Bill McGonagle called me a few months ago and said the last words I ever expected to hear.
“I’m retiring,” he said.
“Yeah, sure you are, Billy,” I replied.
But, as usual, he was telling the truth.
He retired in July, and then Thursday morning I got a call from a mutual friend saying he was dead.
Pancreatic cancer saw to it that Bill McGonagle, one of the finest public servants the city of Boston ever produced, was able to enjoy his retirement for less than three months. He was 67.
I don’t know what you call that, but you don’t call it fair.
Boston is a small town, a collection of neighborhoods, peopled by those of different colors and ethnicities and possibilities. It is a place where we identify certain people with certain institutions.
The Kennedys with our politics. Bill Russell with the Celtics. Frederick Law Olmsted with our parks. Ted Williams with the Red Sox. Melnea Cass with civil rights. Bobby Orr with the Bruins. Julia Child with our kitchens. Paul Revere with our revolution. Arthur Fiedler with the Boston Pops. Elie Wiesel with our consciences.
And Bill McGonagle with the Boston Housing Authority.
When you thought BHA, you thought Billy.
There was no one better suited to run the agency. Not because he was smart and politically astute, which he was. Not because he was a natural diplomat, which he was, comfortable with mayors as fundamentally different in personality as Ray Flynn, Tom Menino, and Marty Walsh.
Billy McGonagle was the best guy to run public housing in Boston because he grew up in the projects, specifically in South Boston. He intuitively understood and respected many of the city’s poorest, most vulnerable residents, for whom housing has become increasingly more difficult to secure, because he used to be one of them. He never forgot where he came from, and he came from the projects, a word that somebody somewhere later inexplicably decided was a perjorative.
If Whitey Bulger was the worst guy to come out of the McCormack projects, Bill McGonagle may have been the best. When he was awaiting the trial that would send him to a different kind of accommodation, Whitey complained that Southie in general and the McCormack in particular had changed, becoming less homogenized, less white, less his people.
McGonagle did a lot to make that happen, doing yeoman’s work to make sure the integration of public housing in Southie and Charlestown, in particular, didn’t lead to chaos like the integration of the city’s public schools did a generation before. As he told my colleague Adrian Walker, he paid a price for his integrity.
Billy had no time for racists, but he also had the ability to counteract them. He was the bulwark. Unlike the haters, Billy wasn’t threatened by change. He saw poor minorities moving into the project as no different than his tribe, the poor Irish, who moved in a few generations before, when the Brahmins used to talk about the Irish the way racists talk about poor people of color today.
For that alone, his legacy is enormous. But he was way more than that, his four decades at the BHA a case study in how a public servant conducts himself.
Billy and I last traded e-mails and spoke in August, after I wrote a column sticking up for two City Hall guys who the feds prosecuted for trying to get a concert promoter to hire union workers.
Billy couldn’t understand why so many people dismissed the City Hall guys as extortionists when the promoters made big bucks on the cheap.
“It’s always the working stiff that pays the price,” he wrote in an e-mail to me.
Probably a million times, Billy stood in a wake line outside O’Brien Funeral Home in Southie, just up the street from his house.
Soon, everybody will be standing in line there for Billy.