John F. Dolan, 90, conservation advocate

John F. Dolan was a conservation advocate whose 1970 vote preserved the number of State House representatives.
John F. Dolan was a conservation advocate whose 1970 vote preserved the number of State House representatives.

State Representative John F. Dolan, an Ipswich Republican, was the last to cast a vote in February 1970 on a measure that would have put on the ballot a question asking voters to trim the number of representatives in the State House from 240 to 160.

He previously supported the proposal, but on that February day he said, “I wish to change my vote to no,” single-handedly killing the measure.

Mr. Dolan, “white-faced and perspiring in the midst of a circle of frantic colleagues,” capitulated after then-House Speaker David Bartley, a Democrat, made a visit to Dolan’s seat to discuss the vote, the Globe reported.


“He got vilified for doing that, but he always thought the reduced size of the House would hurt the democracy,” Bartley said in an interview last week about Mr. Dolan’s vote-change. “He was a good man. He had a barrel full of integrity.”

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The switch drew ire of other Republicans and came with a price. Mr. Dolan was defeated in the next Republican primary after 18 years in the House.

Mr. Dolan, a former Ipswich town clerk and self-described “island boy” who spent his early childhood without electricity or running water living on the town’s Grape Island, died in his sleep on May 24 in his Ipswich home. He was 90.

After sending the proposal to defeat in 1970, Mr. Dolan told the Globe that he had feared trimming the number of House members would have hurt his district.

“Ipswich has had a representative since the General Court began, and I felt it should continue to have one,” he said, adding that Bartley didn’t promise him anything.


When he was defeated in the next primary, Mr. Dolan remained in the State House as research director for the Committee on Natural Resources until the late 1970s, before retiring to Ipswich and a life of digging clams and collecting rare books, his family said.

In 1957, he filed the legislation that became known as the Conservation Commission Act, enabling cities and towns to create conservation commissions entrusted with protecting natural resources.

“He was always the guy who voted according to principle, not party,” said his son, Jeffrey of Sedona, Ariz. “In the end, he stuck to his convictions.”

Known as Jack, Mr. Dolan was the oldest of five siblings. Born in Ipswich, he spent his early childhood in the 1920s on Grape Island, an 11-mile barrier island off Cape Ann that is separated from Plum Island by a creek.

“In the course of our island existence, there were not many other children about, or other all-year families,” Mr. Dolan wrote in an essay for a local collection celebrating Ipswich’s 375th anniversary. “My first chore was to keep the wood box behind the stove full. When the big wood box was half full, sometimes I would crawl in and take a nap.”


Grape Island, which hosted a thriving community in the late 1800s, was taken by the federal government in the 1930s and made part of a wildlife refuge. Mr. Dolan’s uncle Lewis Kilborn refused to leave the island and remained a resident until his death in the 1980s. Mr. Dolan was a frequent visitor who brought him groceries, his family recalled.

After Mr. Dolan’s family moved from Grape Island into Ipswich, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown, according to his family. Mr. Dolan was sent to Marlborough, where he attended the Hillside School, which then was a boarding school for poor and homeless boys whose life centered around working on a farm.

Mr. Dolan, who was around 12, immediately ran away. He somehow made his way into Boston and asked a police officer how to get back to Ipswich. He was returned to Hillside, where the headmaster became an important mentor, Mr. Dolan later told his family.

“He said that Hillside was the thing that saved him and made him into the extraordinarily sensitive and family-oriented person he became as an adult,” said his grandson Samuel of Los Angeles. “He was so proud of having been a student there.”

Mr. Dolan enlisted in the Navy in 1942. He served on the USS Pastores in the Pacific and was a gun captain on the USS Chicago during a Navy bombardment of Japan, his family said.

After World War II, he was a veteran’s agent for Ipswich and fell in love with Lucy Eustace, who worked in the town clerk’s office. They had been married 47 years when she died in 1996.

During the Korean War, Mr. Dolan was called back to military service and left his job as Ipswich town clerk. His wife took over the post while he was stationed at a naval weapons depot in Japan.

Mr. Dolan’s younger brother, James, served in the Army in Korea and died in the Battle of Taejon in 1950. Their father, Charles, who served in the Navy in World War I, lobbied then-US Senator Leverett Saltonstall and asked the armed forces to allow his surviving son to return home with his brother’s remains. Mr. Dolan was released from active duty and brought his brother home.

“My grandfather, without the benefit of a college education, served his country and his state for most of his life,” Samuel said. “He lived a good life and was a good person, and yet I’ve always felt that was despite certain adversities that other people might not have survived.”

While a state representative, Mr. Dolan made himself widely available to his constituents, his family said.

“Our phone rang nonstop,” said his daughter, Rebecca of Ipswich. “We’d all sit down to dinner and the phone was still ringing.”

She added that her father “was movie star handsome, but he never knew it. He was very down to earth.”

In addition to his daughter, Rebecca, his son, Jeffrey, and his grandson Samuel, Mr. Dolan leaves two other grandchildren and a great-grandson.

A service has been held and Mr. Dolan was buried with a favorite possession: his Hillside School ball cap.

During retirement, Mr. Dolan, who outlived his three sisters, enjoyed driving to Plum Island to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge. He would wade into the creek and think about a bygone life on Grape Island and relatives who once lived or summered there.

“No matter where I went in my years, they were always foremost in my thoughts,” he wrote in his essay about his time there.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at