A key supporter of gay and lesbian rights from the moment he was elected to the Legislature in 1986, Bob Havern could pare down the complex debate over same-gender marriage to a simple question. “How do you compromise someone’s rights?” he asked in 2004 as lawmakers considered constitutional amendments that would ban gay marriage.
To shift State House votes, the Arlington Democrat displayed his full range of talents, high among them using laughter to genially coerce.
“He could meet people intellectual point for intellectual point if need be, but he could also talk at a level that was down to earth: serious in its content, but funny in its presentation,” said Arline Isaacson of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “He could make people laugh while he was persuading them to vote for our equality, and he was brilliant at it.”
Sensing that some conservative men in the Legislature might be queasy about giving a legal blessing to intimate acts they’d rather not contemplate, Mr. Havern suggested that their discomfort was actually a fine reason to support same-sex marriage. “You’re all married guys,” he teased recalcitrant colleagues. “Who knows better than you that after marriage there is no sex?”
A former hockey star who was accustomed to playing above his weight long before entering politics, Mr. Havern died of brain cancer Saturday. He was 65 and had lived in Arlington all his life.
Nearly seven years ago, Mr. Havern resigned from the state Senate mid-term to become president of government relations for ML Strategies, a high-powered lobbying firm in Boston.
“I don’t know if I met anyone who didn’t like him, who didn’t think he was a friend,” said Stephen Tocco, chief executive of ML Strategies. “People wanted to talk to him and to listen to him to get a sense of the issues of the day. People listened to his perspective and his point of view.”
Although Mr. Havern’s wife, Maureen, noted that “gay marriage was probably his most public moment of pride” during his State House years, he had a hand in a range of legislation during more than two decades as a state representative and state senator. He served as assistant majority whip in the Senate and as that chamber’s chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, along with resolving numerous constituent requests that never drew media attention.
“When he was chairman of transportation, he was significantly responsible for the oversight on the Big Dig,” said Robert Travaglini, a former Senate president. “Whatever was going down, he had a role, and depending on the issue, it could be a bigger one or a smaller one, but rest assured, he had a role.”
Charles Flaherty, a former House speaker, was majority leader when Mr. Havern was first elected in 1986. “He was the total package,” Flaherty said. “He had a combination of book smarts and street smarts.”
Mr. Havern’s sports background, Flaherty added, meant that he “came to the fray with the discipline and the competitiveness that being involved in athletics gives one.”
With seven goals in his final regular-season game in 1967 as the center on Arlington High School’s hockey team, Mr. Havern became the highest single-season scorer in the history of the Greater Boston Interscholastic Hockey League. On four occasions his senior year, he scored four goals in a game. He also played football and baseball, leading the league in stolen bases his junior year.
“I think a little guy can play anything,” Mr. Havern, who was then 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, told the Globe a couple of weeks before his seven-goal game his senior year. “All he needs is a little bit of speed and the urge to stick his nose in there.”
Robert A. Havern III was the oldest of five children. His father played in a world hockey championship in Europe in the late 1940s, and was on minor league baseball teams for the Boston Braves. His mother worked for State Street Trust Co. in Boston before marrying.
Mr. Havern may have been the first-born among his siblings, but he was habitually the last to pass through a certain door at home. “He had a classic line when people asked him what it was like growing with four sisters,” said his son Ned of Boston. “He said he went to college to get a hot shower. He was always fifth in line.”
While playing hockey for Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1972, Mr. Havern was an extra in the 1970 movie “Love Story,” playing a member of an opposing team in scenes depicting Harvard hockey players, his family said.
After Harvard, Mr. Havern graduated from Suffolk University Law School and started a private practice in Arlington. He soon married Maureen C. Crane, whom he met when both worked summer jobs at a pool.
In the late 1970s, Mr. Havern was elected to the Arlington Board of Selectmen, on which he served as chairman. He won the first of two state representative races in 1986 before spending eight and a half terms in the Senate.
“He was very good at analyzing problems and figuring out if something was truly important or if it was trivial,” his wife said. “And if he really wanted something, he wasn’t going to quit until he twisted every arm.”
Despite the demands of work, he was present at family events, including his sons’ sports contests. “I can’t think of one time he wasn’t there,” Ned said. “Every good memory I have includes him.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Havern leaves another son, Timothy of Boston; and four sisters, Nancy Leahy of Burlington, Kate Boyle of Plymouth, N.H., Cynthia Bouvier of Arlington, and Laura Hegarty of Arlington.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday in Saint Agnes Church in Arlington. Burial will be in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Arlington.
Mr. Havern was in the spotlight for transportation matters including writing an amendment to name the downtown stretch of Interstate 93 the Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. Tunnel, rather than then-governor Mitt Romney’s choice, the Liberty Tunnel. But his support of gay and lesbian rights may have had the most lasting public impact.
“He single-handedly garnered one half of the votes we needed on GLBT issues in the ’80s, the ’90s and the aughts, and he did it without demanding the limelight,” Isaacson said. “He did a lot of his work behind the scenes, and so sadly, in hindsight, many in the GLBT community don’t realize how invaluable he was to our movement because they didn’t see his name mentioned in the press.”
For Mr. Havern, taking such stands was a matter of principle. When lawmakers “understand that it’s more important to be right than comfortable,” he told a crowd of same-sex marriage supporters at a 2004 State House rally, “that’s when we take major steps forward.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.