Kevin Hagan White, a colossal political figure who helped transform Boston into a world-class city during 16 often turbulent years as mayor, died last night in his Beacon Hill home, his family said. He was 82 and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about a decade ago.
A larger-than-life presence in his era, Mr. White had deep roots in the parochial old political culture of the city, but lightning instincts and a roving intellect that propelled him to national stature. Amid society-altering upheavals of the era - the civil rights movement, Vietnam War, and Watergate - he adapted and survived, at times reinventing himself.
From 1968 to 1984, Mr. White was chief executive of a fast-changing metropolis, which had emerged from decades of economic stagnation and insularity with an explosion of growth and construction downtown. But social change tore at the city’s fabric. Racial tension and violence during court-ordered school desegregation in the mid-1970s stained Boston’s image.
“He was a giant among mayors,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “I lost a good friend. I offered my condolences to Kathryn and the entire family. It’s a sad day for the city. But Kevin left an indelible mark that will never, ever be replaced.’’
“He helped make the city what it is today,’’ he said.
Raymond L. Flynn, a former city councilor who succeeded Mr. White as Boston’s mayor, said, “It’s no secret that Kevin and I were rivals for many years. But underneath that sometimes heated rivalry, rooted in different priorities, was a mutual respect. Kevin and I shared a deep love for this complex, fascinating city of Boston.’’
A gifted, instinctual, and mercurial politician, Mr. White had national ambitions that were thwarted at each turn. Two years after losing an ill-advised campaign for governor in 1970, he was George S. McGovern’s vice presidential choice for about two hours before being passed over. The tumult of the school busing crisis snuffed out his plans for a presidential candidacy in 1976.
Under Mr. White, Boston was a laboratory for urban policy experiments early in his administration. Later years in office were more stagnant, however, the result of chronic fiscal problems, a preoccupation with machine politics, and, ultimately, a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation that ensnared several dozen city employees and businessmen. Although he was never charged, the probe was a factor in the decision by a weary Mr. White not to seek a record fifth term.
Perhaps his greatest legacy was the young, idealistic talent Mr. White attracted to City Hall, which became an incubator for dozens of successful careers in politics, government, and business.
After the mayoralty, Mr. White maintained a low public profile, teaching at Boston University until his retirement around the time of his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Micho Spring, a top aide to Mr. White for eight years, last night described an administration fueled by the former mayor’s passion for the city and his determination to infuse City Hall with voices younger and more diverse than those usually heard in the precincts of power.
“For those of us who were attracted to city government, his political instincts, his innate leadership, his tenacity, and his wit made working for him a defining experience for our entire generation of very young people, and particularly people who had not traditionally been part of city government,’’ said Spring, now chairwoman of the global corporate practice for public relations firm Weber Shandwick.
“He really governed from conviction and what he thought was right for the city,’’ she said.
Former city councilor Lawrence S. DiCara, who worked with White at City Hall from 1972 to 1981, said, “It’s a sad day for Boston.’’ Thinking of the 10-foot-tall bronze statue of Mr. White outside City Hall, he added: “As far as I’m concerned, he deserves a statue that is bigger than life.’’
Governor Deval Patrick said last night that he was saddened by the news and his thoughts went out to the family.
“Mayor White led the city of Boston through turbulent times, creating a path to prosperity for the city,’’ he said.
The son and grandson of Boston City Council presidents, Mr. White grew up in Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, the oldest of four children of Joseph C. and Patricia (Hagan) White. After withdrawing from Cranwell, a Jesuit boarding school in Lenox, Mr. White, who was dyslexic, graduated near the bottom of his class at Tabor Academy in Marion, where he began to show leadership traits as class president and captain of the baseball team.
He received a bachelor’s degree from Williams College, and after graduating from Boston College Law School, split time between private law practice and a prosecutor’s job in the office of Suffolk District Attorney Garrett H. Byrne.
In a 1954 marriage of political clans, he wed Kathryn Galvin, one of seven daughters of William J. “Mother’’ Galvin, a former Boston City Council president from Charlestown.
