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The Breakfast Club: How Faust and Walsh forged an unlikely friendship

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Harvard University president Drew Faust shared breakfast at McKenna’s Cafe.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Harvard University president Drew Faust shared breakfast at McKenna’s Cafe.

On Friday morning, as customers streamed into the cramped dining room of McKenna’s Cafe in Dorchester, two of the city’s most recognizable leaders sat down for one last breakfast.

Amid the clatter of coffee cups and morning din, no one seemed to take much notice as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Harvard University president Drew Faust sat at a small table in the back and talked quietly.

Despite a sometimes frosty relationship between Harvard and Boston over the years, or maybe because of it, the two have met for breakfast regularly for much of the past half-decade, forging what they say is a genuine friendship over bacon and eggs.

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Now, with Faust slated to retire on June 30, they’d returned to the place it all started, some four years earlier.

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“Right at this table,” Walsh said.

Walsh, then the newly minted mayor of Boston, had wanted to acquaint himself with the area’s college leaders and reached out to Faust.

“I thought it was great to bring the president of Harvard to McKenna’s,” Walsh says of the no-frills restaurant, where $5.50 will get you two eggs, home fries, bacon, and toast. “And at the time, I lived across the street, so it was a 35-second commute.”

Another breakfast date followed, this time at her house across the river in Cambridge.

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“I remember you were looking around the house and you said, ‘I would never believe I’d be having breakfast in this house with the president of Harvard,’ ” Faust said. “And I said, ‘I could never have believed that I would be in this house as the president of Harvard.’ ”

In those early encounters, Walsh and Faust’s relationship was largely predicated on business. They talked programs, issues — shared their respective visions for the institutions they were charged with leading.

They bonded over a shared sense of awe at the directions their lives had taken — Faust, the longtime history professor who’d risen to president of one of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning; Walsh, the Dorchester-raised building trades head-turned-big-city mayor.

Over time, their bond grew.

“I deal with a lot of people on a daily basis,” Walsh said. “I would call them a friend, but it would be somewhat of a loose term: We have a business relationship, we want to do business in the city, we want to bring businesses here.

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“But then there’s a friendship.”

In the few years they’ve known each other, Walsh and Faust have become sounding boards for one another, even texting buddies; after Walsh’s public statements about DACA and immigrants last September, Faust sent him a congratulatory text.

Today, Faust speaks admiringly about the manner in which Walsh so easily interacts with members of the public; Walsh touts his friend’s success as the leader of what is arguably the world’s leading educational institution.

In the four or five years they’ve known each other, Walsh said, they’ve never had an argument.

As breakfast wrapped up Friday, the mayor was already beginning to contemplate life after Faust — the first female president in Harvard’s nearly 400-year history and a woman regularly ranked among the most influential in the world.

“I’m happy for her, I congratulate her,” he said. “But I think it’s a gaping hole in the sense of women leadership in our country.”

Despite Faust’s imminent retirement, both seem keen on keeping the relationship going.

At one point in the conversation, Walsh mentioned he’d spoken recently with the Harvard men’s basketball coach, and Faust — a basketball fan sensing an opportunity — quickly jumped in.

“Would you come to a basketball game?” she asked.

“I’d love to,” Walsh replied.

Dugan Arnett
can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.