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Richard Donahue, at 88; lawyer was friend to Kennedys, Nike’s president

Richard Donahue, his wife Nancy and the first seven of their 11 children visited with President Kennedy at the White House in August 1963.
Richard Donahue, his wife Nancy and the first seven of their 11 children visited with President Kennedy at the White House in August 1963. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

In a career that stretched from Lowell to the White House, the West Coast, and back home again, Richard K. Donahue served as an assistant to President John F. Kennedy, a trusted campaign confidant of US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and as president of Nike.

Mr. Donahue, whose health had been declining, died Tuesday evening at home in Lowell, where he had lived most of his life. He was 88.

One of the last remaining links to the Kennedy White House, Mr. Donahue had met the future president when JFK was in Lowell in 1952 during his US Senate campaign. “For an Irish-American, he was the Second Coming,” Mr. Donahue said during a 2010 interview with the Lowell Sun about Kennedy, whose campaign he quickly joined.

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Though Mr. Donahue’s association with campaigns by John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy continued for decades, “he didn’t seek glory. He didn’t seek recognition – in fact, the reverse,” said Charles U. Daly, who served with Mr. Donahue in the West Wing of the Kennedy White House.

“He was loyal. Not blindly loyal, but wisely loyal,” Daly said. “There was a lot of brilliance around that place, in that administration. Dick had brains and character and courage.”

He also had a keen talent for observation that Theodore H. White captured in his book “The Making of the President 1960.” As Kennedy spoke in Boston Garden on the eve of Election Day, Mr. Donahue pointed out to White “the envious faces of the local politicians watching the candidate as he spoke. ‘You know,’ said Donahue, ‘they can’t understand this. They think he has a trick. They’re listening to him because they think if they learn the trick they can be president, too.’”

Along with serving as a staff assistant to the president for congressional liaison, Mr. Donahue was involved in Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign “and all my father’s senatorial campaigns,” Edward M. Kennedy Jr. said. “He was somebody my father knew he could count on for many important projects, including his engagement with Kennedy Library.”

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Mr. Donahue was a founding board member of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, serving as its vice president for 29 years. He also was the first to chair the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Committee, and had helped launch the annual award.

In 1990, Mr. Donahue was appointed president of Nike, on whose board he served for many years until retiring as vice chairman in 2008. “I have worked everywhere from the White House down,” he told The New York Times when he began leading the company. “This job is the only thing that has impressed my kids.”

A third-generation lawyer, Mr. Donahue practiced at the Lowell firm Donahue & Donahue, which was founded by his grandfather.

Mr. Donahue formerly served as president of the New England Bar Association and the Massachusetts Bar Association, which in 1979 awarded him its Gold Medal. He also formerly chaired the Board of Bar Overseers and the Massachusetts Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Professionalism.

“Dick was an elegant guy. As a lawyer, you’d have a hard time finding somebody who had more talent,” said Paul Sugarman, a former dean of Suffolk University Law School. “When you had a tough problem, this was the guy you went to for advice. As a lawyer, as a bar leader, he was always ahead of his time.”

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In 2005, a hearing officer for the state Board of Bar Overseers recommended that Mr. Donahue and two other lawyers be disbarred for their participation in an effort to discredit a Superior Court judge and portray her as biased during an extended legal battle over the Demoulas family supermarket fortune. The following year, Mr. Donahue was suspended from practicing law for three years, and subsequently was reinstated.

The Friends of the John F. Kennedy Library named Mr. Donahue Irishman of the Year in 2004, presenting him with an annual award that honors John F. Kennedy’s love of his Irish heritage.

Mr. Donahue also served many years on the board of what is now University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he and his wife, Nancy, endowed a professorship. The couple also helped found the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.

“He only had two stints out of Lowell – when he was down in Washington and when he was at Nike,” said their son Richard Jr. of Rye, N.H. “He loved everything about Lowell. He was a Lowell booster all the way through.”

Mr. Donahue was born in Lowell on July 20, 1927, a son of Joseph P. Donahue, a lawyer, and the former Dorothy F. Riordan. The third of seven children, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1948 and from Boston University School of Law in 1951.

While in law school, he met Nancy Lawson while both lived on Joy Street in Boston. They married in 1953 and had 11 children.

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“He was an outstanding lawyer, first and foremost. He was one of the best in the business, for sure,” said his son, who is part of the family’s fourth generation of lawyers. “But that was just his professional life. As a father of a rather large family, he was kind of the rock that we all were anchored to. No matter what the issue was, no matter what the concern was, he was always available to help us and guide us.”

Mr. Donahue, he added, also was a loving grandfather to his 16 grandchildren. “He loved to have the kids around. He loved to hear the commotion,” his son said. “It always amazed me with his career and all the responsibilities that he had and all the pressures he had, he would love to come home and hear us banging around upstairs.”

In addition to his wife, son, and grandchildren, Mr. Donahue leaves 10 other children, Abigail Morris of Kirkland, Wash., Timothy of Parkdale, Ore., Stephen of Burlington, Vt., Christopher of Palm City, Fla., Tara of Tyngsborough, Alicia of Lancaster, and Michael, Nancy, Daniel, and Philip, all of Lowell; two sisters, Dorothy Sullivan of Westford and Catherine of Falmouth; and a brother, David of Winchester.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Saint Patrick Church in Lowell. Burial will be in St. Mary Cemetery in North Tewksbury.

In the Kennedy White House years, “it wasn’t money, it wasn’t glory. It was just an exciting time,” said Daly, who formerly was director of the Kennedy Library. “It was some guy to work for – I know that Dick thought that.”

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During oral history interviews conducted in 1967 for the Kennedy Library, Mr. Donahue recalled the “unbelievable” crowds in Boston Garden the night before the 1960 presidential election, and added that for “no hockey game, no basketball game, nowhere has there ever been such a noise.”

Much changed after the election, Mr. Donahue said in those interviews, including something as simple as how those close to Kennedy reacted in his presence. The day after the election, Mr. Donahue and a few others, among them Sargent Shriver, Theodore Sorensen, and Pierre Salinger, were sitting in the living room of Robert F. Kennedy’s house. “All of a sudden, the president walked in,” Mr. Donahue said in the oral history, “and it was the first time, I remember, we all stood up, and I don’t think we had ever stood up for him ever before.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.