s not a club; it’s not a party; it’s about being neighbors. And I think that eating food together is one of the most intimate things that you can do in public.”
This was one way Bickford — by day at MassMutual, by night a parent to three girls and a boy, an artist and musician — brought people together to support a city he loved.
He was also a sharp-tongued writer who, on his blog and in-person, went after elected officials he believed weren’t doing their jobs.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who Bickford helped get elected, claimed this week that he found those tactics beneficial.
“I think James gives — gave me the avenue on which to examine issues in a more critical way,” Morse said.
Issues like Morse’s flip-flop on casinos. Bickford was outraged.
Not everyone appreciated Bickford’s jabs. What he called First Amendment rights, several city councilors called harassment.
A few years before Morse was elected, Rory Casey, now the mayor’s chief of staff, ran in the same crowd of people as Bickford — cheerleaders for Holyoke, long one of the state’s poorest cities. Their approaches with the city’s “old guard” differed.
It got nasty, but not personal, Casey said, and they became friends.
“I know you can’t put this on the air, but he was an asshole,” Casey said, laughing.
And Bickford, the provocateur, loved the label.
“He wanted to press buttons,” Casey said. “He wanted to have people react to something.”
Bickford stood up for public housing residents. He stopped a Super Walmart. That’s when reporter Mike Plaisance from The Republican got to know him.
“Bickford was a really interesting guy,” Plaisance told us this week. “I began disliking him greatly.”
That dislike began a few years earlier. After a mayoral debate, Bickford told Plaisance his questions were stupid. Plaisance said Bickford pushed him. Bickford told him it was an accident.
When Plaisance’s editor assigned him the Walmart story, he got in touch with Bickford.
“And I said — listen — we’re both here,” Plaisance recalled. “We have to try to get along. I’d like to see if we could meet and have a common ground.”
They became sources for each other and even friends. Plaisance said he didn’t always agree with him, but Bickford kept Holyoke officials on their toes.
The night after Bickford’s death, some of those officials were among the friends who gathered at a spontaneous Bring Your Own Restaurant — a potluck in James Bickford’s honor.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Bickford was parent to four girls. It should have said three girls and one boy.