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Lynn church packed for McGee memorial

Relatives of Thomas W. McGee read prayers during his memorial Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Lynn.

Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

Relatives of Thomas W. McGee read prayers during his memorial Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Lynn.

LYNN — Thomas W. McGee was one of the most powerful leaders in the state, the longest-serving speaker of the House, but when he was in Lynn, his hometown, his office was at Bill’s Lunch.

His constituents knew they could find him there and they would call the restaurant’s pay phone to reach him.

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“He visited the Oval Office, traveled on Air Force One, met with dignitaries, including President Carter and Pope John Paul II,” said his son, Senator Thomas M. McGee, at a memorial Mass for his father on Saturday. “But the next morning, he’d be down at Bill’s Lunch, having coffee with a constituent in need.”

Hundreds of state legislators and other politicians, relatives, and residents of Lynn, the city where Thomas W. McGee lived most of his 88 years, filled St. Mary’s Church on Saturday to remember the state’s longest-serving speaker of the House.

“He wanted to help the people of Lynn more than anything else,” said his daughter, Colleen McGee Kavanaugh. “He watched his mother labor in the shoe factories of this city and emerge as a union ­organizer, understanding that we all strive for the same thing: a good job and a living wage, a decent roof over our heads, and the chance for a little bit better life for our children.”

McGee died Dec. 21 after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and was buried after a private funeral.

At Saturday’s memorial Mass, his four children spoke about the father they remember: a kid who grew up in Lynn, joined the Marines, entered politics, and achieved great power, never forgetting the city that he loved.

A large section of pews in the front of the church was reserved for legislators, and the area was packed.

Dignitaries included US Representatives Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, William M. Bulger, former state Senate president, state Auditor Suzanne Bump, Joseph DeNucci, former state auditor, and Steve Grossman, state Treasurer.

Some former House speakers attended, including Thomas M. Finneran, David M. Bartley, Robert Quinn, and Charles Flaherty.

McGee grew up in Lynn and joined the Marine Corps when he was 17 — and 5-foot-6 and 112 pounds, said Thomas M. McGee.

He was eventually sent to the South Pacific, where he survived Iwo Jima and other Word War II battles.

The Marine Corps became a second family to him, Kavanaugh said.

“When other kids were learning the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’ we were trying to figure out where the heck ‘The Halls of Montezuma’ ” were located, she said to laughter, referring to a line from the official Marine Corps hymn.

After the war, McGee returned to Massachusetts and graduated from Boston University.

He was elected to the Lynn City Council and eventually served 14 terms as a state representative, including a decade as speaker of the House.

He was ousted from the speaker’s job in a political battle with Representative George Keverian. Many in the House believed McGee’s leadership style was too domineering.

Thomas M. McGee said he was never more proud of his father than when he remained six more years in the House after he lost his job as speaker.

“What a legacy to have: A kid from West Lynn who reached the top, and never forgot who he was, what he believed in, and where he came from,” he said. “While he wasn’t a saint and had his faults, like we all do, I will remember him as someone trying to make the world a better place one day at a time, one person at a time.”

When the son was elected to the House in 1995, he remembers being happy to follow his father in a place that meant so much to him.

“The day I was elected to the Senate in 2002, he said to remember that the only reason it was called the upper chamber was because in Philadelphia, the first Congress, they met upstairs,” he said. “Whether that was true or not, I didn’t check because I wasn’t going to question him.”

McGee married and raised his family in Lynn. On Saturday, his children’s stories mentioned their father’s penchant for driving fast.

Shawn McGee, another son, remembered his father driving the family to St. Mary’s for Mass.

“We only lived a mile away, and if we hit every light, we were there in 90 seconds or less,” he said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.
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