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Joseph Timilty, 79, former state senator who waged epic mayoral battles against Kevin White

Globe Staff/file

Joseph Timilty during a 2001 event.

By Globe Staff 

In a Dorchester union hall in 1979, several nights before his third Election Day face-off with Mayor Kevin White, Joseph F. Timilty exhorted a cheering crowd of some 400 supporters.

“If you want to come out swinging tomorrow, let’s hear it,” he called out to swelling applause.

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Mr. Timilty, who was 79 when he died in his Canton home Friday of cancer, always came out swinging — as a Marine, in his Boston City Council races, in his dozen years as a state senator, and particularly during three mayoral campaigns, including when he finished about 7,500 votes shy of unseating White in 1975.

“Somebody the other day described Joe as a throwback — an old-school politician who never forgot anybody’s name, who always remembered where they came from,” said Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “He was a good man who always helped people out. He defended the underdog. He defended the person who didn’t have a voice.”

Raised in one of the Hub’s most storied political families, Mr. Timilty was the grandson of James P. Timilty, a state senator for whom a Roxbury middle school is named. Other political relatives include his uncle and namesake, Joseph F. Timilty, who was appointed Boston police commissioner by then-governor James Michael Curley, and was a confidant of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

Mr. Timilty’s career in the Senate, and his mayoral campaigns, provided some of the more distinguished chapters in family lore. He also personally penned some of the most sobering pages of Timilty history after he was convicted in 1993 on a sole count of conspiracy to commit fraud, as part of a real estate venture. Using notes from a journal he kept during a four-month jail term, Mr. Timilty filled a memoir with wryly funny observations and quiet reflections, and the experience inspired him to advocate for prison reform.

“I’ll never attend Christmas Mass without thinking of people everywhere who are locked up,” he wrote in notes that became “Prison Journal: An Irreverent Look at Life on the Inside,” coauthored with Globe staffer Jack Thomas.

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As a state senator, Mr. Timilty advocated on behalf of those with physical and developmental disabilities. He also secured housing funding for the elderly and mortgage subsidies for low-income families.

“Joe was their fighter in the Senate,” said former Boston mayor Raymond L. Flynn, a longtime friend who added that Boston “benefited greatly from his integrity, his hard work, his determination, and his example.”

Over the years, Mr. Timilty and Flynn campaigned for each other and ran side by side while competing in the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon. “Joe was really a man of the people,” Flynn said. “There was no politician that fought more for the underdog than Joe.”

Growing up in Dorchester, Mr. Timilty went from being an altar boy at St. Gregory Church to becoming a stellar athlete. Starting out at Boston College High School, he transferred to St. John’s Prep in Danvers, where he lettered in football, hockey, and baseball.

During his first semester at Providence College, Mr. Timilty left to join the Marine Corps and served in the Mediterranean during the Lebanon crisis in the late 1950s. He was promoted to sergeant and would remind reporters that there is no such thing as an “ex-Marine.”

Offered a chance to attend officer candidate school, he returned home instead to run his family’s Elk Laundry when his father became ill. Mr. Timilty later noted that he worked “from 6 to 6, and that includes Saturdays and every holiday, minus Christmas and New Year’s.”

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While in grammar school at St. Gregory in Dorchester, he met Elaine F. Benson, “and they’ve been together ever since,” said their son Gregory of Boston. The couple married in 1961 and had seven children.

Mr. Timilty entered politics in 1960 as a neighborhood volunteer for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and also worked for the US Senate campaign of Edward M. Kennedy.

As a candidate, Mr. Timilty fell short in his first two City Council campaigns, in 1963 and 1965. At the age of 29, he was elected to the council in 1967, and was re-elected two years later. During his first mayoral race, in 1971, he finished third in the preliminary election, behind Louise Day Hicks and White, who subsequently was reelected in the runoff to a second term.

Mr. Timilty then became a teaching fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics, telling the Globe that he offered Harvard students “the first realistic course they had. They found out about government without being assigned five textbooks.” Years later, he was a lecturer at Boston University, assigning students to follow the life of a bill from research and drafting through testifying, lobbying, and the Legislature’s voting.

In early 1972, Mr. Timilty entered a special election race to fill the Fifth Senate District seat, cruising to victory in the April election. In 1984, after 12 years in the Senate, Mr. Timilty left politics to focus on real estate development — a career change inspired in no small part by looming college education bills.

“We had been married for more than 20 years, had seven children, and several of them were teenagers,” Elaine Timilty told the Globe in 1993. “He told me, ‘I had the first 20 years, the next 20 are yours.’ ”

“They pay a harder price than I do,” Mr. Timilty said in 1975 of the impact his professional life had on his family.

He was particularly worried about the toll in 1993, when he was convicted for his role in an East Boston condominium development. Prosecutors said the project’s developers didn’t disclose the second mortgages that buyers had taken out, or falsely told lenders that substantial cash down payments were made.

In interviews, Mr. Timilty told the Globe that the US attorney’s office had offered leniency if he would provide evidence implicating a partner. He refused and was arrested and handcuffed in his home at dawn, but chose a trial, rather than become an informer. “I was guilty of putting my name on some HUD form that says at the bottom there is no secondary financing,” he told the Globe. “I’m guilty of stupidity, but I’m not guilty of conspiracy to defraud.” Prosecutors sought a jail term of more than three years. A US District Court judge sentenced Mr. Timilty to four months.

“I’m walking on air,” he wrote in February 1994, the day he was released.

Mr. Timilty’s daughter Kelly, who had served on the Governor’s Council, died in 2012. His other daughter, Kara, died in 2015.

In addition to his wife, Elaine, and his son, Gregory, Mr. Timilty leaves four other sons, Joseph Jr. of Canton, Patrick of South Boston, James of Walpole, and Bart of Canton; his brother, Walter Jr. of Milton; and seven grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in St. Gregory Church in Dorchester. Burial will be private, and a memorial service will be announced.

In his memoir, which was culled from notes jotted during his jail term, Mr. Timilty ranged from humor to spirituality. “The cell’s so small you have to leave to change your mind,” he wrote at one point, and added later, “One value of my federal stay: I’ve relearned the value of prayer.”

“You need three things to get through this,” he wrote. “Most important, family. I can’t imagine this without support from Elaine and the kids. Second, friends. People who remained friends through this will never be forgotten. Third, faith. When you’re alone, it’s faith that comes into play.”


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