Boston bade farewell yesterday to Kevin Hagan White in a historic funeral that celebrated the “incandescent energy’’ of a singular man and marked the end of an era that created the modern city.
The funeral Mass for the former longtime mayor at St. Cecilia Catholic Church served as both a solemn burial rite and a rousing political roast, evoking White’s devotion as a father, his magnetism as a leader, and his occasional missteps as a politician.
The mourners - who included Governor Deval Patrick, Senator John F. Kerry, and pew after pew of elected officials past and present - oscillated between laughter and tears. But through the wry one-liners and sentimental stories, a larger theme emerged about public service and the work White inspired.
“We’re here today celebrating . . . the extraordinary life of a man who exemplified politics and government at its best,’’ said Representative Barney Frank, the Newton Democrat who served as one of White’s top aides. “We’re here celebrating what government means.’’
White, who presided over the city from 1968 to 1984, died Friday at age 82 after battling Alzheimer’s disease for a decade. His funeral felt like a distinct milestone in Boston’s history, signaling more than the passing of the man responsible for reviving Boston’s waterfront, remaking the skyline, and surviving the racial perils of court-ordered busing.
White’s casket was guided by pallbearers and a 50-plus member honor guard of former staff members and confidants who rose to become political, civic, and business giants who for decades have shaped the city, state, and beyond. They wore campaign buttons and white carnations on their lapels in homage to their former boss. As a group, they have grayed and are slowly receding from the public eye. Frank, for example, is not running for reelection after more than three decades in Congress.
But yesterday, in eulogies and the retelling of political war stories, idealistic visions hatched during the White administration crackled again with possibility.
“Those were the good old days, weren’t they?’’ said Robert Q. Crane, the former state treasurer who was one of White’s closest friends. “Looking around the church today, I can see that they all come back to Kevin. They always do.’’
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the only man in history to lead Boston longer than White, sat with his wife, Angela, in the front row, facing the massive marble altar in the Back Bay church. Greeting mourners at the start of the service, Menino recalled how he won elected office as a “wet-behind-the-ears city councilor’’ as White was preparing to leave City Hall. When Menino became mayor in 1993, he said he almost immediately called White for advice.
“I am privileged to sit in the chair he sat in,’’ Menino said, adding, “With his style, his wit, his big smile, he made us proud to be Bostonians. For those of us in public service, he showed what a difference one leader can make.’’
Perhaps the most moving moment came when Crane mused aloud about slowly losing White to Alzheimer’s. He spoke of the devotion demonstrated by White’s wife, Kathryn, who personified the marriage vow she took more than five decades ago to love him in sickness and in health.
“Never once did you give into fear, frustration, or fatigue,’’ Crane told Kathryn White as she wiped tears from her eyes. “Never once did you complain. . . .. You were magnificent. You were fantastic. You were his Florence Nightingale. You were his angel.’’
Every mourner in the church stood in unison in a thundering ovation to Kathryn White. But that moment, like each twinge of sadness, quickly yielded to laughter. The tone was set by the White family, who teased the honor guard before the service that when they were in the presence of Mayor White, they were never so calm.
“This is a celebration,’’ Kathryn White told several of the former mayor’s closest aides. “Remember, keep that in mind.’’
That may explain why Crane’s touching remembrance provoked more laughs than tears. He recalled, for example, that White once told him that Boston had not been the same since the departure of Boston Bruins great Bobby Orr.
“The town won’t be the same without Kevin,’’ Crane said. “I’ve got a note here that says it will be better.’’
With the zip of a punch line, Crane added, “It’s signed by Tom Menino.’’
The crowd howled with delight.
In his remarks, Frank rivaled Crane for laughs. In one quip, Frank took aim at Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor seeking the Republican nomination for president.
“There was a genuineness in Kevin,’’ Frank said, “that when we look at some presidential candidates, we miss.’’
Behind the humor, a deep affection endured for White. And it was just as clear the former mayor’s family cherished each joke and each memory as they extended thanks to the city.
“For all the people of Boston and the outpouring,’’ said the mayor’s son, Mark White, “you have touched us deeply.’’