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William Bulger steering clear of Whitey’s trial

William Bulger chatted with Mayor Thomas M. Menino at a memorial last month for Paul Cellucci. Bulger’s friends say he has slowed down since heart surgery in 2011.

JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

William Bulger chatted with Mayor Thomas M. Menino at a memorial last month for Paul Cellucci. Bulger’s friends say he has slowed down since heart surgery in 2011.

The trial of James “Whitey” Bulger has drawn a graying cast of characters from the gangster’s old turf in South Boston to Moakley federal courthouse, but one figure has been conspicuously absent: his younger brother William.

A once-feared politician whose rise to power mirrored his brother’s descent into crime, William has told friends that the scrutiny the trial has brought to his family has been difficult for him. He has also complained to friends that he feels that he, too, is one of his brother’s victims, since he was forced out of his job as president of the University of Massachusetts amid questions about his relationship with Whitey.

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Robert H. Quinn — a friend and former House speaker who entered the Legislature with Bulger in 1960 — speculated that the prospect of unwelcome press attention has kept William, 79, away from the trial, even as William’s daughter and another brother, John, have appeared on the wooden bench reserved for relatives.

“It’s a tough decision,” said Quinn, 85, who has regular lunches with Bulger at Doyle’s Café in Jamaica Plain. “And one of the decisions I’m sure relates to you boys [in the media] and whether you’ll say, ‘Shame on him for showing up,’ and if he doesn’t show up, you’ll say, ‘Shame on him; he doesn’t give a damn.’ So what are you going to do?”

Bulger’s absence from the trial does not mean he has cut off contact with Whitey. William has visited his brother multiple times in Plymouth County jail. When Whitey was captured in 2011, William also attended his arraignment, and the two exchanged smiles upon seeing one another, apparently for the first time since Whitey fled federal authorities and went into hiding in 1994.

Since the trial began, William has declined to speak to the news media, so his reasons for avoiding the courthouse are not known. No one answered the door this week at his home in South Boston or at his summer home in Mashpee.

After undergoing heart surgery in 2011, he has, friends say, been moving more slowly than during his long reign as president of the Massachusetts Senate, from 1978 to 1996. Last month, he was among the many retired lawmakers at the memorial service for Paul Cellucci, former governor, at the State House.

W. Paul White, who served in the Senate with Bulger, said the two chatted briefly at the service. “I just said to him, ‘I hope you’re doing well; this is a difficult time,’ and he smiled and said, ‘Well, it is a difficult time,’ ” White said.

White surmised that William Bulger wants to avoid creating a spectacle by attending his brother’s trial.

“He probably wants to let things take their course, and it’s important to let these things play out,” White said. “I feel badly for anyone in this situation. It’s so complicated.”

The trial stands as a bookend to another one, six decades ago, when William was 21, and he went to federal court in Boston to watch as Whitey, then 26, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for participating in three bank robberies. Later, he traveled with his father to visit Whitey in prison in Atlanta and Pennsylvania, according to his memoir, “While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics.”

Back then, the brothers were just just heading into their chosen careers, one in politics, the other in crime. But even as their paths forked, William remained fiercely loyal to Whitey.

Friends say their bond had been forged as boys growing up in a tough public housing development in South Boston, when the neighborhood was an insular enclave of immigrant families from Ireland.

That bygone era remains a touchstone for William Bulger, said his friend, Joseph S. Oteri, a fellow lawyer who saw Bulger several months ago at an event for Boston College Law School alumni.

“We talked about growing up in Southie, we talked about how life has changed,” Oteri said. “Neither one of us came from a monied background.”

But one thing Oteri did not discuss was Whitey Bulger. It is a topic that acquaintances say they do not bring up unless William raises it first, and he seldom does. “Bill’s very close-mouthed, and I didn’t think it was my job,” Oteri said.

One friend said William Bulger feels he has taken a beating in public life because of his brother’s crimes. Yet William has never condemned his gangster brother.

Whitey “is my brother and I love him,’’ he wrote in his 1996 autobiography. He added that he believed Whitey was the target of “planted press stories, absurd rumors, wild exaggerations.’’

In 2001, six years after Whitey fled town, William testified to a grand jury that he had spoken to Whitey once, in 1995, at the Quincy home of a friend, a location arranged to avoid electronic eavesdropping.

“I do have an honest loyalty to my brother, and I care about him, and I know that’s not welcome news, but . . . it’s my hope that I’m never helpful to anyone against him,’’ William testified. “I don’t feel an obligation to help everyone to catch him.’’

Two years later, Governor Mitt Romney forced William Bulger to resign from UMass, after he refused to testify before Congress about Whitey’s whereabouts. Romney argued that William’s ties to his brother had disgraced the university. These days, William Bulger’s world appears to center around his old neighborhood. He still goes for early-morning walks at Castle Island and attends 8 a.m. Mass at Saint Brigid Church, said Raymond L. Flynn, former mayor and a fellow South Boston resident.

On Thursday, William Bulger attended an awards ceremony for Mayor Thomas M. Menino at the Labouré Center, a children’s welfare organization run by Catholic Charities in South Boston. Bulger and his wife, Mary, sat at the head table, in front of the podium.

“He seemed like his normal self. He was cracking jokes, talking about his dislike for the Globe and Herald,” said one neighbor who bumped into Bulger on the street about a month ago. “We talked about how politics has changed in South Boston.”

As they spoke, Whitey was seated just a few miles away in federal court, facing charges that he participated in 19 murders, extorted bookmakers and drug dealers, and stockpiled an arsenal of weapons. William did not mention the courthouse drama, the neighbor said.

“It’s not a subject that he talks about,” he said. “I’m sure it’s affected him, but he doesn’t show it, or at least nothing that I’ve seen.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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