When Bill McGonagle was appointed to lead the Boston Housing Authority in 2009, he knew just what to do. Hopping in a car, he soon was driving through the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development, where he had lived as a boy.
“I walked around the place that I still refer to as home, and it brought back lots of fond memories. I was really moved,” he said of visiting his family’s former home on O’Callaghan Way in South Boston, where atop a triple bunk bed in childhood he was so high off the floor that his nose bumped the ceiling when he turned in his sleep.
Before retiring this summer, he had finished a 40-year career with the Housing Authority by spending a decade as administrator — leading the very agency that oversees developments such as the one in which he spent his boyhood.
Mr. McGonagle, who had faced down violence while at the forefront of the agency’s efforts to desegregate housing projects, died Wednesday, little more than a week after learning he had pancreatic cancer. He was 67 and had lived in South Boston all his life.
“He always stood up for our residents, took immeasurable pride in being Boston’s landlord, and everyone who knew him took pride in their colleague, their friend, and one of the best public servants our city has ever had,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement Thursday. “Thousands of Bostonians have lived better lives because of Billy’s work.”
In a BHA profile, Mr. McGonagle called himself “just a regular kid from Southie,” someone who knew his work not simply as a career administrator, but as a guy who had learned the ins and outs of public housing as a resident.
Edna Willrich, who works with a public housing tenant organization, said Mr. McGonagle “was a wonderful person who cared about the people.”
“He gave advice, but he also listened to what you had to say. He wanted to make sure that we had a voice in what was going on,” Willrich added. “He was an on-hand man, not just because he was the head of an organization. He was your friend. He wanted us to grow together, he wanted us to learn together, and he wanted us to care for one another.”
About three decades ago, Boston moved to desegregate housing developments in South Boston and Charlestown, under pressure from the courts and an NAACP lawsuit. In Mr. McGonagle’s earlier administrative roles, he was front and center in those tense times.
As executive assistant to the BHA’s then-administrator, he was helping manage desegregation when one day in 1993 five shots were fired at his city vehicle, parked outside his South Boston home. His Chevrolet Blazer had municipal plates; most everyone knew it was his work vehicle.
Known for never raising his voice or yelling, even in that contentious era, Mr. McGonagle was undeterred.
“I have the utmost confidence in the Boston Police Department’s ability to handle this matter,” he said then in a statement. “In the meantime, I have a job to do at the BHA, and I’m going to continue to do it.”
Recalling the incident in a Globe interview upon retiring in July, he noted that his “three kids were at the breakfast table with my wife when that happened. And my kids were babies then, little tykes.”
In an editorial two years later, the Globe praised his work, saying that “throughout the desegregation efforts in South Boston and Charlestown, McGonagle urged calm, deflected the misinformation campaigns of local racists, accompanied incoming minority tenants to their units, and stayed with them to ensure their comfort and safety.”
He considered his efforts to desegregate developments and help unite residents of different races to be his most important work at the BHA. According to agency statistics, the BHA currently provides housing for some 35,000 people — including 10,000 who are white, 8,700 who are African-American, 9,100 who are Hispanic, and 1,600 who identify as Asian.
“I hope my legacy is one of inclusion,” he told WBUR-FM in July.
Mr. McGonagle said he had wanted to open public housing to all residents, including “those in need of housing of every racial and ethnic background.”
In his statement, Walsh said that “for every family that was housed at the Boston Housing Authority, Billy took pride in making sure they had a safe home,” and added that “he will be missed by the city and family he loved, and leaves behind.”
The third of six siblings, William McGonagle was born in 1951, a son of Daniel McGonagle, an MBTA bus driver, and Jeannette Geary, who had worked for New England Telephone.
He graduated from South Boston High School and first worked for the BHA as a junior groundskeeper, before leaving to take a few courses at the University of Massachusetts Boston, serve in the Navy Reserve in Weymouth, and land a job as a YMCA youth director.
Mr. McGonagle returned to the BHA as an inspector before the agency sent him to Boston University for a management training program. That led to promotions to manage the Old Colony Development in South Boston and later serve as the BHA’s director of public housing for the elderly and disabled.
After helping lead the agency’s desegregation efforts, he was deputy administrator for many years, until Mayor Thomas M. Menino appointed him to be the BHA’s administrator — a title he kept in Walsh’s administration.
In 1972, Mr. McGonagle married Ellen Regan. They had met at a Saturday evening dance at the former Surf Nantasket, a Hull nightclub.
Upon announcing his retirement this summer, he told the Globe he wanted to spend more time with his five grandchildren, and also to work with those in substance abuse recovery, a field he said was close to his heart.
“He loved his family and he loved his grandkids,” said his son Mark of Dorchester, who works in community affairs for the Boston Planning and Development Agency.
“We first heard the word cancer two weeks ago today,” Mark added. “We found out four days later it was pancreatic cancer. He didn’t even make it two weeks.”
In addition to his wife, Ellen, and son Mark, and his grandchildren, Mr. McGonagle leaves his other son, Matthew of Hull; his daughter, Alyson Perschke of Dorchester; three sisters, Anne McGonagle Connolly of Jamaica Plain, Mamie Berger of Amesbury, and Ellie Bosse of Medway; and two brothers, Dan, who is known as Mickey and lives in Duxbury, and Eddie of Canton.
A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Tuesday in St. Monica Church in South Boston, where he once had been an altar boy.
“Bill’s legacy of working on behalf of low-income residents of our city is unmatched,” Kate Bennett, the BHA’s acting administrator, said in an e-mail to staffers Thursday. She added that “he is and always will be a cornerstone of the BHA family.
At home, as at work, Mr. McGonagle always emphasized “treating people with respect,” his son Mark said.
“It wasn’t something he said much. It was something he personified. There was no gray area for him when it came to respecting others.”