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James A. Fay, 91; former Massport chairman

James A. Fay also helped launch the Union of Concerned Scientists.
James A. Fay also helped launch the Union of Concerned Scientists.

James A. Fay offered only the slightest glimpse of the battle ahead on that July day in 1972 when he was sworn in as chairman of the Massachusetts Port Authority by a beaming Governor Francis W. Sargent.

“The board may have to consider future staff changes,” said Dr. Fay, who with his glasses and trimmed gray beard looked every bit the MIT professor he had once been, and would be again after helping to remake Massport and repair the agency’s relationship with Logan Airport’s neighboring communities.

First, however, there was Edward J. King, Massport’s executive director. Though many business leaders, unions, and lawmakers supported King’s expansion of Logan, he was considered not sympathetic enough to the airport’s impact on the environment and adjacent neighborhoods – key concerns for Dr. Fay. A little more than two years after becoming chairman, Dr. Fay and a slender board majority ousted King in the face of harsh, sometimes threatening criticism by King’s supporters.

“I think of Jay as one of those people who, if you were a really close observer of what had to happen in the city, you recognized as this remarkably heroic figure,” said Bob Weinberg, who succeeded Dr. Fay as Massport chairman.

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Dr. Fay, a mechanical engineering professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped launch the Union of Concerned Scientists, died of lymphoma June 2 in Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers. He was 91 and had lived the past couple of years at Newbury Court in Concord, after spending more than 55 years in Weston.

“Jay was the one who managed the turnaround. He made a dramatic difference in the direction of the agency,” said Frederick P. Salvucci, who was state transportation secretary at the end of Dr. Fay’s time as Massport chairman.

With King gone, Dr. Fay led Massport in crafting strategies to reduce the impact of jet noise on adjacent neighborhoods, delay runway expansion, and create a master plan. “I think it probably still is the most remarkable document about how an airport should treat its responsibilities,” said Ann Hershfang, who was appointed to the Massport board partway into Dr. Fay’s tenure. “He started the noise abatement policies. He got them underway.”

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Dr. Fay was “a great person of quiet, but fierce integrity,” Salvucci said in an e-mail.

“To know him and benefit from his wisdom, courage, kindness, and friendship was a gift I will treasure for the rest of my life,” Salvucci wrote. “He will be missed, but his memory can continue to inspire us.”

Dr. Fay arrived at Massport with a background in academia and government. He had a doctorate in marine engineering and had chaired the Boston Air Pollution Control Commission before taking the Massport position. He also had chaired a National Research Council study group whose environmental report helped kill a proposed expansion at Kennedy Airport in New York City.

“The striking thing was that unlike earlier people who had led the Port Authority board, Jay was willing to delve deeply into the technical issues and he understood them better than anybody,” said Alan Altshuler, the state transportation secretary under Sargent who helped recruit Dr. Fay to be Massport chairman.

“He was indefatigable and brilliant,” Altshuler added. “He also was wonderfully diplomatic and civil, so nobody could dislike Jay or not be inclined to listen to his arguments.”

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Praising Dr. Fay’s integrity, former governor Michael S. Dukakis said that “Jay was just such a good person” who at the time of his appointment “walked into a situation that was really kind of wild. At that point in time Jay was so right for that position and so good and so solid and so steady, and we needed that, believe me.”

The fourth of five children, James A. Fay was born in Southold, N.Y., on Long Island’s East End, and grew up on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. He was a boy when his mother died, and his father drifted away from family responsibilities, leaving Dr. Fay to be raised by his older sisters with few financial resources.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture in New York through an accelerated program, serving as a Navy ensign at the end of World War II, designing ship repairs in Brooklyn and San Diego.

In 1946, he married Agatha Kelly, who was known as Gay and whom he had met while working as a lifeguard in Southold, where his aunt lived. It was there that he developed a love of sailing and the water that lasted the rest of his life, informing his work and his boating pastime.

Dr. Fay graduated in 1947 with a master’s degree from MIT, and in 1951 with a doctorate from Cornell University, where he taught until joining MIT’s mechanical engineering faculty in 1955. His books include “Molecular Thermodynamics” (1964), “Introduction to Fluid Mechanics” (1994), and with Dan Golomb, “Energy and the Environment” (2002).

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Although Dr. Fay became a professor emeritus in 1989, “he retired and then immediately started teaching a class, introduction to mechanical engineering,” said his son Jamie of Ipswich.

Dr. Fay also remained active on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As a young MIT professor, Dr. Fay did consulting work for industries building missile guidance systems, but “I got to thinking about the research I’d been involved in,” he told the Globe in 1971. “It was evident that it hadn’t affected my daily life or that of anyone I knew.” He turned his attention to pollution and photochemical smog, and was appointed the first chairman of the Boston Air Pollution Control Commission.

In later years, as a board member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dr. Fay “was always the voice of reason on all of the things that we did,” said Bud Ris, former president and CEO of the organization. Pressing colleagues to ensure all their positions were “based on good science,” Ris added, Dr. Fay “kept us from straying off the reservation and was always good at reminding us about the central mission of the organization.”

Until his wife died in 2012 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Fay devoted himself full-time to her care. “He was a very, very devoted husband, to say the least,” his son said.

In addition to his son, Dr. Fay leaves four other sons, David of Harvard, Mark of Sandisfield, Colin of Brunswick, Maine, and Peter of Jamestown, R.I.; a daughter, Michele of Ripton, Vt.; his sister, Barbara Johnston of Portland, Maine; his companion, Audrey Briggs of Concord; 18 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. Julia Church in Weston.

Dr. Fay, who was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, could lead students into the complexities of science in a disarmingly gentle way.

“Fluid mechanics is a subject you know a lot about — at least intuitively — through your everyday experiences,” he wrote at the outset of his book “Introduction to Fluid Mechanics.” With a tone he might have used while untangling Massport proposals for colleagues years earlier, he reassured the textbook’s readers that “we are all experts.”


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