A Boston Magazine profile in 1981 ran under a headline that wrapped high praise in a pair of questions: “Is Harry Spence God? Or Is he Just Damn Good?”
Mr. Spence, who was 74 when he died of heart failure Sunday while visiting Greece, had been in the midst of his first major rescue operation, rehabilitating the beleaguered Boston Housing Authority, when that 1981 headline appeared.
He knew, though, that there was only so much a mere mortal could do.
“There are times when the world doesn’t give you nice solutions,” he told the Globe as he served as the agency’s court-appointed receiver.
Nevertheless, during a public service career that began while he was still in law school, Mr. Spence was often the person who judges, governors, and lawmakers called upon when they needed a leader to take on seemingly impossible tasks.
Along with the BHA, he was the state-appointed receiver who helped guide the City of Chelsea out of bankruptcy, and was the first Massachusetts Trial Court administrator, when the Legislature created that job as part of a 2011 reform law.
“I love doing public work,” he told the Globe in the early 1990s, when he was resuscitating Chelsea’s finances. “I like in particular public institutions that are in crisis, and that’s the work that immensely satisfies me.”
The beneficiaries of his work, meanwhile, remained grateful even after he moved on to the next challenge.
“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.”
Mr. Spence occasionally worked in the private sector, including for Hyatt Hotels and the Beacon Co. developers.
He also had been a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a lecturer and professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he was among the original faculty directors of the Doctor of Education Leadership program.
In the latter role, he taught students “to be brave on behalf of those we serve, to tend to the complex dynamics of groups and organizations, and to lead from a place of deep respect for the dignity of all people,” Liz City, senior lecturer with the program, said as part of a tribute posted on the Graduate School of Education’s website.
Mr. Spence, who in 1995 was among three finalists for Boston Public Schools superintendent, took his highest-ranking job in 2001, when then-Acting Governor Jane Swift appointed him to be commissioner of the state Department of Social Services.
He stayed on after Mitt Romney was elected governor, and remained part way into Deval Patrick’s gubernatorial administration.
Mr. Spence even took on a simultaneous position for a while as assistant secretary of health and human services, until he set aside his second job when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004, at 57.
A lawyer with Harvard credentials, Mr. Spence could have made considerably more money if he had spent less time in taxpayer-funded jobs.
“He is a quarter of a million guy in the private sector,” said James Carlin, his predecessor as Chelsea receiver, in 1991, when Mr. Spence initially was hired as deputy receiver at a public sector salary of $95,000.
Mr. Spence’s professional life “was one that was driven by deep, deep conviction,” said his son, Adam.
“It’s important to remember that he was given great privilege in many ways, but he did not have the financial resources that often people of great privilege have,” Adam added, “so he wasn’t able to do this without personal sacrifice.”
Lewis Harwood Spence, known as Harry, was born on Nov. 17, 1946, in Schenectady, N.Y., where his father, Lewis Henry Spence, had been a journalist and later launched a technical writing firm.
Mr. Spence was the second of four siblings whose mother, Eleanor Kammerer Spence, raised the children and later was a librarian.
Mr. Spence was a boy when his family moved to Cranbury, N.J. After graduating from the Groton School, he spent a year in Italy and considered becoming an Episcopal priest, until a clergyman who was a mentor told him “your future is not in the church — it is as a public servant,” Adam said.
Taking that advice to heart, Mr. Spence went to Harvard, where he studied history and literature, graduating in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1974, “but his vocation was toward public service,” his son said.
While in law school, Mr. Spence began working for the Cambridge Housing Authority and spent so much time on his duties that he imperiled his studies. After graduating, he worked for the Somerville Housing Authority, and then the Cambridge Housing Authority before moving to the Boston Housing Authority.
Between his Chelsea work and his stint as state social services commissioner, Mr. Spence was deputy chancellor for operations for the New York City Board of Education.
After a short, college-era marriage that ended in divorce, Mr. Spence married Rina Klausner. They had two children — Adam, who lives in New York City, and Rebecca, who lives in Taos, N.M. — before their marriage ended in divorce.
A former president and chief executive of Emerson Hospital, Rina Spence died in June.
Mr. Spence married Robin J. Ely in 1992. She is the Diane Doerge Wilson Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Their daughter, Francesca Ely-Spence, lives in Boston.
For decades, Mr. Spence spent part of each year on the Greek island of Hydra, where his parents had spent vacations.
“His community of friends there was wonderful,” Adam said. “My family loved to go to Hydra because we felt like we were in my father’s world.”
Mr. Spence was on Hydra when he fell ill, and died in Athens, his family said. His death came as a shock because after having persevered through previous health difficulties, he had been doing well.
“The rewards of age are glorious and more than make up for the slow decline of the body,” he wrote in 2014 for the 45th anniversary report of his Harvard class.
He also spoke of a Hindu-based meditation practice that was “enormously supportive and steadying in a world that sometimes feels pretty chaotic,” as he told CommonWealth Magazine in 2001.
“I continue to live a life deeply informed by the Hindu spiritual practice that embraced me in 1991,” he wrote in his class report. “I can only wonder how I got to be so happy.”
In addition to his wife, Robin, and three children, Adam, Rebecca, and Francesca, Mr. Spence leaves a brother, Matthew of Portland, Ore.; a sister, Olivia of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.; and three grandchildren.
His family held a private memorial service last week at the oldest cemetery in Athens. A memorial gathering in Boston will be announced.
Recently, Mr. Spence had been studying and teaching at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, Adam said, and he was investing considerable time “building an extraordinary garden” in Essex, where Mr. Spence and Robin built a home a few years ago.
To Mr. Spence, the years ahead held the promise of fresh opportunities even after death, he wrote in his 45th Harvard class report:
“I hope to go to my grave with equanimity, gratitude, and excitement at what adventure may lie before me.”
John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.