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John ‘Wacko’ Hurley, 85; organized St. Patrick’s Day parade

Mr. Hurley was a leader of the group that sponsored the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Mr. Hurley was a leader of the group that sponsored the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade.GLOBE STAFF/file 1995/Boston Globe

For more than half a century, John "Wacko" Hurley spent most of each year organizing the St. Patrick's Day parade in South Boston. Then, after watching the marchers go by, he relaxed with a cigar and began preparing for the following year's extravaganza.

"This year's parade is probably the biggest we've ever had," he told the Globe in 1998.

On that day, he was savoring more than just the size of the event and a celebratory Honduran cigar. Nearly three years earlier, as a leader of the South Boston Allied War Veterans Council, the group that sponsored the parade, Mr. Hurley had lent his name to a key case that went to the US Supreme Court. In June 1995, the nine justices ruled unanimously that the Veterans Council had the free speech right to bar gay and lesbian groups from marching.

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"After that," he told the Globe during the 1998 parade, "people started calling me 'Wacko 9-0' because of the court's decision."

Mr. Hurley, who only lived away from his home neighborhood of South Boston while serving in the military, died Tuesday at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 85 and his health had been declining, his family said.

The case that bears his name was Hurley v. the Irish American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston. In the early 1990s, gay and lesbian organizations challenged the Veterans Council's ban on letting them march in the parade, and the state Supreme Judicial Court had ruled in their favor on discrimination grounds. On free speech principles, the US Supreme Court reversed the state court's ruling and let the ban stand.

"I'm taking this all the way to the Supreme Court," Mr. Hurley had told Globe columnist Mike Barnicle. "My opponents can say, 'We're here and we're queer,' but me, Wacko Hurley, I say, 'I'm bright and I'm right.' "

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The US Supreme Court decision kept gay and lesbian groups out of the parade for two more decades, until the sponsor organization voted this year to let contingents march.

In a 2003 interview conducted by Suffolk University for the John Joseph Moakley Oral History Project, Mr. Hurley recalled that when the case was at the Supreme Court, "I went right over to the middle of the gays, and there was probably 30 of them. And I says, 'Good morning, everybody.' And they says, 'Oh, good morning. Good luck.' I said, 'Oh, thank you.' "

He added with a laugh, "I wouldn't say good luck back because I wouldn't have meant it. So I just says, 'Thank you.' "

The youngest of five siblings, John Joseph Hurley grew up in South Boston. His parents, Michael Hurley and the former Margaret Moriarity, were from County Kerry, Ireland, and his father worked for the fire department.

Mr. Hurley was a lineman on South Boston High School's football team and served in the Navy during the Korean War. In 1952, he married Margaret Deveney, known as Molly, whom he had met on a blind date.

The couple could banter like a comedy duo. Near the end of their oral history interview — a transcript that ran 35 pages — Mr. Hurley quipped, "Sorry I remained in my shell, but . . ." And his wife interjected, "I know. Geez, I'm glad you said something."

Mr. Hurley had worked in veterans services and then spent many years as an office manager for the MBTA. He also was a regular at church. "I go to 7 o'clock Mass," he said for the oral history. "I do it every morning because I need all the help I can get."

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Mr. Hurley (left), with attorney Chester Darling at a news conference, lent his name to a landmark Supreme Court case that upheld the group’s right to bar gay and lesbian groups from marching.
Mr. Hurley (left), with attorney Chester Darling at a news conference, lent his name to a landmark Supreme Court case that upheld the group’s right to bar gay and lesbian groups from marching.Globe Staff/File 1995

In 2008, Mr. Hurley was among the recipients of the Cheverus Award medals presented by Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley. Recipients "are chosen for their service to the Church and God's people," according to the Boston Archdiocese website.

During the oral history interview conducted in his East Fourth Street home, Mr. Hurley spoke of how close he remained to his roots. "I was born in a house two blocks down the street. And when we got married, I moved down to Atlantic Street for a couple of years. Then we come back to next door, to the house I was born in, and then we moved all the way up here."

He added: "A question was asked of me so many times, 'Will you ever leave South Boston?' I says, 'I'll be the one to put the lights out' because it's a great — you got everything here."

Mr. Hurley lived "in St. Brigid's parish all his life," said one of his daughters, Lisa McDonough of Milton. "That used to be our joke when we were little. When we were going out, he'd say, 'Stay in the parish.' "

"He's a family guy, you know? He didn't go out a lot," she said. "He stayed home. We always had a family dinner."

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Because he was a prominent voice in South Boston, Mr. Hurley was among those interviewed in the 1970s by an Irish film crew for a documentary about the neighborhood during court-ordered busing to integrate Boston's schools. Mr. Hurley opposed the federal court order.

"There's nothing wrong with busing, but forced busing is wrong. . . . Anything forced is wrong," he told the Globe in 1978.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Hurley leaves three sons, John Jr. of Hingham, Michael of Billerica, and Patrick of Milton; three other daughters, Anne McDavitt of Weymouth, Margaret of South Boston, and Jacqueline of Quincy; 15 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Monday in St. Brigid Church in South Boston. Burial will be Cedar Grove Cemetery in Dorchester.

Mr. Hurley insisted he didn't know the origin of his nickname "Wacko."

"I'm very proud of it. I was born with it. It just came out of the blue," he told the Globe in 1992 with a wave of his cigar. "If you find out where it comes from, you let me know."

Mr. Hurley was far more certain about his loyalty to South Boston. "If you're in trouble, South Boston is the place to be," he said, adding: "I don't stray too far from my heavenly home."


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