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Mitchell Adams, former state official recalled for social conscience, dies at 75

Kevin Smith, left, and Mitchell Adams walk down the aisle of King's Chapel after their wedding ceremony in 2004.
Kevin Smith, left, and Mitchell Adams walk down the aisle of King's Chapel after their wedding ceremony in 2004.Tlumacki, John Globe Staff/The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

For a moment in 1992, Mitchell Adams was part of the most prominent gay couple in Boston — maybe the entire nation. His acknowledgment of his relationship with Kevin Smith drew headlines in the Globe and The New York Times.

“It’s very liberating, but there’s also a degree of anxiety,” Mr. Adams said in a Globe interview when he and Smith, his partner and eventual husband, decided the time had arrived to let the world know what their friends and colleagues already knew.

Mr. Adams, who was 75 when he died in his Beacon Hill home July 18 of cancer, was the state’s revenue commissioner in 1992. And Smith was then the commissioner of the Division of Capital Planning and Operations.

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As high-ranking officials in the administration of Governor William Weld, a Republican, their decision to publicly announce that they were a couple — years before same-sex marriage became legal — had a significant impact in the LGBTQ community, in large part due to the media attention.

For those who knew Mr. Adams, that moment of ordinary courage in an extraordinary circumstance was characteristic of his public life and of what he did in his time away from the series of high-profile jobs he held in government, academia, and health care.

“I would describe him as one of the most passionate and caring people I know,” said Weld, who had counted Mr. Adams among his closest friends since they met as Harvard undergraduates.

Mr. Adams was best known regionally and nationally for his role as revenue commissioner — notably for the much-imitated “deadbeat dads” initiative he helped launch in which “10 most wanted” posters featured Massachusetts residents who owed the highest amount of child support.

He had also been Harvard Medical School’s dean for finance, and had served in a similar post at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

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But away from the spotlight, including during the AIDS epidemic, he was known to those in the LGBTQ community as someone who was an unfailing presence, often for those he didn’t know well, offering comfort and companionship as death approached.

In his role as a church Eucharistic minister, “I’ve been with some who are gravely ill, even young people,” he wrote in 1991 for the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard University class.

“When I’m feeling sorry for myself, often now I can see the utter folly of it, and count my many, many blessings,” he wrote. “Every breath is a gift, not a right.”

That gift of drawing breath each day was something he had earned, and not easily.

Born into a family that traced to 1632 the arrival of Adams ancestors in what would become Massachusetts, he was always aware of his sexual orientation, and initially had tried to change it.

“I was gay from as far back as I can remember,” Mr. Adams told Harvard Magazine more than two decades ago.

But before accepting that he was gay, he saw a psychiatrist for some 700 sessions over seven years, and “the single objective of all this therapy was to change my sexual orientation. To make me straight.”

He added that “the stresses at work on me were very, very powerful. These are the forces which have driven some people to despair, depression, alcoholism, to suicide. Some are never relieved of this pain. But by the grace of God I was.”

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Born in Little Rock, Ark., on Sept. 23, 1944, Mitchell Lash Adams was a son of Sam Adams and Sibyl Mehaffy.

His father had managed paint and glass stores, and the family lived in the South and the Midwest before returning to Massachusetts, where his father had grown up.

The younger of two brothers — Zabdiel was 23 when he died in 1966 — Mr. Adams was an Eagle Scout at 13 and graduated from Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school in Ohio, before attending Harvard.

Mr. Adams majored in art history at Harvard, where he also was president of the Hasty Pudding Club and belonged to The Fly Club. He graduated from Harvard in 1966 and from Harvard Business School in 1969.

“He was slightly almost soft-spoken, but he said things that made people think. He was an original thinker,” said Dudley Ladd of Milton, who had been a Harvard roommate.

As a student and throughout his career, Mr. Adams “would be the last to speak, and he would make everybody think that what he was saying was their idea, even though it wasn’t,” Ladd said. “He just had these big ideas that ended up being endorsed by people. His name wasn’t on them, but he was behind them many times.”

Tom Barry of New York City, a longtime friend and Harvard Business School classmate, said that “what was really admirable about him is that he gave a lot of thought to whatever the subject was, came up with his own independent opinion, held it strongly, but was always respectful of everyone else’s opinions.”

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Such an approach guided Mr. Adams through his professional career, which included serving as executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and in his volunteering with the AIDS Action Committee, and his service with the boards of the Boston Athenaeum and the Handel and Haydn Society.

He also had been a Partners in Health trustee, leading trips to its facilities in Haiti and Rwanda.

For Harvard, he served on Harvard’s Board of Overseers, including as vice chairman, and helped lead the fund-raising to establish the F.O. Matthiessen visiting professorship, the first endowed chair in gay and lesbian studies.

Those many endeavors, and his personal outreach to friends, left a lasting impression. “It was in fact my privilege to know Mitchell Adams,” his friend Peter Brooks wrote in an e-mail.

In 2004, Mr. Adams and Kevin Smith were among the first to marry after the legalization of gay marriage.

When they became a couple years earlier, Mr. Adams “became like the seventh brother” in the Smith family, said Kevin’s brother Wayne of Westwood, who helped take care of Mr. Adams during his illness.

“He was just a caring man,” said another of Kevin’s brothers, Peter of Milford. “He understood the kind of problems people had.”

Friends going through crises were welcomed into the Dedham home Mr. Adams and Kevin Smith shared, sometimes to live for a time.

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Sober since the outset of 1988, Mr. Adams “would take people who had problems and sidle up next to them and attend Alcoholics Anonymous with them,” Peter recalled.

As he prepared to retired in 2011, Mr. Adams wrote: “I want to spend more time working with others in their struggle with alcohol and drugs.”

Kevin Smith died in 2014. A service will be announced for Mr. Adams, whose survivors include his in-laws and cousins.

When Weld ran for governor, Mr. Adams was his finance chairman, and as state revenue commissioner “he was an unbelievable performer,” Weld recalled. “He had great political instincts.”

As an undergraduate, Mr. Adams had once aspired to attend medical school, “and he didn’t lose the desire to help rescue and care for people,” Weld said.

“This is a time when we absolutely need people like Mitchell,” Weld added. “He’s the opposite of all that’s going wrong in this country right now.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.