John “Wacko” Hurley, the longtime organizer of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston who was a central figure in the dispute over whether gay advocacy groups could march in the event, died Tuesday night at Massachusetts General Hospital, his family said.
The family said the health of the 85-year-old Hurley had been failing.
“That’s too bad,” said former mayor Raymond L. Flynn. “He was a good man. He did the best he could, and he was a fighter for veterans too. . . . He’s always been identified with the St. Patrick’s Day parade and always [did] what he felt was best for the parade and what he felt was best for veterans.”
Hurley served for years as a leader of the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, the organizer of the parade, and he was the plaintiff in a landmark civil case that came before the US Supreme Court in 1995.
In June of that year, the high court ruled 9-0 that the veterans council could bar gay and lesbian organizations from marching in the parade on First Amendment grounds.
The decision angered gay rights groups, including the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, which marched in the parade in 1992 and 1993 under a state court order.
But supporters of the Supreme Court ruling, including Hurley himself, lauded the decision as a victory for freedom.
“I’m very sentimental,” he said at the time. “We’re not going to gloat. We’re just glad we stayed in the fight.”
He said the exclusion of gays from the parade was not aimed particularly at them but at their message, and that organizers would not allow a group to march if it had “a message contrary to family values.”
Brian Mahoney, commander of the veterans council, praised Hurley on Tuesday night as a staunch supporter of veterans and the city of Boston.
“No one loved South Boston more than Wacko, and America never had a better defender than Wacko,” Mahoney said. “He always did what he thought was right, and he didn’t have a mean bone in his body, despite what detractors might say.”
The Supreme Court ruling did not put the issue of gay groups and other organizations marching in the parade to rest.
Former Mayor Thomas M. Menino refused to march because of the council’s policy barring gay organizations, which began participating in an alternative parade along the same route with antiwar activists in 2011.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh tried unsuccessfully in 2014 to negotiate the inclusion of a gay rights group in the veterans council parade, and he joined the procession last March after organizers broke with tradition and welcomed OUTVETS, a group that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender veterans.
Walsh said Tuesday in a phone interview that Hurley was “a very proud American.”
“He was truly a son of South Boston,” Walsh said. “He did a lot in his community. I know he’s going to be known probably for the parade, but he did so much in the community.”
His death, Walsh said, represents “a part of Boston’s history that has passed away.”
Hurley, Flynn said, always worked to ensure that conditions were optimal for the parade, which draws thousands of spectators each year.
“He would come into my office to make sure that the streets were paved and were clean and that we had all the police and fire services,” Flynn said.
“He always wanted to make sure that it was a good parade for all the people that came, as well as all the people who participated. . . . This is what he believed in, and this is what he fought for,” Flynn added.
Said Mahoney, “He’s been a friend and supporter of veterans since he became a veteran himself since the end of World War II. He’s always been there to do what he could.”
Hurley was also remembered on Tuesday night by Congressman Stephen F. Lynch, a South Boston Democrat.
“John Wacko Hurley was part of America’s greatest generation,” Lynch said in a statement. “He was a proud veteran. He was a devoted husband to Molly and a loving father and grandfather. He remains dearly loved in South Boston.
“Wacko was humble, but he was not shy. He was a man of faith. I think he was probably misunderstood by many, but he liked it that way.”