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Adrian Walker

Remembering Bruce Bolling, a Boston visionary

Bruce Bolling’s campaign for mayor wasn’t going particularly well when we sat down for an interview in the summer of 1993, and he knew it.

Among a scrum of Boston pols duking it out for the mayor’s office — including the eventual winner, Tom Menino — Bolling was struggling for traction.

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But he was much less interested in talking about himself and his campaign than the city ­itself, a city in the midst of transformation.

“A lot of people think Boston is the same city,” he said. “Boston is unequivocally not the same city. That’s not to say all vestiges have been set aside. I think what’s lacking here is the commitment to come to grips and address it in a proactive way. This city is so uniquely poised to take advantage of an opportunity.”

The city wasn’t changing fast enough to help his campaign; he was running for mayor of a city that didn’t quite exist yet. But he possessed one of the keenest senses of where this ever-changing city seemed to be headed, and Boston always mattered more to him than his own ambition.

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Bolling — one of the all-time good guys in Boston politics and easily one of the most accomplished city councilors of the past 25 years — died this week at the age of 67. The obituaries all noted that he was the first black president of the Boston City Council. That was indeed an enormous achievement, especially at the time he did it, when the tensions of busing still roiled the city, barely beneath the surface.

By nature, Bolling was a consensus-builder, a quality that served him well in many hard-fought council battles. “He worked hard to get to a place where everyone could agree,” said Michael McCormack, who served with him for a decade. “He never raised his voice, no matter what the ­issue. He was a gentleman, and he was my friend.”

Bolling won citywide council races when the demographics were stacked against him, and he represented Roxbury, his lifelong home, with memorable zeal.

He was a passionate public speaker about diversity, given to referring to the city as a mosaic. When he was really worked up, it might become a “gorgeous mosaic.” That confused at least one of his council colleagues, Menino.

“I asked him one day, ‘Bruce, what’s a mosaic?’ ” the mayor recalled Friday. ­Menino said they continued discussing city issues long after Bolling left office.

“He was a visionary, really, when you think about the issues he took on,” Menino said. “He was at the forefront of a lot of those issues we have in our city.”

After he was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, Bolling gradually became less visible publicly, devoting his energy to his wife, Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, and their son, Bruce Jr.

“I will always remember his courage,” Ferriabough said Friday. “I know he hid some of the real pain because he didn’t want to frighten me and his son. He was my best friend and the love of my life.”

The last time I saw Bolling was in April. Two beloved former aides of his, Karen Charles and Kevin Peterson, were getting married at the African Meeting House. There was a little gasp from the other guests when he walked in. It had obviously taken serious effort for him to get there, but he was determined not to miss that wedding.

At the reception, we sat in a corner and chatted for a while. As usual, he was full of passion for the city and optimism for its ­future. He knew he wouldn’t witness much of it, but he was never one to think of himself first.

That was Bruce Bolling. Boston was his great passion and is the better for it.

Clarification : A column last Saturday about Governor Patrick’s overhaul of the board of Roxbury Community College ­referred to the departing board members as fired. Former board member Michelle Courton Brown said through a spokes­woman that her term had expired and that she did not seek reappointment.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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