Mr. White’s interest in pursuing a political career had developed by the time he was in high school. “He was captivated by my father’s career,’’ recalled Terrence H. White, his younger brother, and manager of Kevin’s early campaigns. “My father was a very charismatic guy, gregarious to the nth degree. Politics permeated the household.’’
The father-son relationship was very rocky and distant at times, however. “They were so much alike,’’ said Terry White. “As my mother used to say, my father was looking at his own shortcomings being graphically demonstrated in a teenager.’’
His mother, refined and literate, had a profound influence on Mr. White and his siblings, Terry White said.
Joe White, an old-school, glad-handing Democrat, had served in both chambers of the Legislature and on the old five-member elected School Committee before winning the first of five two-year terms on the City Council in 1951. He played a critical role in his son’s early political successes, but died before his son became mayor.
Kevin White made his mark mastering politics in the modern era of television, but his start was the product of old-fashioned, backroom political horse-trading.
In 1960, Mr. White ran for the Democratic nomination for the open position of secretary of state. To win the party’s nomination at what was then a binding convention, Mr. White’s father and father-in-law called in old markers, including a big chit from then-state Senate president John E. Powers, whom the elder White had backed in Powers’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign the previous year.
After two ballots, Kevin White was surging toward victory shortly before midnight at the party’s marathon convention in the old Boston Arena. At that point, Powers, chairing the convention, refused to recognize one of Mr. White’s opponents who was seeking to adjourn the convention to the following day in an effort to forestall the White momentum and regroup delegates, many of whom had left the hall. Fights broke out on the convention floor and police restored order. Mr. White prevailed on the third ballot to become the party’s nominee in November.
During the campaign, Mr. White was such a little-known figure that John F. Kennedy, the favorite-son US senator who was running for president, once introduced him at a rally as “Calvin Witt,’’ author J. Anthony Lukas wrote in “Common Ground,’’ his account of school desegregation in Boston, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. Mr. White beat a rising Republican star and future US senator, Edward W. Brooke, and went on to win reelection three times as state secretary.
Mr. White did not improve his relationship with the Kennedy clan in 1962 when he supported Edward J. McCormack Jr., the state attorney general from Boston, over John Kennedy’s younger brother, Edward M. Kennedy, in the race for the president’s old Senate seat. Edward Kennedy crushed McCormack, nephew of US House Speaker John W. McCormack, in the dynastic clash in the Democratic primary.
Restless to advance, Mr. White in 1967 joined nine others seeking to succeed John F. Collins, who was stepping down as mayor after eight years of stolid efficiency that launched urban renewal projects, providing the template for future growth. In the preliminary, Mr. White qualified for the two-candidate runoff by finishing second behind Louise Day Hicks, the School Committee member who had emerged as leader of the resistance to integrating the city’s schools and who ran under the slogan, “You know where I stand.’’
Breaking tradition, The Boston Globe issued its first candidate endorsement in 72 years by backing Mr. White, who defeated Hicks by 12,552 votes out of nearly 193,000 cast. That signaled the newspaper’s intense new interest in local politics under Thomas Winship, who had become editor two years earlier. It also began an almost symbiotic relationship between White and Winship, dominant figures in Boston for the next 16 years.
Mr. White drew bright young political talent, eager to use government as an instrument of social change. Then he delegated authority.
“He was a product of the Irish-American, mostly Democratic, political culture and he was a proud inheritor of that tradition,’’ US Representative Barney Frank, who served as Mr. White’s chief of staff from 1968 to 1970, said last night. “He was also the first mayor to open up Boston to new trends, hiring women and minorities. There was much more acceptance of a modern city.’’
Besides Frank, prominent White administration alumni include Frederick P. Salvucci, who became state transportation secretary and the driving force behind the Big Dig tunnel project; Anne M. Finucane, now Bank of America’s global strategy and marketing officer; Paul S. Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation; Robert R. Kiley, who headed the MBTA, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, and the London Underground; Spring; and Robert E. Travaglini, who served as state Senate president.
Mr. White was also an admirer of the approach and policies of John V. Lindsay, then mayor of New York City and breaking ground in a new style of activist urban government. Mr. White’s Little City Halls program installed in every Boston neighborhood the Lindsay model that brought services closer to constituents.
