scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Harry Spence, trusted official who repaired flawed state institutions, dies at 74

Harry Spence while he was commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.joe tabacca

From housing agencies to a bankrupt municipality to the court system, Harry Spence was the go-to fix-it artist for decades in the Commonwealth, repairing one broken institution after another.

While traveling in Greece, a favorite destination, Mr. Spence died Sunday of heart failure, his daughter announced on Facebook. He was 74.

“To know him was to adore him,” Francesca Ely-Spence wrote in a post that included photos of the home her parents had built in Essex.

“Although he passed in Greece,” she wrote, “I felt him come home with us to rest among the reeds, to swell and breathe with the tides, to take flight with his beloved egrets on Sunday mornings.”


During a career spent mostly in public service, with detours into the private sector, Mr. Spence was happiest when taking on seemingly impossible challenges.

After Superior Court Judge Paul G. Garrity placed the then-ailing Boston Housing Authority into receivership in 1979, he chose Mr. Spence to be the receiver who would revive the agency.

A hands-on administrator, Mr. Spence paid unannounced weekly visits to different housing projects, arriving in the agency’s battered Chevy Nova to address issues large and small, even replacing screens.

“He made tens of thousands of apartments livable, which, prior to that time, had been unlivable,” Garrity told the Globe in 1985. “He improved the quality of life, housing-wise, including security, for tens of thousands of Boston citizens. He focused on the people who lived in the projects.”

For four years in the early 1990s, Mr. Spence was the deputy receiver and then the receiver when the state took control of finances of the bankrupt City of Chelsea.

“Massachusetts has lost a gifted and magnetic re-inventor of government in the irrepressible Harry Spence, who served as receiver of the Boston Housing Authority, receiver of the City of Chelsea, reformer of public schools, promoter of charter schools, and the first court administrator of Massachusetts’ Trial Court,” said William Weld, who was then the state’s governor, in an e-mail. “He saw deep – and acted accordingly.”


Born in Schenectady, N.Y., Lewis Harwood Spence, who was known to all as Harry, grew up in Cranbury, N.J.

He graduated from the private Groton School, editing the newspaper and literary magazine, and received a bachelor’s degree in American history and literature from Harvard College in 1969. A few years later, he graduated from Harvard Law School.

In 1992, Mr. Spence married Robin J. Ely, the Diane Doerge Wilson professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

“In all, a deeply rewarding and satisfying career, a wonderful marriage after two previous attempts, and children and grandchildren that are a source of constant joy,” Mr. Spence wrote as he reflected on his life in 2014 for the 45th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

In addition to his wife, Robin, and daughter Francesca, Mr. Spence’s survivors include a son, Adam, another daughter, Rebecca, and grandchildren.

Complete information about survivors and a memorial service was not immediately available.

Mr. Spence was “a great guy, just an all-around good human being,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association, who added that “he was an outstanding public servant, someone who gave his professional life to the Commonwealth.”

After his receiver stints with the Boston Housing Authority and Chelsea, Mr. Spence also served as deputy chancellor of New York City’s education department and commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, and as the first administrator of the Massachusetts Trial Court, when the position was created as part of a 2011 reform law.


“The court system owes a debt to Harry Spence, our first court administrator,” Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Kimberly Budd said. “He brought the Trial Court through a time of great growth and change and we will long remember his exceptional service.”

Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey said that Mr. Spence “left an indelible mark on the Trial Court. Every day we build on our collective work. He was a visionary who valued diversity, equity and access to justice. He left our court system and the world a better place.”

Mr. Spence also had taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School, and worked with development companies, but his heart was always in public service.

“I’m having more pure fun doing this job than anything I’ve ever had in a job before,” he wrote of his time as courts administrator.

A complete obituary will follow. John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at