Robert Q. Crane, who built a legendary career in Massachusetts politics with one foot unapologetically planted in the state’s colorfully roguish past and the other leading the way to a more modern government, died of pneumonia early Friday, his family said. He was 91 and had been both the longest-serving state treasurer and the first chairman of the state lottery, considered the most successful in the nation.
His unblemished record of ballot-box victories extended from when he was first elected state representative, in 1956, to his final day as treasurer, in January 1991. With fabled charm and a smile as memorable as his dapper appearance, he could delight any visitor with a well-told tale or dazzle any gathering with a song rendered in his rich Irish tenor.
“His personality was a defining factor,” said Secretary of State William Galvin. “Bob had so many friends because he was instinctively a giving and generous guy.”
Mr. Crane cultivated storied friendships that reached from the State House to City Hall to Boston’s sports arenas. He was one of the late mayor Kevin White’s closest friends and delivered a touching eulogy at his 2012 funeral. Mr. Crane also counted professional athletes among his pals. Bobby Orr called him “Cranie,” and the two often got together to celebrate their birthdays, which fell on successive days in March.
“Bob and I started together. There aren’t many of us left from that era — it’s like a whole time has passed,” said Francis X. Bellotti, a former state attorney general and lieutenant governor.
“He was one of the really good guys who did his job and epitomized an era,” Bellotti added. “It was a very different time. We had fun in those days. I don’t think they have fun anymore.”
As head of the lottery, Mr. Crane tapped another sports friend, Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, to be a goodwill ambassador for the organization. After the Legislature created the lottery in 1971, and added lottery czar to the treasurer’s portfolio, Mr. Crane led it for more than 19 years. The financial success of the lottery was Mr. Crane’s greatest achievement, former governor Michael S. Dukakis once said.
Through it all, Mr. Crane retained an unwavering devotion to the fine art of political patronage. “The fact that someone is related to an elected official, attended college with me, or been a friend of a friend is an asset, not a liability,” he told the Globe in 1989, when he announced he would retire after 26 years as treasurer.
His old-school approach prompted criticism that was as steady as the stream of revenue that flowed into the state’s coffers. Mr. Crane controlled hundreds of jobs through the treasurer’s office and State Lottery Commission. As relatives and friends of state officials and legislators found their way onto the payroll, he resolutely dismissed any suggestion that patronage was no longer a political blessing.
“I live in the real world. Not the make-up world the critics and the rock throwers live in,” he told the Globe in January 1991, on the eve of leaving the State House as treasurer for the final time. “I’m a businessman. Not an unethical businessman, but a practical businessman. And practice makes perfect.”
The Massachusetts treasurer’s office sits at the intersection of politics and state government finances, and Mr. Crane became adept at wielding the enormous power vested in a constitutional office that’s an afterthought for many voters. Per myriad laws and statutes, the treasurer leads boards, authorities, and commissions that collectively control billions in state revenues, pension and retirement funds, and lottery income — not to mention advertising budgets, along with numerous contracts that are awarded to law firms and bond traders. Mr. Crane, who officially was treasurer and receiver-general, also oversaw the Commonwealth’s cash flow and borrowing.
Ledgers for all those responsibilities provided a firm accounting of the financial successes that he said bolstered his Election Day triumphs. They also provided a paper trail for his detractors, who raised ethical concerns about Mr. Crane’s penchant for sometimes depositing state funds in banks run by friends or steering contracts for printing, advertising, and legal matters to those he knew. Mr. Crane readily acknowledged the role played by his friendships, which he believed were an asset to his work on behalf of the state.
He was “a very charitable man,” Galvin said. “A lot of his charity manifested itself in favors, but the root of it wasn’t political benefit, it was helping people.”
Mr. Crane’s closest association outside of government through much of his career led to a lengthy investigation by two federal grand juries into his income taxes and campaign funds, which ended in 1977 when the US attorney announced that criminal prosecution had been ruled out. The probe arose from Mr. Crane’s longtime professional and personal friendship with Eugene Merkert, who ran a Canton food brokerage company. Merkert had managed one of Mr. Crane’s campaigns, and the company paid Mr. Crane as a consultant through much of his career in office — sums that exceeded his treasurer’s salary. Mr. Crane had also deposited state funds in a bank for which Merkert was a director and major shareholder.
Even as he fended off ethics questions in the Merkert case and other dealings, Mr. Crane was credited through his years as treasurer with diligently improving the office’s professional standards as managing state finances became an ever more complex undertaking.
“When you’re right, you never let somebody who doesn’t know the whole picture make you change it. I’m not going to be pushed around to change my style,” he said in a retirement eve interview with the Globe’s Renee Loth, who dubbed him “the Rogue Scholar of Massachusetts politics.”
The youngest of five children, Robert Quentin Crane was born in Providence to Matthew Crane, a theatrical property manager for vaudeville shows, and the former Helen Needham. “If you know your Latin, you’ll know Quentin signifies I was the fifth Crane child,” he told the Globe in 1964. He was 7 when his father, an immigrant from County Mayo, Ireland, moved the family to Brighton.
As a youth, Mr. Crane became friends with John T. Driscoll. They graduated from Boston English High School and went to Boston College, where they set aside their studies to serve in the military. Mr. Crane was a corporal in the Marines and fought in the Battle of Okinawa during World War II and returned to graduate from BC in 1949. He worked initially in sales, and later helped start a food brokerage.
In 1950, he married Mary Alberts of Allston, and they had five children. “Together, they made an unbeatable team and Bob always performed better, whether it was in politics, golf, or music, when Mary was at his side,” the family said in a statement.
He worked on Driscoll’s House campaign, and after being elected to the House himself in 1956, Mr. Crane rose through the ranks and was named assistant majority leader. Driscoll, meanwhile, was elected state treasurer, an office he vacated to become chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Mr. Crane effectively campaigned for votes in the Legislature, which elected him to fill the interim treasurer post in early 1964. In the fall, he defeated primary candidates who included Louise Day Hicks, and he went on to win the first of several general elections.
He also had served as chairman of the Democratic State Committee in the early 1970s, righting the organization’s financial ship and eliminating its debts. After retiring as treasurer in 1991, he became a Merkert Enterprises executive and kept appearing with his singing group, the Treasury Notes, which performed more than 1,000 times over the years.
“There are no big shots. I ought to know. I wanted to be one. That is why I ran for state representative 33 years ago. I wanted to be someone,” Mr. Crane wrote in an essay for the Globe in 1989, after announcing he planned to retire.
“I knew two things about myself, which are still true — I cared about people, and I wanted people to like me,” he added. “I worked hard at both and made many good friends in my early days in politics. I worked hard in my district and was always available. I liked nothing better than doing a favor for someone in need and making someone happy.”
In addition to his wife, of Wellesley, Mr. Crane leaves five children, Mary Lou Crane Ryan, David, and Jeanne, all of Wellesley, Patricia of Boston, and Robert Jr. of Wellesley and Silver Spring, Md.; and six grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Tuesday in St. Paul Church in Wellesley.
In his Globe essay, he recalled spending his early years in office “learning about politics, government and loyalty. I thought loyalty was everything. All other virtues were lost if not accompanied by loyalty.”
That trait was on display as Mr. Crane devoted considerable time to visiting his old friend Kevin White several years ago as the mayor slipped deeper into Alzheimer’s disease.
“We were different in many ways, yet we each admired the other’s style,” Mr. Crane wrote of their decades-long friendship. “I guess I could always make him laugh, and today that is even more important for politicians.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.