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John Winthrop Sears, 83; city councilor ran for governor

John Winthrop Sears (right) exchanged greetings in 1982 with Edward Markey, now a US senator, while campaigning for governor in Melrose. Mr. Sears lost to Michael S. Dukakis.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

With a name that announced his Colonial lineage, John Winthrop Sears did not try to disguise his patrician background. Such heritage, for him, was a call to duty.

“God has given much to me, and I have tried to be a giver too,” he wrote a couple of years before he became, in 1979, the first Republican elected to the Boston City Council in decades.

Mr. Sears was 83 when he collapsed and died in his Beacon Hill home, where he was found Tuesday. He could trace his family back to 13th-century England, and he was named for John Winthrop, an ancestor who helped found the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was its first governor.


A vestige of a vanishing Brahmin Republican tradition, Mr. Sears carried himself with a formal bearing that seemed to place him simultaneously in the past and present, which pundits noted when he unsuccessfully ran for governor against Michael S. Dukakis in 1982.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether John Winthrop Sears is running for governor of the Commonwealth or, like his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather John Winthrop, for governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony,” the Globe’s Robert Turner wrote in the op-ed pages that year.

Never really discouraging such musings, Mr. Sears often said he would not mind visiting the 17th century, though he felt more comfortable in the 20th.

“You’re a sitting target if you’re a Yankee,” he conceded during the 1982 gubernatorial bid. “People assume that you’ve been around too long and been on top too long. So there’s a certain resentment. But I’ve been a Yankee all my life. It’s too late to do anything about it now.”

Instead, he wanted to do something about the affairs of his city and state. Leaving a career in finance, he spent four years in the State House, elected twice in the 1960s to represent a district that included Beacon Hill, the North End, and the South End. He served as chairman of the state Republican Party and was appointed to be Suffolk County sheriff, chairman of the Boston Finance Committee, and chairman of the Metropolitan District Commission.


In 1967, when registered Democrats in Boston outnumbered Republicans 8 to 1, he polled third among 10 candidates for mayor. “We are in third place,” he told a crowd that packed tight into the Regency Room of the Somerset Hotel on Election Night, “but this is a victory speech because what we’ve done is put the party back on the map in the city.”

In the preliminary election that night, Mr. Sears finished behind Louise Day Hicks and Kevin H. White, who went on in the runoff to win the first of four terms as mayor.

Mr. Sears “felt a true duty to serve the Commonwealth that was founded by his ancestor and namesake,” said Chase Untermeyer, who was ambassador to Qatar under President George W. Bush and had been an aide to Mr. Sears in the 1960s. “The phrase ‘noblesse oblige’ has been derided in recent generations to be somewhat condescending, but in his case it was genuine.”

Untermeyer added that “it is regrettable, maybe even highly regrettable, that his great abilities were not used to higher degree. That may be the price paid for being a loyal Republican in Massachusetts.”

Born in Boston, Mr. Sears was a son of the former Frederica Fulton Leser, who was “extroverted and Baltimorean,” he told the Globe in 1967. “My father, Richard D. Sears Jr.,” he added, “is shy and Yankee.”


After attending St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mr. Sears studied government at Harvard College and graduated in 1952. He served in the Navy aboard a destroyer, whetting his appetite for European travel. Nearly a decade later, he was recalled and served during the Berlin Crisis of 1961, rising to be a lieutenant commander.

Back home, he specialized in international business at Harvard Law School, taking time away to study in England as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College in Oxford and to visit 17 countries. His first job after law school was at Brown Brothers Harriman in New York City.

“I went to New York because of my snooty name,” Mr. Sears told the Globe in 1967. “It was too easy here. But after four years, I decided, easy or not, I was going to live and work where I wanted to.”

He spent two years with the firm’s Boston office before deciding to “set aside a section of life for public activity,” he wrote in 1977 for an anniversary report of his Harvard class. “As things turned out I went beyond budgeted time.”

In 1965, the year he became a full-time politician, Mr. Sears married Dr. Catherine Coolidge, a physician who taught at Harvard and was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. He wrote that their marriage was “my happiest news,’’ and after they divorced in 1970, he said their parting “has broken my heart.”


Mr. Sears, Untermeyer said, “was a dynasty without descendants. As a result, he devoted himself to the people of Boston and Massachusetts with the same energy that parents would give their children.”

Taking up a secondary residence of sorts on Beacon Hill and in City Hall, Mr. Sears won three elections and lost three, faring best within city limits. He was elected a state representative in 1964 and 1966 and a city councilor in 1979. After Governor John Volpe appointed Mr. Sears to be Suffolk County sheriff in 1968, he fell short in an election bid that fall. He also was defeated in a statewide run for secretary of state in 1978 before losing to Dukakis in the 1982 governor’s race.

“There’s the assumption that I’ve had a heap of luck, better than average training for life,” he told the Globe during one campaign, “and now I’m trying to share it with others.”

Untermeyer, who is now an international business consultant, said Mr. Sears “was of a different era. Is there anybody today who is like John Sears? Is there anyone from one of the founding families involved in government? I wonder. It underscores this moment, the passing of truly centuries of such leaders. That tradition was so ingrained for so long, and it ended on Tuesday.”

A service will be announced for Mr. Sears, who leaves his twin, Anne Ware Wilson of Boston.

An older brother, Frederick Fulton Sears, graduated in the same Harvard class, having taken time first to study elsewhere. The two were close, and when Fulton died in 1994, “he took up the mantle, if you will, in a very caring, but noninvasive way,” said Mr. Sears’s nephew Stephen of Washington, D.C.


Mr. Sears, who wrote histories for social clubs to which he belonged and was attentive to his ancestry, connected easily and eagerly with extended family, “with cousins of all shapes and sizes,” Stephen said. “I’m talking fourth cousins and 10th cousins.”

He read voraciously and wrote prodigiously, filling his Beacon Hill home with books and papers and notes he penned in “lovely handwriting,” said Stephen’s brother Daniel of Hamilton.

Though Mr. Sears spent much of his life in public office, elective or otherwise, “if you look at all the titles you could give him — commissioner, his honor, Oxford man — he carried those all proudly, but he was very proud of uncle,” Stephen said.

“For all of his politics,” Daniel said, “he was really a family man.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at