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James King, guiding presence behind the scenes for top Democrats, dies at 84

Jim King at the third night of the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Jim King at the third night of the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.Janet Knott/Globe Staff

Just beyond the spotlights that lit the Democratic National Convention’s stage stood Jim King, a towering behind-the-scenes presence respected for his acumen and finesse, for his wisdom and wit, and for the mere fact that at 6-foot-5, he cast his gaze downward to meet the eyes of some of the nation’s most powerful politicians.

Among his many roles locally and nationally as a key operative in Democratic politics, Mr. King managed podium logistics for several national conventions. Clad perpetually in headphones, he seemed to see and hear everything at once as he calmed the nerves of jittery speakers.

“I’m the last person they’re talking with before they hit the stage,” he told the Globe in 2000 at the convention in Los Angeles — the city where he had watched Democrats nominate John F. Kennedy for president four decades earlier.

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As physically powerful as he was intellectually sharp, Mr. King had no interest in slowing down with age. On Sunday, he was moving a wheelbarrow of granite while building a stone wall in the backyard of his Rockport home when he died of an apparent heart attack, his family said. He was 84.

“He was one of the special people in American politics,” said John Kerry, a former US senator and US secretary of state who benefited from Mr. King’s expertise at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, when Kerry became the party’s nominee.

“If you saw Jim King on the podium managing things, you knew it was going to work out and you didn’t have to worry. He took the worry and the concern away,” Kerry said, adding that “he launched an awful lot of careers off that podium along the way.”

Though Mr. King deftly shaped how Americans viewed the conventions, this work was only part of a resume that took him from jumping out of planes as an Army paratrooper to jumping into any manner of political fray.

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Dubbed a “Democratic advance man extraordinaire” by Globe political columnist Michael Jonas, Mr. King got his start as a teenager holding up a “Welcome to Springfield” sign for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

Mr. King went on to work for Jack, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy, for Michael S. Dukakis and Kerry, and for President Jimmy Carter and President Bill Clinton.

Clinton tapped Mr. King to direct the US Office of Personnel Management, where he trimmed the government work force. Years earlier, Mr. King served in the Carter administration as head of the National Transportation Safety Board.

In an e-mailed statement, Carter said he and his wife, Rosalynn, were “deeply saddened to learn of the death of Jim King. I was proud to appoint him as a White House special assistant and to the National Transportation Safety Board, where he became chairman. Jim dedicated his life to public service, and his tireless work for the public good was coupled with a delightful sense of humor and a zest for life.”

Mr. King “brought honor to politics and to public service simply by being himself,” said Paul Kirk, a former Democratic National Committee chairman.

“Jim set the gold standard as an advance man and outstanding public servant,” Kirk said. “He embodied that same standard as a human being for the very same reasons. He was a force for goodness in all he accomplished by the example he set in treating every person he met with decency, respect, good humor, and genuine warmth.”

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The younger of two siblings, James Barton King was born and grew up in Ludlow, just east of Springfield.

His parents, Edward J. King and June Barton, had both been mill workers. Edward became a union official and then began working on the campaigns of John F. Kennedy when he first ran for Congress. President Kennedy appointed him US Boundary commissioner, a post he continued to hold under two more presidents.

Jim King began working with his father on campaigns, though there were a couple of detours along his route into politics. “He used to say he was asked to leave high school,” said his son Sean, who also has worked in politics. “He was a large, boisterous person.”

Mr. King joined the Army, opting for the paratroopers in an unsuccessful attempt to dispense with his fear of heights. After his service, he finished high school and received a bachelor’s degree from American International College, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1983.

In 1963, he married Eleanor Whitney, and they had five children.

Early on, Mr. King was a junior high teacher in Ludlow before becoming a full-time aide to elected officials and all-around problem-solver for Democratic candidates, working on more than 100 campaigns over the years.

“I think he’s done political work on every continent except Antarctica, and that’s because the penguins didn’t need him,” said Sean, of Newburyport. “He saw himself as a person who would fight and make government work for people.”

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As a top aide to US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and then working in the Carter administration, Mr. King moved his family to McLean, Va., and his children visited the White House and met top elected officials.

“My father always said to all of us, ‘Just remember, this is a great place, but this is not real. This is not how real people live their lives. Things everywhere are not as good as they are in Washington,’ ” Sean recalled.

Working in politics in Washington, Mr. King told the Globe in 1988, is akin to acting “on the world stage. It’s like going from ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in Jamaica Plain to suddenly doing ‘Hamlet’ at the Globe Theatre.”

Mr. King also was a former chief of staff to Kerry and had spent many years in academia, where his positions included serving as an associate vice president at Harvard University, a senior vice president at Northeastern University, and a presidential fellow at Trinity College in Hartford.

Little, however, could match the thrill of campaigns, and particularly his job managing podium logistics for Democratic National Conventions.

“This is a gourmet delight for anybody who likes politics,” Mr. King said in a Globe interview about the 2000 convention. “To me, it’s Christmas morning and the pony and the electric train are both under the tree.”

In addition to his wife, Eleanor, and his son Sean, Mr. King leaves a daughter, Kathleen of Dublin; three other sons, Edward of Gloucester, Anthony of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and Patrick of Blessington, Ireland; a sister, Almeda King Ambrulevich of Dover, N.H.; and 10 grandchildren.

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A funeral Mass will be said at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Joachim Church in Rockport. Burial will be in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in North Andover.

Mr. King’s “instinctive leadership qualities, solid judgment, genuine warmth, uncommon good humor, and loyalty to a legion of friends defined his character,” said Kirk, who added: “He was my pal. I am blessed and ever grateful to have known him, worked with him, and learned from him.”

Part of Mr. King’s legacy can be seen in the careers of key campaign workers and managers he trained.

“There is a core of people special to Massachusetts politics and I think Jim King mentored and tutored all of them,” Kerry said.

“He was a great human being,” Kerry added. “We were blessed to have him in our political lives and our personal lives.”


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