Robert H. Quinn, former Mass. attorney general and House speaker, has died

Robert Quinn.
Globe File/1999
Robert Quinn.

Robert H. Quinn, who survived grave illness as a teenager and rose to become the state’s attorney general and House speaker, died on Sunday, his family said. He was 85.

Quinn was a dominant figure in Massachusetts politics for decades, first as an elected official, then as a state administrator, and later as a prominent lobbyist. A state representative for 12 years, he served as speaker of the House from 1967 to 1969.

The Legislature named him attorney general in 1969, and he won the seat outright the following year. In 1974, he ran for governor, but lost in the Democratic primary to Michael Dukakis.


Quinn championed the passage of 1970 legislation, now known as “the Quinn Bill,” offering financial incentives for law enforcement officers to pursue higher education.

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James Morris, his fellow founding partner in the Quinn and Morris law firm, said the bill created a program that encouraged people to pursue careers in law enforcement at a time when many viewed that line of work skeptically.

“There was a lot of disdain for police officers and authority figures, and this police incentive that he put through, the Quinn Bill, revolutionized law enforcement,” Morris said.

After serving as attorney general, Quinn served as chairman of both the University of Massachusetts Board of Trustees and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.

Morris, who started as an intern working for Quinn on Beacon Hill, described him as “very true to his family, his religion, and his friends. And he just never, ever varied.”


Quinn had attended Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s inauguration last week at Boston College, and took special pride because Walsh’s former House seat was the same one he had once held, Morris said.

“I was honored to represent his former House district, and proud to have him stand with me at my inauguration one week ago today,” Walsh said Monday. “General Quinn held a deep love for Dorchester – in particular for his neighborhood of Savin Hill – and I will always hold great respect for him as a friend and as an outstanding state representative and House Speaker.”

Quinn, whose father died when he was 6 years old, was the youngest of seven children, relatives said.

Quinn won a scholarship to Boston College High School, then a football scholarship to Boston College. While in college, he was stricken with tuberculosis, with a diagnosis so serious that his brother purchased a funeral suit, Quinn’s daughters said.

Quinn spent three years in the hospital, but recovered, finished college, and went on to Harvard Law School.


His love for politics and his home neighborhood of Dorchester, his daughters said, never left him.

“He was an exciting man to be around,” said his daughter, Elaina Quinn. “People would always stop him and say, ‘hello.’ It was always happiness for him.”

Quinn also helped found University of Massachusetts Boston and his contribution was recognized today by J. Keith Motley, chancellor of the Dorchester university.

“The University of Massachusetts Boston has lost a true friend in Robert Quinn,’’ Motley said in a statement. “Bob was a strong advocate for access to public higher education, and as a co-founder of UMass Boston, he opened the doors to urban public higher education in our city.’’

Motley noted that UMass-Boston created the Robert H. Quinn Award in 1987 to honor those “who embody his ideals. … We will miss Bob dearly, but we are gratified that he was able to see the university he helped found mark its 50th anniversary this year as Boston’s premier urban public research university.’’

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.