Growing up a daughter of William J. Galvin, who had served as Boston City Council president, Kathryn White knew what she didn’t want her future to hold.
“I listened to politics all my life,” she told the Globe in 1967. “I swore I’d never marry a politician.”
Then on a blind date one evening she met Kevin Hagan White, himself the son and grandson of City Council presidents.
“Kevin has that wonderful smile, as if there’s no one else in the room but you,” she recalled in that Globe interview, several weeks before he was first elected Boston’s mayor. “The first time I met him, I was fascinated. I knew immediately after our second or third date, I would marry him.”
Mrs. White, whose grace and elegance dazzled voters throughout her husband’s political career, which included four terms as mayor, died in her Beacon Hill home Monday. She was 82 and her health had been declining.
“Kathryn White was an example of what it means to truly embody the spirit of Boston,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said. “From her work with Boston’s elderly to her devotion to her husband, children, and family, she was an extraordinary first lady of Boston who will be greatly missed.”
George K. Regan Jr., a family friend who had been a longtime spokesman for Kevin White, called her “the elegant first lady of Boston.” Regan, who founded the public relations firm Regan Communications, said Mrs. White “had a front row seat” for her husband’s career, including turbulent times such as the years of court-ordered busing to desegregate the city’s schools.
When Kevin White was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, “she refused to let him go to a home,” Regan said. “She kept him in the house.” He died in 2012 in their Beacon Hill home.
A social worker after graduating from college, Mrs. White was an advocate for the elderly during her husband’s years at City Hall. In 1979, she took a part-time job at Boston University Medical Center as a consultant to the university’s programs for the elderly. “She probably knows more about the elderly than anyone in the city,” David Rosenbloom, then the city’s health and hospitals commissioner, told the Globe at the time.
If Mrs. White saw politics close-up as a child because of her father’s time as an elected official, her mother, the former Ella Swanson, may have inspired her interest in social services and caring for those less able to fend for themselves. A former faculty member at Lesley College, Ella Galvin helped found one of the first Girl Scout troops in the country for special needs girls. She also was a director of Camp Joy, which welcomed inner-city children with developmental disabilities.
In Charlestown, where Mrs. White grew up, her father was known as “Mother Galvin” for his tradition of giving clothing and turkeys to fellow townies during the Great Depression. He represented Charlestown on the City Council from 1938 to 1942 — serving as council president from 1940 to 1941. He also managed the campaign of Mayor Maurice Tobin, who appointed him superintendent of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market.
Kathryn Galvin was one of eight siblings — seven of them girls. She graduated from Holy Cross Academy in Brookline and was attending Newton College of the Sacred Heart when a sister of Kevin White, who was attending Boston College Law School, arranged a blind date. They soon fell in love.
One cold winter day, he arrived at the Sacred Heart campus when they had not planned a date. He asked her to drive with him to Cohasset, where he proposed as they walked along the seashore, holding hands in the chilly wind. They married in 1956, right after she graduated from college. The following year, she took a job as a social worker at Boston City Hospital, where she had held a summer job while in college.
The Whites had five children, and Kevin White spent nearly a quarter century as an elected official – seven years as secretary of state, followed by 16 years as mayor. “A real luxury for us is a quiet evening home,” Mrs. White told the Globe in 1970.
During her husband’s years in office, she grew practiced at shrugging off the criticism elected officials face, but cautioned in 1972: “The danger of being too unfeeling is that you get remote and callous.”
Regan, who called Mrs. White “truly a grand Bostonian,” said she often had an impact behind the scenes. She quietly stepped in, for example, to persuade her husband to rehire staff he sent packing when his temper flared. Mrs. White also retained her gentle disposition in unusual circumstances, such as during the Tall Ships farewell in 1980, when she found herself among city officials on a patrol boat that began taking on water. Another time, her husband had a Morgan horse delivered to their Beacon Hill home on Christmas morning as a present. “Look, I was seven months pregnant, and a horse was the last thing on my mind,” she recalled in 1972.
At Kevin White’s funeral Mass in 2012, former state treasurer Robert Q. Crane, who was one of his closest friends, spoke of Kathryn’s devotion during the years when her husband’s health declined after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis. “Never once did you give in to fear, frustration, or fatigue,” Crane said as Mrs. White wiped away tears.
“You were magnificent. You were fantastic. You were his Florence Nightingale. You were his angel,” Crane added as mourners stood to honor Mrs. White with an ovation that rang through the packed church.
Mrs. White leaves two sons, Chris and Mark; three daughters; Caitlyn, Elizabeth, and Patricia; two sisters, Marilyn Redmond and Denise Swan; her brother, William Galvin Jr.; and 10 grandchildren.
A wake will be held at 4 p.m. Wednesday in the Boston Harborside Home of J.S. Waterman & Son-Waring-Langone in Boston. A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. Cecilia Church in the Back Bay.
Family life for the Whites was filled with interviews, including one on a November morning in 1967 – the day after Kevin White was first elected mayor – when reporters arrived early at the Whites’ Beacon Hill home. “I don’t know when we’re really going to get a rest,” Mrs. White said that day.
There was little rest to be had the next 16 years, during her husband’s tenure as mayor, but she never longed for a life more ordinary.
“He’s extremely warm and engaging,” she said of her husband in a 1972 Globe interview. “He’s got humor, wit, and endless energy. The other night, I told him if he quit mayoring and got a 9-to-5 job, I’d die because I’m so geared to his high-powered job.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.