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Joseph Gallant; led effort to overhaul welfare in Mass.

Mr. Gallant served as head of Mass. Health and Human Services in the mid-1990s.

A state social worker in the 1960s, Joseph V. Gallant Jr. also worked nights and weekends stocking store shelves so he could afford to send his five children to parochial schools in Revere.

His personal code of ethics was so stringent that he never brought home any office supplies from his primary job even though his wife suggested the state could spare a few pens for their kids’ homework, according to family lore.

“My father would not bring home a pen because he thought it was stealing. He was just the epitome of the hard-working guy,” said his son Paul.

Mr. Gallant, who spent 37 years working in state government, implemented sweeping welfare reforms in the 1990s, first as commissioner of welfare and then as secretary of Health and Human Services. He took the welfare post under Governor William Weld in 1991 and served as health secretary from July of 1996 to the following June.

Mr. Gallant died on Dec. 3 at his son Paul’s home in Halifax from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 81.


“He was tremendous. He was honest. He was passionate. He was a mentor to so many of us over the years and he was just a great leader,” said Claire McIntire, who succeeded Mr. Gallant as commissioner of the welfare department.

“He brought out the best in everyone, myself included,” McIntire said.

During his tenure as welfare commissioner, Mr. Gallant battled the Legislature over initial welfare reform plans that he considered plagued by loopholes. He penned a memo successfully advising Weld to veto the bill in 1994. A new reform plan was later adopted.

“It was a very hard job. It was changing the way the Commonwealth did business. It was a change of mindset and there was a lot of pushback,” McIntire said, recalling Mr. Gallant’s “patience” and commitment to moving able-bodied recipients into jobs.


Mr. Gallant touted such work for reducing the welfare rolls and improving the self-esteem of former recipients. Among the changes were new rules requiring adult welfare recipients in two-parent families to perform community service in exchange for a check from the state.

“If people know they’re going to have to work for their welfare, there isn’t an incentive to go on welfare,’’ Mr. Gallant told the Globe in 1994.

“Any job is better than a welfare grant,” Mr. Gallant said. “It gives people a sense of pride.”

Despite the adversarial relationship between the legislative branch and the governor’s office during welfare reform, Mr. Gallant was recognized for his professionalism. He “came to us and talked to us. He listened, he understood, he was familiar with the programs,” said then-state Senator Therese Murray in 1997, when Mr. Gallant retired from state government.

Born in 1935 and raised in Revere, Joseph V. Gallant Jr. was the eldest son of Joseph and the former Anna M. Cavagnaro. His father served in the Navy in World War II and worked for the Social Security Administration office in Boston. His mother was 104 when she died in 2012.

Mr. Gallant went to Boston College with the help of a football scholarship and worked as a night watchman during his college years, his brother, Albert, said.

“He was my idol,” said his brother. “He was the most ethical person I’ve ever known. He was a humble guy and he did a lot of great things in his life. He got to the top because he worked hard and he was honest.”


Mr. Gallant dreamed of going into law enforcement and had an internship at the FBI, according to his brother. But the economic pressures of being a young husband and father led him to accept a job in social work offered him in 1959 during Governor Foster Furcolo’s administration.

Mr. Gallant later earned a master’s degree in social work from Simmons College. He was married 57 years to the former Constance “Connie” Thistle, whom he met on Revere Beach in the 1950s. She died in 2014.

Dinner time was sacred in the Gallant household, according to his children. Mr. Gallant always managed to make it home in time for the 5:30 p.m. meal no matter what was going on at his office and expected all of his children to be there on time as well, son Paul said.

Mr. Gallant’s first-born son Joseph “Peter” was a Boston police detective. He died in 2013 at age 56.

In addition to his son Paul and his brother Albert, of Fairfax, Va., Mr. Gallant leaves two other sons Mark of Hyannis and Steven of Reading; a daughter, Mary Ann O’Leary of Reading; a sister, Gail Cronin of Marblehead; and 16 grandchildren.

A funeral Mass was said at the Immaculate Conception Church in Revere.

In 1999, the Beacon Hill Institute named Mr. Gallant as director of Social Policy Studies. He assessed the role of mentoring in moving welfare recipients into work and analyzed the potential of tax incentives to end dependency.


Mr. Gallant, who enjoyed daily walks and bike riding, took on another job after retiring from state government, becoming a school crossing guard in Revere.

“He couldn’t stand just sitting around,” son Paul said.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at