As part of the Ward 5 coalition that propelled Kevin White to election as Massachusetts secretary of state and then mayor of Boston, Herbert Gleason was among the reform-minded young Democrats who rose to power in city politics from maverick beginnings.
“Our immediate goal is to get young blood out in the ’62 election and put some of them into office,” Mr. Gleason told the Globe in November 1960, a couple of weeks after White was elected secretary of state. “We are not rebels. We just want people with ability.”
Mr. Gleason was one of those able young Democrats and he became the City of Boston’s corporation counsel, one of White’s key appointments after being elected mayor in 1967.
“Any of the big downtown law firms could have offered any one of a dozen lawyers who might have become the best corporation counsel Boston ever had. Herb Gleason is all of that, but he’s also been through the wars,” White told the Globe in March 1969, adding with a laugh: “So what if he’s always getting his head beat in. Herb knows the business. He knows politics.”
As astute about world affairs as he was about City Hall, Mr. Gleason was known as the “fourth founder” of the Salzburg Seminar. His attention to health care inequities through his work with that organization led him, at home, to also serve as chairman of Boston’s Board of Health and Hospitals, director of the Neighborhood Health Plan, and as director and vice president of the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium.
Mr. Gleason, who friends say brought a civilizing presence to any encounter and every meeting, died of complications of melanoma Dec. 9 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He was 85 and had lived on Beacon Hill since the late 1950s.
During 11 years as corporation counsel, Mr. Gleason was in effect the mayor’s and the city’s lawyer as Boston struggled through school desegregation, the court-ordered busing of students, and a host of other historic events during White’s early terms in office.
In 1978, after Mr. Gleason announced he was stepping down, the Globe’s David Rogers wrote: “If he seemed too loyal at times, Gleason was always honest. If he defended arrogance, he went about his duties with a rare decency and gentleness. These are no small virtues in City Hall or the world outside. White’s loss is Boston’s.”
For a Harvard class report a couple of years before leaving the corporation counsel post, Mr. Gleason reflected on two decades in politics and public service. “So, have we ‘built Jerusalem?’ The answer has to be ‘No,’ ” he wrote. “But that’s what we thought we were doing, and it was exhausting and exhilarating while that spell prevailed.”
“He never lost his youthful zeal,” Stephen L. Salyer, president and chief executive of what is now called Salzburg Global Seminar, said of Mr. Gleason. “He was, at 85, just as idealistic and just as practical and just as committed to making things happen, in spite of impossible odds, as he was at 20. He wasn’t a household name, but he was known by thousands and thousands of people around the world, from heads of government to heads of industries and institutions who were influenced by him.”
Mr. Gleason “never let you forget he was from Boston and proud of it, but he really was a man of the world,” Salyer said.
“Here was a man from the Boston aristocracy who deeply immersed himself in Boston politics in a wholly constructive way,” said Barney Frank, the former US representative who met Mr. Gleason when both served in White’s administration. Mr. Gleason, Frank added, was adept at “the most nuts-and-bolts aspects of Boston politics and at the same time was involved in international affairs.”
Mr. Gleason also served on the State Ethics Commission and the Boston Parks and Recreation Commission, and he was a longtime member of Arlington Street Church, where he was pro bono counsel and moderator for many years. A church pulpit was dedicated in his honor on his 80th birthday.
With endless attention to detail Mr. Gleason “had a profound sense of justice and an extraordinary moral compass, and his heart broke over injustice,” said the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, the church’s senior minister. “He really had a heart for these matters.”
“He was always thinking about the least advantaged members of society,” said Mr. Gleason’s son, David of Jamaica Plain. “He was very progressive in the real meaning of the world, the sense that government should benefit citizens.”
Herbert Parsons Gleason was the youngest of four children born to Hollis Tidd Gleason, a banker, and the former Emily Blanchard Clapp, a women’s rights activist. He grew up in Cohasset and graduated from Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.
In 1949, a year before graduating from Harvard College, he began working with the Salzburg Seminar, not long after the three founders held their first seminar. Among many positions he held with the organization, Mr. Gleason served on the board from 1950 to 2010.
Mr. Gleason graduated from Harvard Law School in 1958, the same year he married Nancy Cope Aub. They met at a party in 1956, the year she graduated from Radcliffe College. “I was just smitten,” he recalled for her obituary after she died in June.
Mr. Gleason and his wife, who was long active with Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, “took great strength from each other,” their son said. “They consulted each other on almost everything and used one another as the foundation for all their public service.”
Family and friends cherished an enduring image of Nancy and Herbert Gleason sitting across a table from each other in their Beacon Hill home, each playing a separate game of cards. Their love was such that even solitaire was never a solitary pursuit.
“They always kissed when they greeted each other, always,” their son said.
Mr. Gleason shared his passion for the city with young and old, among them Ben Davis of San Francisco, whose late father, David, was a longtime friend of Mr. Gleason’s. In an e-mail, Ben Davis recalled a long brisk walk Mr. Gleason led him on through Boston’s neighborhoods in May.
“Herb’s encyclopedic knowledge of Boston’s political and architectural history, punctuated with a deep understanding of botany, poetry, philosophy, and religion was unparalleled,” Davis wrote. “The man could tell a story. That morning he shared dozens of them with me, delivered with a grasp of facts and efficiency of expression one finds only in the best of lawyers.”
In addition to his son, Mr. Gleason leaves a daughter, Alice of New York City; a sister, Eleanor Bleakie of Scituate; and two grandsons.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Jan. 11 in Arlington Street Church.
Once, at a church meeting, someone invoked the metaphor of killing two birds with one stone and Mr. Gleason spoke up. “Surely we can do better than to use such violent language,” he said, reminding those present that the language they use molds their world.
“He was a kind of profoundly civilizing presence,” Crawford Harvie said.
“The whole experience of being around him was that you were better in his presence than you might be in other circumstances. ... He expected that, he expected a certain kind of significance not only of his own actions, but of the actions of those around him.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@