Mr. White also began a process of what Boston College historian Thomas O’Connor described as “selling the notion of ‘The New Boston,’ not just to the city and the neighborhoods, but he literally sold it to the world.’’
“He put Boston on the map and began to draw people in masses back into the city,’’ said O’Connor. The unofficial launch was the summer of 1976, when millions thronged Boston for visits by Queen Elizabeth II and the Tall Ships, as well as the national bicentennial celebration, which was highlighted by the Fourth of July Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade.
But years earlier, Mr. White had already begun to draw national notice.
In April 1968, as cities were exploding in rage after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. White persuaded WGBH-TV to broadcast a James Brown concert live from Boston Garden as a way to keep people in their homes. He also secured $60,000 to pay Brown for the loss of ticket revenue. Onstage that night, the Godfather of Soul called the mayor “a swingin’ cat.’’ Unlike many other major cities, Boston remained relatively calm.
In 1970, Mr. White challenged acting Governor Francis W. Sargent, an affable liberal Republican. Mr. White beat three others to win the Democratic nomination, but in the final, Sargent thumped him by about a quarter-million votes, even defeating the mayor in Boston, a Democratic stronghold. During the campaign, Mr. White suffered such a serious ulcer that he required surgery to remove more than half his stomach.
Seeking reelection a year after the gubernatorial fiasco, Mr. White faced four challengers - Hicks, then serving what would be a single term in Congress, and three city councilors, including the hard-charging Joseph F. Timilty, who would duel twice more with the mayor, most famously in their epic showdown in 1975.
Mr. White received less than a third of the vote to finish atop the preliminary field, again drawing Hicks in a final that proved anticlimactic. Mr. White won with nearly 62 percent of the vote.
In 1972, Mr. White came tantalizingly close to the national breakthrough he craved. While the Democratic National Convention in Miami prepared to nominate McGovern for president, Mr. White remained at his retreat at Monument Beach in Bourne. For about two hours, he was McGovern’s running mate, until Senator Kennedy, who was protective of his primacy in Massachusetts, and others in the Bay State delegation raised objections.
Mr. McGovern sheepishly withdrew the offer in a telephone conversation and turned to Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, who later withdrew in favor of R. Sargent Shriver after damaging disclosures about Mr. Eagleton’s past treatment for depression threatened to scuttle the ticket.
Political commentator Mark Shields, then a consultant who often advised Mr. White, was at the convention and learned of Kennedy’s role, the details of which would not be publicized until later that year.
“About a week after the convention, Kevin and I were having dinner in Boston, and I told him that Teddy had sabotaged him on the vice presidency,’’ Mr. Shields recalled many years later. “Kevin listens to it, and says, ‘Hey, I would’ve done the same thing to him if I had the chance.’ ’’
His hope of advancement again dashed, Mr. White turned to city business. By the time McGovern had suffered his crushing defeat at the hands of Richard M. Nixon in November, the mayor was moving to clean up corruption in the Boston Police Department, rocked that year when a raid on the home of a bookmaker turned up an alleged payoff list with the names of 58 police officers.
To modernize the force, Mr. White brought in a reformer, Robert J. diGrazia, who had been police superintendent in St. Louis County, Mo.
DiGrazia’s squeaky-clean posture and single-minded pursuit of uniformed miscreants over the next four years made the police commissioner a more trusted public figure in Boston than the man who appointed him.
A transformation to lordliness occurred in 1973 when Mr. White, at a cost of more than $600,000 in public and private funds, renovated the Parkman House on Beacon Hill. The 16-room mansion, a gift to the city in 1908, went from being the headquarters of the parks department to a place for public receptions. In short order, the mayor made it his private retreat.
There, Mr. White lavishly entertained visiting dignitaries. During times of austere city budgets, the exotic menu items from his elegant dinners routinely appeared in print, infuriating the mayor. The Parkman House came to embody Mr. White’s champagne tastes, indulged at taxpayer expense, irking critics and earning him the sobriquet “Mayor DeLuxe’’ from Peter Lucas, a columnist for the Boston Herald.
