Devoted, tireless, brilliant, caring.
Stunned family and colleagues are using those words to describe Lowell Richards, chief of development for the Massachusetts Port Authority, who died of a suspected heart attack Sunday in his Cambridge condominium.
Mr. Richards, who had shunned the limelight since his days as a young lieutenant of former mayor Kevin H. White, was remembered yesterday as a rare combination of public visionary and technocrat. He was 64 and had been part of the honor guard during the recent memorial services for White.
“He devoted his life to public service,’’ said David Mackey, the interim chief executive at Massport. “He was, I think, about the hardest worker I ever encountered in my professional life. He has done more for Massport on more different dimensions than anybody I can think of.’’
Mr. Richards, who was deputy mayor under White and later served as the top development official on Beacon Hill, played a key role in the airport’s modernization and the creation of the South Boston Seaport District. But that role, which involved the arcane and complicated minutiae of development deals, almost always occurred outside public view.
“I think his greatest legacy will be his behind-the-scenes ability to advance complex projects,’’ said Thomas Kinton, former chief executive of Massport, where Mr. Richards had worked since 1999. “He wasn’t a headline grabber. He was somebody who worked diligently for many, many bases that needed to be touched. He was just so good at it.’’
“The breadth of his work is incredible,’’ said Jim Rooney, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. “The major infrastructure projects that one can think about in Boston over the last quarter of a century have Lowell’s fingerprints on them some place.’’
In addition to the seaport and the airport, those projects include the Big Dig, the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, and the efforts to redevelop the East Boston waterfront.
“These are major, major public investments. Lowell wasn’t necessarily involved in the management of them, but in figuring out how to pay the bills,’’ Rooney said. “He really had a devoted sense of purpose about these projects and what the larger value was to the city, the Commonwealth, and the citizens.’’
His wife, Karen, said Mr. Richards, a fit man who loved skiing, had spent part of his last day working at home on Massport business. Mr. Richards had been writing job reviews and working on a possible trip to Japan to lure air connections to Boston, said his wife of 40 years.
“Lowell was always one of those people who knew what he wanted to do next,’’ Karen Richards said.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino echoed that sense of Mr. Richards’s determination.
“He built the airport to where it is today, its prominence,’’ Menino said. “The city is going to miss him, and I’m going to miss him.’’
Mr. Richards’s career in public service began with an internship at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, his wife said. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1969 and earning a master’s in city planning from MIT in 1971, Mr. Richards studied law at Harvard while holding a full-time job at the BRA.
From 1976 to 1984, he worked at City Hall, where he rose to be deputy mayor for fiscal affairs. Micho Spring, chief of staff under White, said Mr. Richards “was committed to Boston, he was committed to public service, and he had a deep understanding of government, how it worked, and how to get things done.’’
He had a run-in with the state Ethics Commission, which determined in 1984 that Mr. Richards had violated the law by dismissing about $800 in parking tickets for the daughter of House Speaker Thomas McGee. Mr. Richards testified that each of the tickets was dismissed for a valid reason.
From 1994 to 1999, Mr. Richards served on Beacon Hill as director of debt finance and chief development officer.
Rooney, the Convention Center executive director who previously worked as deputy director of the Central Artery project, recalled that Mr. Richards toiled unfazed on the multibillion-dollar Big Dig while rival political factions assailed each other over the controversial project.
“There was a job to do, and Lowell just let the personal stuff go on while rolling up his sleeves,’’ Rooney said.
Mr. Richards brought an invaluable skill set to the table, Rooney said.
“His understanding of broader public policy objectives in a political environment, and how to be strategic about financial planning and public policy, was critical over a very long period of time,’’ Rooney said.
Peter Meade, the current BRA chief, who knew Mr. Richards for 40 years, became emotional as he described his friend.
“If you wanted to pick a perfect public servant, you’d pick Lowell,’’ Meade said. “He was incredibly bright, doggedly hard-working, a superior human being, and just a very competent guy who cared about this city and cared about this state.’’
The day before he died, Mr. Richards had participated in a forum in Chatham to share the findings of a November trip to Barcelona by the World Class Cities Partnership program, based at Northeastern University.
Michael Lake, executive director of the program, said Mr. Richards appeared in great spirits and remained “full of ideas and energy.’’
“If there’s one comfort in all of this,’’ Lake said, “it’s that Lowell lived right up until his passing. He not only lived his own life, but lived his life to serve others.’’