The following was reported by Peter Schworm, Andrew Ryan, and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff and was written by Schworm.
At the end of the long line to Kevin White’s wake yesterday, Darcie Flanagan began to pay her respects. White had done a lot of good for the city in his four terms as Boston mayor, she told a friend, had helped make it the place it is today.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, when it felt like the city might explode in rage, he pleaded for calm, and people listened.
And when he held a birthday party on Beacon Hill, where Flanagan grew up, he let the whole neighborhood come, and even ran down to the Common to get a hurdy-gurdy man to come play.
“Everyone danced polkas,’’ she recalled. “Everyone in the neighborhood came.’’
Several thousand mourners, their memories of a political giant undimmed by the years, attended the wake for White, who led the city from 1968 to 1984. White died last week at 82 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2003.
Standing outside the Parkman House, just down from the State House, politicians in suits and overcoats waited with people in windbreakers and blue jeans, people who rarely find themselves on Beacon Hill. They remembered White for sweeping accomplishments, bustling commercial centers and skyscrapers that raised the city to new heights, and for small, personal gestures that often made a lasting difference.
Catherine Sexton, 80, rode the Blue Line from East Boston to thank White for a long-ago kindness. During the 1970s, city workers came unbidden to Sexton’s home after noticing that her son Richard used a wheelchair and asked if the family would like a cut in the curb outside.
“They just rang our doorbell and told us that they saw we had a need,’’ said Sexton, her voice strained with emotion. “They came without being asked. It’s something I’ll never forget.’’
Beside her, state Representative Martin Walsh of Dorchester recalled attending a rally for White when he was a boy, maybe 7 or 8. White was locked in a close mayoral race with Joseph F. Timilty at the time, and Walsh first experienced the energy of a political campaign.
Many mourners said they felt White handled the busing crisis of the 1970s as well as he could and credited his leadership with seeing the city through a turbulent time.
“I think he tried to bring people together,’’ said Joe McAdams, a Quincy resident who waited more than an hour to pay his respects.
Others recalled that White paid a steep political price for enforcing the desegregation order and probably lost any chance he had at running for higher office.
“I think maybe he was a politician who was willing to pay the price to do what was right,’’ said B.J. Finnell, 53, a Vermont resident who lived in Charlestown in the 1970s.
Nancy Macmillan, a 73-year-old who lives on Beacon Hill, said White prevented “a difficult situation from becoming even worse.’’
“He certainly didn’t do everything perfectly, but he did a pretty good job of defusing tensions,’’ she said.
Macmillan said White could be strong-willed, citing two occasions when he reversed the direction of traffic on Charles Street without first informing residents.
“We thought, ‘Well, Kevin has a mind of his own,’ ’’ she recalled.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who arrived shortly after the wake began at 2 p.m., said White “set the blueprint for the city that we’ve all followed.’’
White was a new breed of mayor, Menino said, a dynamic and personable figure who bridged the city’s old guard to its new, and pumped new life into an ailing city center.
“He had a vision for what downtown should be,’’ he said.
His accomplishments included remaking the fading Quincy Market into Faneuil Hall Marketplace; the building of the Copley Place complex; and reclaiming the Charlestown Navy Yard and the waterfront from the North End to Rowes Wharf.
Among those in attendance yesterday were US Representatives Barney Frank, Michael Capuano, and William Keating, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Therese Murray.
Governor Deval Patrick and US Senators Scott Brown and John F. Kerry are expected to attend White’s funeral today. The 11 a.m. service at St. Cecilia Church is open to the public.
The funeral procession will pause at White’s statue at Faneuil Hall and pass his home on Mt. Vernon Street before arriving at St. Cecilia on Belvidere Street.
Yesterday, White’s casket was placed on the second floor of the Parkman House, the Beacon Hill mansion owned by the city, and surrounded by lilies, roses, and carnations, said George Regan, a former aide to White who has spoken on his family’s behalf. Honor guards from the police and fire departments stood by.
Before the wake began, family and close friends participated in a prayer service, led by the Rev. John J. Unni, pastor of St. Cecilia’s.
White’s administrations were noteworthy for the many young, talented aides who went on to prominence, and many mourners expressed thanks for the help White had given their careers.
“I am who I am today in large part because of Kevin White,’’ said Joyce London Alexander-Ford. As a teenager, Alexander-Ford interned for three summers in White’s office when he was secretary of state. When she went to Howard University, White wrote a letter on her behalf to House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr., who then hired her as an intern.
She went on to become the country’s first African-American woman magistrate judge and the longest-serving magistrate judge in the history of the US District Court in Massachusetts.
As the sun set, White’s grandson, Ben Strawbridge, 18, greeted mourners like a veteran politician. With a city seal pin in the lapel of his suit jacket and a broad smile, he shook each hand, listened patiently to stories, and told them how much their presence meant to his family.
“When my grandfather looks down today, I know what he sees,’’ Strawbridge said. “All these people, all the lives he touched, big and small.’’