Obituaries

Francis W. Gens, 100, official who worked to make Boston safer

Mr. Gens served under six mayors during a 48-year career with the city.
Bachrach photo
Mr. Gens served under six mayors during a 48-year career with the city.

The grim statistics showed why Boston needed to create a court devoted specifically to housing issues, Francis W. Gens explained in 1971, when he was commissioner of the city’s Housing Inspection Department.

Of the 700 times his department took landlords to criminal court each year because of unsafe housing conditions, only 20 fines were issued and all those convictions “were appealed and the fines were set aside,” he told The New York Times. “In other words, we were unable to impose any penalties against landlords as the result of a full year’s work.”

A key advocate for launching the Boston Housing Court, he insisted that tenants couldn’t find justice elsewhere. “Judges who normally hear murder, rape, and armed robbery cases are reluctant to impose a fine for a code violation and give the landlord a criminal record,” he said. “To them, it is only a minor thing.”

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During a 48-year career with the city, Mr. Gens played a decisive role in numerous matters major and minor, from the Housing Court that issued rulings affecting thousands of poor residents, to inspecting cows, to limiting the number of fans who could squeeze into Fenway Park. He was 100 when he died in his sleep Oct. 23 in his Jamaica Plain home.

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“The thing that strikes me about his career is that he made a big difference in the health and safety of millions of people,” said his son Frank of Lexington, “but probably most people wouldn’t even know who he was, except to see his name on some elevators.”

One of the commissioner jobs Mr. Gens held required that his name appear on inspection certificates that were displayed in elevators throughout Boston.

Right out of college, Mr. Gens began working for the city in 1939, a little more than a year into the term of Mayor Maurice J. Tobin. His career lasted through James Michael Curley’s final stint in City Hall and the entire administrations of John B. Hynes, John F. Collins, and Kevin White. Mr. Gens retired at the end of 1987, halfway through the tenure of Raymond L. Flynn.

“When I started putting together notes for my eulogy, it sounded like a roll call of bridges, schools, and convention centers,” his son said.

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Among the challenges Mr. Gens faced was how to ensure public safety during the mid-1970s when a design flaw caused windows in the John Hancock Tower to pop out and plummet many stories to the sidewalks below. “It’s a difficult scientific problem to solve,” he lamented to the Globe in 1977, when he was the city’s building commissioner.

No less vexing was his run-in with the Red Sox the following year, when he learned that crowds at Fenway Park were exceeding the legal limit. Haywood Sullivan, the Red Sox general manager, tried to allay the city’s concerns. “The seating capacity depends upon the crowd,” Sullivan told the Globe in late April 1978. “We had more kids in the park last week. You can huddle their tiny bodies much closer together than you can when you have full-grown adults.”

A scientist by training, Mr. Gens didn’t buy that explanation, and he limited Fenway’s crowds to 36,005 — combining the number of seats and the allowed standing room spots.

Sullivan insisted that the Red Sox “could put as many people into the park as we want as long as we don’t block the aisles.”

That, Mr. Gens told the Globe, was “one of the most ridiculous comments I’ve ever heard.”

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The younger of two brothers, Francis William Gens was born and grew up in Lawrence. His father, Frank Gens, was a captain in the Fire Department. His mother, the former Louise Foley, was a homemaker.

Mr. Gens went to Lawrence High School and attended what was then Tufts College, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1939. After graduating, he moved to Boston, took a room at the YMCA, and landed his first job as a lab assistant at Boston City Hospital, earning 40 cents an hour.

While working there he met Winifred Doyle, a biologist, whom he married in 1946, and with whom he had five children. Mrs. Gens, who had coauthored research that was published in medical journals, was 95 when she died in 2012. “They were both kind of science nerds, and they managed to find each other in the labs at City Hospital,” their son Frank said. “They were married when they were 29.”

A couple of years after starting at the hospital, Mr. Gens’s pay jumped to 62 cents an hour, and he later became an assistant chemist for the Boston Health Department, where he progressed to become a chemist and a milk inspector — a job that included examining cows and milk.

His other positions included serving as director of environmental sanitation, director of building inspection, commissioner of the Building Department, and director of the city’s Water and Sewer Commission. He also served as chairman of the state Building Code Commission when that panel took up a proposal to require all dwelling units in the state to install smoke detectors.

When Mayor Kevin White named him to lead the Building Department in 1975, Globe columnist Carol Surkin called Mr. Gens “a good and fair administrator” who was taking on his toughest job yet. “The Building Department is widely regarded as the most corrupt agency in city government,” Surkin wrote. “Significantly, Gens is absolutely trustworthy from White’s point.”

The appointment also drew praise from Paul G. Garrity, a judge at the Housing Court Mr. Gens had worked to establish. Garrity told the Globe that Mr. Gens was “an outstanding commissioner, a superb administrator, and he is straight as an arrow.”

Less than a year into the job, Mr. Gens ordered that all of the agency’s 100 inspectors be switched to cover different districts. The inspectors were so acclimated to their assignments that “they cannot see the forest for the trees,” he told the Globe in 1976.

“Graft is not the major reason we are taking this action,” Mr. Gens added, “but it is a problem because familiarity breeds corruption.”

A funeral Mass was said Friday in St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Jamaica Plain for Mr. Gens, who in addition to his son Frank leaves two daughters, Marylou Greene and Lisa, both of Jamaica Plain; two other sons, Timothy of Weston and Philip of Jamaica Plain; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Throughout his nearly half-century working for the city, Mr. Gens “was still was kind of that 22-year-old science guy, even as he went along. He was never really a political figure,” his son Frank said.

“The other side of the coin is that even though he had a great career, from our perspective he was never career-driven,” Frank added. “First and foremost he was a family man. He managed to accomplish a lot at work, but was at home just about every evening. For his five children, he was always present.”

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