WORCESTER — Joseph D. Early, a former US representative who died Friday after a brief illness, was remembered as a “man of the people” who was fiercely dedicated to his district, its residents, and his large family.
The Worcester Democrat, 79, served in the House of Representatives from 1975 to 1993, rising to high-ranking positions on the House Appropriations Committee, which he used to help secure federal funds for a biotechnology park, civic center, and airport in Worcester and the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton.
“Joe Early was an incredible public servant who fought tirelessly for working people,” US Representative James P. McGovern, a Worcester Democrat who has held Mr. Early’s former seat since 1997, said in a statement. “From championing economic development to his tireless advocacy for medical research, Joe Early was a man who truly made a difference.”
His death was confirmed by Timothy J. Connolly, a spokesman for the late congressman’s son, Joseph D. Early Jr., the Worcester district attorney.
A US Navy veteran, Mr. Early was a former high school teacher and successful basketball coach in Central Massachusetts. He was a basketball star at the College of the Holy Cross, where he cocaptained a team with Boston Celtics great Tommy Heinsohn.
He lost his seat in the US House in 1992 to Peter I. Blute, a Shrewsbury Republican, after a House banking scandal.
Before being elected to Congress, Mr. Early served six terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, from 1963 to 1974. As vice chairman of the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee, he helped obtain financing for the University of Massachusetts Medical School and pushed to locate the school in Worcester.
“He was a very, very dedicated public servant,” said Paul C. Nordberg, 66, of Auburn, who was Mr. Early’s administrative assistant for 17 years. “He viewed the medical school back in the Legislature and when he served in Congress as a very promising adolescent, and he was determined that it would mature into the great institution that it is.”
Mr. Early was a consummate insider and master of budgets who could “deliver the dough,” as a 1980 profile of him put it.
While Mr. Early served in Washington over two decades, he came home to Worcester and his wife and children most weekends and held an open house for constituents nearly every Saturday morning at his downtown Worcester office, said Nordberg,.
Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray, a former Worcester mayor, said in a statement: “My thoughts and prayers are with the Early family. . . . Joe was a tenacious advocate for both Central Massachusetts and the Commonwealth.”
In 2002, Worcester’s main post office was named in honor of Mr. Early, who had a stroke in 2000 while working on his son’s unsuccessful campaign for the state Senate. He made a full recovery, his family said.
Mr. Early, who shied away from the spotlight, drew national media coverage with a vehement speech on the House floor criticizing House Ethics Committee members who had singled out 22 congressmen, including Mr. Early, who had overdrawn accounts with the House bank.
Mr. Early was cleared of criminal wrongdoing four days before the 1992 election. In a four-way general election, he lost to Mr. Blute 50 percent to 44 percent.
Mr. Early was a guard on Holy Cross basketball teams in the 1950s, playing on the squad that won the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1954.
A loyal and conservative-leaning Democrat, Mr. Early was known for his responsiveness to organized labor and business interests alike and for his ability to work with Republicans, if behind the scenes.
In a 1980 interview, Mr. Early said: “I represent half a million people. I work seven days a week, and I still don’t get done half of what I want to get done.
He leaves his wife, the former Marilyn Powers, with whom he had seven children, in addition to his son Joseph Jr.; and 23 grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete.