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Thomas Farragher

He was never elected, but Jimmy Donnelly was a City Hall star

Jimmy Donnelly was a familiar sight below City Hall Plaza, where he ran the garage. Now, as he nears death, the city is naming the garage after him.
Jimmy Donnelly was a familiar sight below City Hall Plaza, where he ran the garage. Now, as he nears death, the city is naming the garage after him.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/file 2017

There will be a new sign hanging over the dank parking garage beneath Boston City Hall Plaza on Friday and it will carry the name of Jimmy Donnelly, who across his 42 years has quietly collected friends like precious stones.

And if you think parking garages don’t make much news, think again. This one is worthy of headlines.

Why? Because this may be the only parking garage in America named after its former attendant, now diagnosed with a ferocious and terminal disease.

Because Jimmy Donnelly is a beloved fixture, a wildly popular man, whose name on this garage’s entrance is a tribute from friends and colleagues he considered genuine treasures that he has worked all his life to polish.

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He found them on the streets of his beloved Southie neighborhood. He greeted them each morning from his tiny booth at City Hall’s Dock Square garage — 80 precious spaces beneath a dank warren of gritty ductwork.

Friends held a somber vigil this week, streaming in and out of his hospital room on the 12th floor of Massachusetts General Hospital, where Jimmy Donnelly neared death with liver and kidney damage.

The Dock Square Garage is being renamed for Jimmy Donnelly.
The Dock Square Garage is being renamed for Jimmy Donnelly.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When Mayor Martin Walsh paid a visit the other day to the man who ran his parking garage, he marveled at that MGH human parade — cops and firefighters, politicians and janitors — who came to say goodbye to a man who wanted nothing more than to serve his city. And then did.

Walsh knows Jimmy Donnelly and he knows how squarely he embodies public service — the people far from the headlines and away from the bright lights of television crews. The people who make this city work.

“Those are the people who got me elected quite honestly,’’ the mayor told me Thursday as news ricocheted around City Hall that Jimmy Donnelly lay gravely ill.

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“Those are the people who I worked with in construction. Those are the people I drank with when I drank. Those are the folks who stood with me when I ran for state rep and held signs for me when I ran for mayor. In times of difficulty, those are the people who had my back. And that’s who Jimmy Donnelly was.’’

Walsh said naming City Hall’s parking garage for Jimmy Donnelly is an apt tribute to a man who wanted to work for Boston so dearly that he once applied for every job that was available.

“It was something I’ve always wanted to do,’’ Donnelly told me a few years ago when I paid him a visit in the garage. “Finally, I got the phone call.’’

Jimmy Donnelly graduated from South Boston High School in 1997 and bounced around at a string of odd jobs after that. He worked in hotel kitchens. He bused tables. Then, in the waning days of longtime mayor Tom Menino’s tenure, he first walked into that subterranean parking garage.

And there — in a small hut with a computer, a microwave, and a personal wall-of-fame photo gallery — found a professional home. And then some friends in high places.

The Dock Square garage beneath Boston City Hall Plaza.
The Dock Square garage beneath Boston City Hall Plaza.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Niall Murphy, Walsh’s deputy chief of staff, forged a friendship with Donnelly. They shared a love of sports. And then Murphy learned that Donnelly took his job seriously and with as much pride as those crafting policy and budgets at the right hand of the mayor.

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“Jimmy treated everyone with respect,’’ Murphy said. “But he was a stickler. If he thought you didn’t have permission to park, you weren’t parking in there. Sometimes, the job can be stressful, but Jimmy would put you at ease.’’

When we talked a few years ago, Jimmy told me he lived with his then 66-year-old mother on West Ninth Street, where they were still then mourning the loss of his older brother, Thomas, who had died of a heart attack.

“I’m not over it yet,’’ he told me then.

And, now, as his friends sit in vigil at MGH, they struggle to imagine life without Jimmy Donnelly.

One of them is Natalie Lukasik, 41, a childhood friend who met Jimmy in kindergarten, forging a close relationship that never ended.

“We have never not been friends,’’ she told me Thursday. “I talked to him every day.’’

At the bedside of her friend, her thoughts drifted to their years together.

Days of childhood ice cream cones in South Boston. Of watching TV wrestling matches on Saturday mornings. Of the boy who, in the second grade, sent her red carnations and asked for her hand in marriage.

When he opened his eyes the other day, Jimmy Donnelly looked at her warmly.

“He said, ‘I love you Natalie.’ And I said, ‘I know you do. That’s why I’m here.’ ’’

When she married her husband, Jimmy Donnelly was at the ceremony.

“I’m up at the altar and the (preacher) said, ‘Does anybody have anything to say?’ ‘’ she recalled. “He stood right up and said, ‘You’re marrying the wrong guy!’ My whole family knew him forever and said, ‘Jimmy, sit down.’ ’’

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It was all in good fun. Best of friends. Still.

Lukasik said she has said her goodbyes to her old friend many times since she arrived by his side on Jan. 3

“But I can’t leave,’’ she said. “I’m not going to say goodbye forever.’’

Kenny Ryan, Donnelly’s hospital proxy and close friend, said the hospital staff has marveled at the support for Donnelly, support that has grown even greater since Sunday, when the medical news grew dire.

Earlier this week, some friends — electricians, a priest, firefighters, old neighbors — came around to celebrate Jimmy’s birthday. He turned 42 on Wednesday.

“There are little giants in this world, too,’’ Ryan said. “And that’s who Jimmy Donnelly was. He was a good kid.’’

Dan Manning, a colleague and friend and fellow son of Southie, said the medical team taking care of his friend has marveled at the outpouring of support and sympathy.

And why is that?

“In a world of go-go-go, chasing the next opportunity, here’s a guy who was happy doing what he did,’’ Manning said. “He did it very well. He’s an old-school salt of the earth type guy. It’s a testament to his character. People are stressed out or angry or always chasing things down. Jimmy was never like that. You go to work in the morning, and there’s Jimmy smiling. You leave at the end of the day, and there’s Jimmy smiling.

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“The nurses are saying, ‘Who is this guy?’ And someone told them: ‘That’s the most important person in the city of Boston.’ ’’

Aisha Johnson-Miller, assistant commissioner in the city’s inspectional services department, recalled that Jimmy Donnelly — who watched her race from meeting to meeting — urged her to slow down.

“He put things in perspective for me,’’ she said. “One day he said, ‘You’re not too busy to say hello Take a break.’ He was my buddy.’’

There are a lot of them out there.

Walsh said Jimmy Donnelly always quietly stood for the good things about government. The simple things. Things that matter.

“Those are the folks we name things for,’’ the mayor told me. “Usually, the name ‘honorable’ goes in front of it. Well, there’s no one more honorable than Jimmy Donnelly.

“He wasn’t elected by anybody.

“But he was loved by everybody.’’


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.