Self-assured to the point of arrogance in public, he was witty, humble, and often self-mocking in private, a former aide remembered.
As he geared up to run for a third term, however, Mr. White faced a much more serious problem, a crisis that consumed him and marked the beginning of the end of political ambition beyond City Hall. On June 21, 1974, US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued his order to desegregate the city’s schools, starting that fall.
For the rest of his life, Mr. White cast himself as a victim of the order.
The School Department technically fell under the purview of an independent, popularly elected School Committee which for years sanctioned a separate, unequal, and segregated public education system. But the city’s schools, like its public housing system, which also fell under court control on White’s watch, had never been a top priority of his mayoralty.
Garrity’s sweeping order, which called for busing across neighborhoods, produced tension and violence, much of it aired nightly in graphic, nationally televised news accounts. Mr. White tried futilely to defuse the situation, attending scores of neighborhood meetings while struggling to maintain public order.
Garrity’s findings were irrefutable, but his rigid orders stoked the chaos by cross-busing students from Roxbury, a black neighborhood, and working-class South Boston, the epicenter of resistance. The violence at times bordered on riots, despite the heavy police presence deployed by Mr. White to maintain order.
“I would not have opposed - I never did oppose - the fundamental concept of desegregation, but I would have fought harder, I think, or used my skills more in the spring [of 1974] and maybe it would have worked,’’ Mr. White told reporters as he prepared to leave office.
“I think busing would have worked except when they threw Jeremiah Burke [high school students] into Southie,’’ he said. “It was too much in pain, and I missed it . . ... I did it the wrong way. I did it too late.’’
After Mr. White left office in 1984, George K. Regan, his longest-serving spokesman, recalled the fallout in a personalized reminiscence of the White era.
“He was getting his head kicked in from both sides,’’ Mr. Regan wrote in the Globe. “He received no credit for his efforts, no matter how hard he tried. It was the most frustrating time of his life. Sometimes when he returned to City Hall late at night, there were tears in his eyes.’’
Clarence “Jeep’’ Jones, a long-time African-American aide who served as a deputy mayor, said Mr. White strove throughout the crisis to avoid alienating any of his constituencies, black or white. In the end, he satisfied neither.
The 1975 reelection campaign against Timilty was the backdraft of the political tinder box created by busing.
Compounding Mr. White’s problem were news reports of corrupt fund-raising on his behalf.
“The city was an armed camp,’’ recalled Shields, a key adviser on a team of all-star talent working to reelect Mr. White. “At a time when people were not satisfied with the direction of the city, Joe Timilty was an attractive option.’’
The contest split families in Boston. Mr. White, who made no secret of his disdain for Timilty, agreed to only one debate - on radio - in the campaign’s final month. The mayor, however, was under such strain that aides feared he would suffer a nervous breakdown, Lukas wrote in “Common Ground.’’
With the race tightening, two events conspired, by most accounts, to help Mr. White. First, the Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds dominated the news as they vied in a riveting seven-game, 12-day World Series that was extended three days by rain.
“It shortened the election season from three or four weeks down to a few days,’’ Mr. Timilty said years later. “You couldn’t find a reporter to write about the race. They were all at the games.’’ As was Mr. White, who attended the historic sixth game when Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk poled a game-winning home run in the 12th inning.
In addition, diGrazia, with his straight-arrow image, was thrust by the White campaign into the race several days before the election. DiGrazia said Timilty intended to replace him to please corrupt commanders diGrazia had forced out of the department. But he named no names and Timilty never recovered from the smear.
With that help, Mr. White eked out a slim victory, a margin of 7,436 votes out of 154,687 cast, or less than 5 percent.
In 1979, Mr. White again defeated Mr. Timilty. In contrast to ’75, Mr. White was looser and more spontaneous that year. Scott Miller, the mayor’s media consultant, recalled a telling moment during a concert on City Hall Plaza that year.
