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Robert F. Walsh, former BRA director and guiding force at Pine Street Inn, dies at 78

Mr. Walsh (right, with former mayor Kevin White and former MBTA chairman Robert Kiley in 1977) was fired as the director of Boston Redevelopment Authority because he opposed a development favored by White. Mr. Walsh then turned much of his efforts toward aiding the city’s homeless.
Mr. Walsh (right, with former mayor Kevin White and former MBTA chairman Robert Kiley in 1977) was fired as the director of Boston Redevelopment Authority because he opposed a development favored by White. Mr. Walsh then turned much of his efforts toward aiding the city’s homeless.Charles Dixon/Globe Staff/File 1977

One day in 1978, Bob Walsh was head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. The next, he was out of a job, having opposed a development favored by then-Mayor Kevin White.

And he moved into a role he preferred. Ostensibly behind the scenes, he became one of the region’s power brokers — helping shape Boston’s look as a real estate developer, advising his friend Thomas M. Menino as part of the mayor’s kitchen cabinet, and quietly doing as much to help the homeless as anyone in the city.

“A public name can be very shallow,” he told the Globe in 1985, shrugging off the abrupt end to his tenure and title as redevelopment authority director. “The average person in the city of Boston can’t name any BRA directors — including the present one.”

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Mr. Walsh, who as a founding Pine Street Inn board member spent decades ensuring that the homeless would have places to stay, died of cancer Thursday. He was 78 and divided his time between Boston and Mashpee.

A Savin Hill boy from beginning to end, he brought his Dorchester upbringing to bear on all he did, including his efforts at Pine Street Inn, where he spent time in the lobby talking with the homeless when he attended board meetings.

Now and then he ran into someone he had known since childhood. One of them would later tell Lyndia Downie, Pine Street Inn’s president and executive director, about his chance encounter with Mr. Walsh.

“He said, ‘I told Bob I needed money. I expected him to give me a $20. He gave me a hundred bucks,’ ” Downie recalled.

As a developer and mayoral adviser, meanwhile, Mr. Walsh had a hand in deals that changed the city’s landscape in his many years as president of his own firm, R.F. Walsh Co.

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On behalf of Menino and the city, Mr. Walsh negotiated with Jack Connors, who was then part of Boston College’s board of trustees, when BC secured permission a quarter century ago for a major expansion of Alumni Stadium, increasing seating to 44,500.

“Bob was a really wonderful guy who loved his city,” said Connors, a founder of the Boston advertising firm Hill Holliday.

Over the years, Mr. Walsh’s roles included advising concert promoter Don Law, who moved the Harborlights summer music tent to the waterfront. Mr. Walsh also was an adviser to the Massachusetts Port Authority, when it made plans for hotels, office buildings, and residences on South Boston’s waterfront.

In addition, he had served variously as an adviser, consultant, project manager, or construction manager for projects including such as the BioSquare research park on Albany Street and the South End Community Health Center.

About 20 years ago, Mr. Walsh was a consultant to the then-ownership of the Boston Red Sox when the team considered replacing Fenway Park with a new stadium.

At times, Mr. Walsh’s sometimes roles as mayoral confidante, negotiator, and private developer raised questions about potential conflicts of interest. He and those close to him said he kept his roles separate.

“We don’t talk about development projects,” Menino said of Mr. Walsh in a 1999 Globe interview, during the Fenway Park negotiations. “Is he my friend? Yes. I will never run away from that.”

Mr. Walsh, Connors said for the same profile, “is known for his integrity.”

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And Mr. Walsh himself said simply: “I could make a lot of money if I went and talked to the mayor on behalf of clients. I don’t do that.”

Robert Francis Walsh was born in Boston on July 1, 1941, and grew up in Dorchester’s Savin Hill neighborhood.

His father, John Walsh, was a stockbroker who counted among his clients Honey Fitz — John F. Fitzgerald, the maternal grandfather of President John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Walsh’s mother, Anna Reddington, stayed home to raise the couple’s four sons.

“He always talked about how wonderful it was to grow up with two parents who were so in love,” said Mr. Walsh’s daughter Courtney Walsh-Coletti of Quincy.

As a youth, Mr. Walsh “spent many hours teaching me how to box-out while rebounding, hold a runner close to the base as a first baseman, and stay low in blocking and tackling,” his younger brother, Donald of Savin Hill, said in a 2014 ceremony when Boston College High School presented Mr. Walsh with the Paul J. Hunter Man for Others Award.

“Most important, though, he was a role model for me when we were kids and continues to be now as adults,” Donald added at the ceremony, according to an account on patch.com.

Mr. Walsh graduated from BC High in 1959 and later served on its board of trustees. He went to St. Michael’s College in Vermont, from which he graduated in 1963, and spent two years at St. John’s Seminary before deciding not to become a priest.

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Even in college “he was a real gentleman,” said his longtime friend Joe Morgan of Revere, who met Mr. Walsh at St. Michael’s. “He maintained his faith better than most of us. He used to try to get me up every morning to go to Mass. I didn’t always go, but he did.”

Mr. Walsh worked with the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority before moving to the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1967, the year he married Karylann Rooney.

At the BRA, he worked up through the ranks until he was appointed director in November 1976. “It is up to Walsh to find his own voice and use it, even if that means standing up to the mayor’s office,” a Globe editorial said.

And Mr. Walsh did just that, less than two years later, when he opposed a proposal by Mayor White’s friend, developer Mortimer Zuckerman, to build the hotel on Long Wharf that is now the Marriott. Under pressure from White, the BRA fired Mr. Walsh in June 1978.

“You don’t treat an agency, you don’t treat a director, you don’t treat a person this way,” Mr. Walsh told the Globe that day. “I think this action is less than dignified.”

A few years earlier, meanwhile, Mr. Walsh was a founding board member when the Pine Street Inn became an independent nonprofit, and he helped engineer its relocation into the former city fire station in the South End.

“Bob took the lead on that and in many ways put his own political capital and influence on the line so homeless people would have a place to stay. It took a lot of courage to do that, especially back then,” Downie said.

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“While he was a successful developer, he was an even more successful humanitarian,” Connors said in an interview. “He was one of those guys who cared deeply about the folks who aren’t as lucky as the rest of us. He was just relentless in his efforts.”

In addition to his wife, Karylann, his daughter Courtney, and his brother Donald, Mr. Walsh leaves a son, Robert W. of Quincy; another daughter, Alyson of Lincoln, R.I.; another brother, Jack of Dover; and nine grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Wednesday in St. Cecilia Church in Boston.

“My dad helped everyone. And if you were from Savin Hill, he really helped you,” Courtney said.

“He never changed, to be honest,” said Morgan, his college friend. “He stayed the same guy.”


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