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Joseph M. Tierney, longtime City Council president, 68

Mr. Tierney ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 1987. He was photographed after voting with his daughter, Deirdre. Mr. Tierney ran an unsuccessful campaign for mayor in 1987. He was photographed after voting with his daughter, Deirdre. (Thomas Landers/Globe Staff)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / December 15, 2009

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Quick with a quip, Joseph M. Tierney was ready when reporters asked how he eked out a slender victory in 1984 for the fourth of five one-year terms as president of the Boston City Council.

“Charm, wit - and intelligence,’’ Mr. Tierney replied, but he wasn’t really joking.

Emerging from South Boston’s Old Colony housing project as the first of his family to attend college, he worked his way through undergraduate studies and law school, and then impressed council colleagues with his governmental knowledge and facility with the parliamentary process. He also could be counted on to tell the right joke at any moment and engage in repartee that was razor sharp.

Mr. Tierney, who served 16 years on the City Council before falling far short in a bid to unseat Mayor Raymond L. Flynn in 1987, died in his Hyde Park home Sunday of cancer. He was 68.

“Boston has lost a leader,’’ Mayor Thomas M. Menino said. “Joe Tierney personified what elected officials are all about: He cared about people and made a difference in the community.’’

Though respected for his ability to craft policy and pore over the city budget, “Joe’s legacy really was working very hard for constituents,’’ Flynn said.

“He was deeply committed to anyone who called on the phone,’’ said Flynn, who knew Mr. Tierney since childhood, having grown up in a different South Boston neighborhood. “Anybody who called up, he’d go to bat for them and try to help them as best he could.’’

That was true for family members, too, said his son, Joseph, of Milton.

“He was just a phone call away for anything from a question about your house to advice on a relationship,’’ he said. “Anything we needed, he’d help us get it.’’

Also, unlike those for whom law school and elective office are a means to hide, “the thing I remember as if it were yesterday is that Joe never forgot where he came from,’’ said Larry DiCara, a lawyer with the Boston firm Nixon Peabody who was elected alongside Mr. Tierney in 1971, each to a first council term. “That came through time and time again.’’

Mr. Tierney was the third of seven children, and when he was growing up, his mother called him “Sonny’’ - a nickname that stuck. His mother was an Irish immigrant from a farm in County Leitrim. His father died when the youngest of the Tierney children was an infant and the oldest was about 14.

“Despite growing up in the projects with very little, through the Boys Club he learned about boating and swimming,’’ said his daughter Deirdre Tierney Pulgini of Milton.

He competed on swimming and diving teams, and graduated from English High School, where he was captain of the drum and bugle corps.

Mr. Tierney worked several jobs - including as a roofer and in a supermarket - while attending Boston State College, where he majored in English and minored in education and graduated in 1966. He married Pat James two years earlier. While he was a senior supervisor at the Boston Youth Activities Commission, a city program that assisted troubled youths, Mr. Tierney attended Suffolk University Law School part time, graduating in 1971.

“I remember how much he valued his education,’’ DiCara said. “He went to Suffolk nights, as a lot of us did, and valued the fact that he had this opportunity to have this great education.’’

Mr. Tierney first campaigned in 1971 while taking Mayor Kevin H. White to court. White had suspended him and another city employee without pay, ruling that city employees could not be on the payroll while seeking city, state, or federal office. The lawsuit failed, but Mr. Tierney was elected. He first became council president in 1977, succeeding Louise Day Hicks.

“He understood parliamentary procedure better than any other politician I’ve ever known,’’ said Menino, who served with him on the council. “He could tie you up in a debate for days.’’

Still, Menino said, Mr. Tierney “had that certain quick wit and laughter.’’

During one council meeting in 1984, Councilor Albert L. “Dapper’’ O’Neil asked for an inquiry into how much paper was used in the council’s copying machine. Mr. Tierney, the council president, joked about Flynn’s propensity for producing press releases during his years as a councilor before being elected mayor in 1983.

“If the Xerox machine could talk, it would say, ‘Thank God Ray is on the other side of the fifth floor,’ ’’ he said.

Mr. Tierney, on the other hand, had little interest in cultivating the media attention that catapults officials to higher office, his son said.

“Accomplishment of the goal was enough,’’ his son said.

“I’m more interested in getting the job done and not getting credit for it,’’ Mr. Tierney told the Globe in June 1987, when he was challenging Flynn for mayor. “How does that saying go? - ‘We can’t all be heroes, somebody has to stand on the sidewalk and applaud as they go by.’ ’’

Mr. Tierney didn’t stand on the sidewalk as Flynn strode through his first reelection campaign, garnering a then-record 67 percent of the vote in the November 1987 general election. But Mr. Tierney was outmaneuvered by an incumbent who had high approval ratings and presided during an economic boom his first term as Boston’s mayor. Flynn raised about seven times as much campaign money as Mr. Tierney.

The Globe’s editorial page endorsed Flynn in 1987, while calling Mr. Tierney “an intelligent, articulate politician.’’

“He was a very intelligent, very honest man,’’ Flynn said yesterday.

After the defeat, Mr. Tierney - who also unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for the 11th Congressional District in 1974 - quietly left political life. He continued to practice law and lobby in the fields of business and development.

In recent years, when his name was mentioned in media accounts, most often it was because his daughter Maura Tierney, an actress in Los Angeles and New York City, was on the popular TV show “ER.’’

“He was the best grandfather and father,’’ his daughter Deirdre said. “He was just wonderful. He lived a full life and enjoyed every minute.’’

In addition to his wife and three children, Mr. Tierney leaves two brothers, Robert and William, both of South Boston; and three grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Thursday at Most Precious Blood Church in Hyde Park. Burial will be in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Dorchester.