“There was a Ray Charles concert, and the crowd booed the mayor when he came on stage,’’ Miller recalled many years later. “Kevin says, ‘OK, we decided I’m gonna play the piano, and Ray will run for mayor.’ The crowd loved it, and he muttered into the microphone, ‘Ah, to be loved in your own city.’ ’’
That year, Miller and his partner, David Sawyer, turned their client’s brooding persona into an asset with their slogan, “The loner in love with the city,’’ borrowed from a Mike Barnicle column in the Globe. Mr. White won by 10 points. “An afterthought,’’ Timilty later described the final installment of the White-Timilty trilogy.
The ’79 race against Timilty marked the penultimate chapter of one of Boston’s long-running feuds. The archrivals eventually made peace, at Mr. White’s initiation, ending what Timilty in 2005 called “about 20 years of disliking each other intensely.’’
It began with a phone call in 1993, as Timilty was preparing to start a four-month federal prison sentence on a fraud conspiracy charge linked to his role in financing a failed condominium development. On the phone was Mr. White, who had endured and survived nearly a decade of withering scrutiny by federal prosecutors.
“He said, ‘I think you got screwed, but you handled it as best you could,’ ’’ Timilty recalled his old nemesis saying. “It was a brief conversation. I thanked him. It was a classy act that washed a lot of the old ink.’’
More than a decade after that call, the two had a chance meeting on Newbury Street in the Back Bay. “He gave me a big hug and said, ‘Call me. I want to take you to lunch,’ ’’ Timilty said. They never had that lunch, however.
A few years earlier, their children reconciled the warring clans. When Gregory Timilty ran and lost for City Council in 1999, Patricia H. White, the youngest of Mr. White’s five children, actively supported him. The young Timilty returned the favor when Patricia White followed suit four years later, also losing a bid for the council. She lost again in another council bid in 2005.
Patricia White, whose older brother, Mark, lost a state Senate race in 1986, described her interest in politics as “probably genetic.’’ She said she and her siblings “weren’t cultivated to get into politics. My parents really separated the kids from their public life and the work they did.’’
Her father, absent from home for long periods, particularly in campaign years, nevertheless was an enormous presence in the family’s life. “Mercurial, petulant, larger than life. All the words that were used to describe him, he brought them all home with him,’’ she said.
Within months of taking the mayoral oath for a third time, Mr. White began the process of becoming a boss in the mold of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Eager to avert another serious challenge, Mr. White ordered the creation of a fine-tuned political organization, with coordinators in the city’s 22 wards and captains in every precinct, then numbering 252. Most were city employees. The upshot, critics said, was the politicization of city services.
By 1978, when Mr. White led the fight for a statewide tax classification referendum to benefit small-property owners, the machine was running full bore. Top operatives at City Hall won pay raises for their political work. In 1981, the White machine was an issue when “The Kevin Seven,’’ an informal slate of City Council candidates, ran. Only one was elected.
A few years later, Mr. White defended the change during an interview with editors and reporters of what was then the Boston Herald-American, saying: “In my early days, I hired nothing but talent. But they didn’t know how to fight in the bureaucratic jungle. . . ... So I took some neighborhood people and tried to make them what I consider myself to be - someone who loves politics and who’s also good at management.’’
If his political style was turning prosaic, Mr. White’s governance was producing stylish landmarks that became a more tangible part of his legacy. In 1976, Faneuil Hall Marketplace opened, a monumental refurbishment of the deteriorating Quincy Market complex that Mr. White’s City Hall office overlooked. Suddenly, an eyesore of open stalls and warehouses became a “festival marketplace,’’ much copied in other US cities. Decades later, it remains a centerpiece of urban vitality.
It was a source of great pride to Mr. White, who, late in his final term, meted out mayoral credit for various redevelopments.
“The Prudential Center is [John B.] Hynes,’’ he told a reporter, referring to the former mayor. “Center Plaza and City Hall belong to John Collins. But Faneuil Hall,’’ he said, pointing his thumb to his chest, “Faneuil Hall is mine!’’
There were other successes - and failures - but in 1983 as he prepared to leave office, Mr. White stood over a scale model of downtown and proudly kept score for a reporter: 38 new office buildings since 1968, 50 more renovated, and 17 hotels built or planned. The triumphs included Copley Place and the reclamation of the Charlestown Navy Yard and waterfront, from the North End to Rowes Wharf.
But as much as he presided over the remaking of Boston’s skyline, Mr. White also politicized the labyrinthine process, opening himself to charges that only favored developers need apply. Despite his efforts, Mr. White was unable to deliver the original proposal of Mortimer Zuckerman for a mammoth, 35-acre, five-skyscraper plan for Park Plaza. The 1971 blueprint, which collapsed in 1977 under the weight of intense opposition from preservationists, called for a series of 30- to 60-story towers.
“Kevin White was an extraordinary man, who did a lot of great things for the city of Boston, but we fought over a lot of things, including Park Plaza,’’ said Henry Lee, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, which was created to fight Zuckerman’s plan. “He told me in 2003 he thought we were right.’’
A year into his final term, another element of the White legacy began to emerge: corruption at City Hall. Suffolk County and US prosecutors were already assembling cases against a few mid-level officials when the news hit in March 1981 that city employees were being asked to donate to a birthday celebration honoring the mayor’s wife. These were not political donations but gifts, $122,000 in all before Mr. White, engulfed in a furor of outrage and preliminary inquiries, canceled the event.
That July, President Ronald Reagan appointed a little-known Republican lawyer, William F. Weld, as US attorney. Expanding an existing probe, Weld and an elite team of prosecutors launched a dragnet-like investigation into seemingly every aspect of Mr. White’s administration and his personal finances.
The results - a barrage of indictments, guilty pleas, and convictions - became Weld’s chief credential when he won the first of two terms as governor in 1990. His investigation produced charges of fraudulent disability pensions, bribery, extortion, and perjury that brought down several dozen businessmen and city employees, including a number of key operatives in Mr. White’s political machine.
Mr. White and those close to him maintained he was clean. But in a 1988 interview, he recalled a 1983 poll he commissioned that showed “something like 75 percent of the people thought I and my administration were corrupt.
“Typical of the Irishman, I said, ‘Let ’em drop dead,’ ’’ Mr. White remarked. “But I really don’t think people believed that of me. Crazy? Maybe. Time to go? OK. But I don’t think anyone believed there was deep corruption at the top.’’
As the federal investigation crested, a large and talented field of candidates assembled to challenge the vulnerable incumbent. A year before the election, the Globe, dependably supportive of his past candidacies, advised him not to run again. “Of the half-dozen candidates now running, any of them would be preferable to Kevin White in 1983,’’ the editorial said.
Mr. White was so wounded by the rebuke that for a decade he did not speak to Martin F. Nolan, the editorial page chief and author of the editorial. Nevertheless, Mr. White remained coy about his intentions, and in the early months of the election year, the beleaguered mayor’s future became the dominant subject of discussion and speculation.
Always possessing a flair for the dramatic, Mr. White had a remarkable ability to command the media’s attention at levels rarely seen since his exit from the public stage. In spring 1983, as the deadline for filing nomination papers approached, the frenzy was especially intense. Reporters staked out his office and home on the flat of Beacon Hill, and headed to New York City where the mayor, with his chief advisers and media handlers, was videotaping his announcement.
On the morning of May 26, the Boston Herald broke out its largest type for a front-page headline, “White Will Run.’’ The newspaper’s star columnist, Lucas, who, by prearrangement, interviewed Mr. White by telephone the previous night, wrote the famously wrong three-paragraph story without specifically identifying as his source the mayor he had needled in recent years, and who later admitted he misled him.
That night, Mr. White announced he would not seek another term. “There will be no ‘Last Hurrah’ for this city,’’ he declared in a five-minute paid political announcement broadcast on three Boston television stations and nine radio stations.
In addition to his wife and brother, Mr. White leaves two sons, Christopher of North Carolina and Mark of Newton; three daughters, Caitlin G. White Strawbridge of Belmont, Elizabeth of Hingham, and Patricia of Newton; a sister, Maureen Mercier, of Gross Pointe Farms, Mich.; and several grandchildren.
Stephanie Ebbert, Andrew Ryan, Bryan Marquard, and Stephen Smith of the Globe staff and Globe correspondent Amanda Cedrone contributed to this report. Brian C. Mooney can be reached at email@example.com.