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The loner in winter Former mayor

Kevin White is being robbed by Alzheimer's-- but bolstered by a dear friend

Having finished his cheeseburger and 7-Up at Doyle's Cafe in Jamaica Plain, Kevin H. White, the mayor of Boston from 1968 to 1983, got up from the corner booth and followed his pal of more than 40 years, former state treasurer Robert Q. Crane, who led the way into a back room so they could say hello to the monthly meeting of Romeo, a group of about 30 retired politicians, judges, reporters, and other scalawags from Boston's political past.

At 75, White is still trim, still handsome, and still dapper of dress, and he's still got the square jaw, the wispy white hair, the twinkling blue eyes, and the smile as wide as Commonwealth Avenue.

But for the man who defined politics in Boston over three different decades, these are difficult days.

Having gone through surgery that removed two-thirds of his stomach in 1970 and having survived a heart attack in 2001, he lives with a pacemaker. White always loved talking politics, but even simple conversation is a challenge now for two reasons. First, he is deaf in his right ear, and second, Alzheimer's disease is robbing his mind of those colorful memories of the days when he ran the city from the big office overlooking Faneuil Hall and, in the judgment of many, lifted Boston out of the doldrums and helped establish its reputation as one of America's favorite cities.

As Alzheimer's takes its toll, The Loner in Love With His City, as White was called, is even more of a loner these days and reluctant to speak publicly. But he girds himself and trails Crane into the back room, then brightens to hear applause from the gaggle of men, old and gray, who once had a say in running Boston a generation or two ago.

White shakes hands with former attorney general Robert Quinn and with Bernard ''Bunny" Solomon, aide to governor Foster Furculo in the 1950s and now a trustee at Northeastern University, and then White stands in back, alongside Crane.

''There are a couple of people here I want to introduce," says Bobby Hannan, a political reporter for the Boston Herald 40 years ago. ''It's good to see Mr. Kevin White -- we're pleased to see you and your smiling face."

Most of the men put down their salad forks to applaud again.

''And," says Hannan, ''former treasurer Bob Crane."

''You may not realize it," says Crane, never at a loss for blarney, ''but this is the best luncheon you'll ever have, and the reason is that your guest is Francine Gannon," he says, pointing to one of Boston wilier politicians, who served as an aide to congressmen Thomas P. ''Tip" O'Neill and Joseph Moakley and now to Senate President Robert E. Travaglini.

''Mr. Mayor," Hannan says deferentially, ''would you want to say a word of greeting?"

White winces.

He's unsure how to respond, uncertain what to say.

For an awkward instant, the room is quiet, until Crane leans in to White and says softly, ''Say you're glad to be here."

White brightens, takes a step forward, smiles, and says in a strong voice, ''I couldn't be more pleased to be here."

More applause. Do they cheer because he survived so many challenges in politics or because he just survived a challenge of old age?

A moment later, smiling and waving, White follows Crane from the room, out of the cafe, and into a car for the drive back to his home on Beacon Hill, where the surroundings are familiar, where he feels safer, and where the struggle with Alzheimer's is once again private.

White and Crane are the Romulus and Remus of Boston politics. Their friendship dates to the 1960s, when they campaigned together in Western Massachusetts -- Crane for treasurer and White for secretary of state, an office he held from 1961 to 1967. The friendship grew through tennis holidays on Cape Cod and golf weekends in Florida and family vacations in Barbados and the Soviet Union, and who can say how many nights of counting votes and all the triumphs and losses and the laughter, too, that finally bring them together, as two old men, in a corner booth at Doyle's on a chilly afternoon in June.

Over White's left shoulder is a snapshot of the three who have served as mayor for nearly four decades: White, Raymond Flynn, and Thomas Menino, photographed under a Pickwick Ale sign. Over White's right shoulder is a copy of the Globe, Nov. 8, 1967, the first day of what would become the New Boston.

''White Goes In as Mayor with 5 New Councilors," reads a headline about White's victory over Louise Day Hicks. A photograph of the party at the Sheraton Plaza shows White, then 38, Hicks, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, governor John A. Volpe, and, in the background, Crane.

''I'm always in the background," he grumbles. ''All my life, you've been putting me in the back row."

The political wars are in back of White now, and the punch and counterpunch of politics have faded into lore.

How much does he miss it?

''What?"

Crane: ''How much do you miss being [in] office?"

White: ''I loved every minute I was there but . . . " He pauses.

Crane: ''The answer is . . ."

White: ''Are you speaking for me or for us?"

Crane: ''Us. We're sophisticated enough to know that our day is gone, and that we shouldn't be around bothering people."

Around Crane, White laughs heartily, but in conversation, he often asks Crane and a guest the same question three and four times in an hour: How long have we known each other? Where did you grow up?

How does he feel on a scale of 1 to 10?

''How what?"

How do you feel?

''About what?"

How is your health?

''I'm in good shape. I could beat you at anything," he says to Crane.

But your memory is not what it used to be?

''Well, that's for sure."

''You are forgetful," says Crane.

''Yeah, I am. But I don't travel or do things that would make that something to worry about."

You mean you spend more time with friends than with strangers.

''That's a good line, yeah, much more."

White brightens at a question about his daughter Patricia, who announced last week that she is a candidate for City Council.

How much of a role will he play? ''I don't know. If she asked me . . . I take pride in watching her, and I don't want to interfere."

As mayor, White maintained a hideaway office on Tremont Street. During a private interview late in his final term, he was asked about his legacy.

''The Prudential Center is [Mayor] Johnny Hynes. Center Plaza and City Hall belong to [Mayor] John Collins. But Faneuil Hall?" he said, leaning forward and pointing his thumb to his chest. ''Faneuil Hall is mine!"

As he walks around Boston today, what gives him that level of satisfaction?

''I don't think of it much, but if I had to . . . if I thought . . . or if I were walking with you -- I don't think it's because of anything I've done. I'm not being coy, but I think it's the town, because Boston has a certain . . . what's the word?"

''Pride?" says Crane.

''Pride's a good word," says White.

''Spirit?"

''Spirit?" says White. ''Yeah, Boston's got . . . is it charm?"

''Whatever it's got, Kevin, people say you were the best thing that happened to Boston. People walk right by me to get to you, which doesn't set too well with me."

White is embarrassed by the description of himself as the best thing that's happened to Boston.

''I'm not being a con merchant, but I don't think that's really true. A lot of people contribute. Don't you think the people of Boston have a certain. . ."

He pauses, tapping the table in frustration.

''It has nothing to do with me, but Boston has -- and I can't quite . . . it's a certain. . ."

His face lights up as the word comes to mind. ''Boston has a certain panache!"

At times, White and Crane seem as scripted as a Marx Brothers routine.

''I didn't recognize you in this 1979 picture," says Crane, ''because you've got your hands in your own pockets."

''Aw, don't listen to him," says White, ''honest to God."

How does White spend his time these days?

''Well, I don't see many people."

Among those Crane lists who spend time with White, lunching, golfing, or attending Red Sox games, are Robert Beal, the property owner; George Carney, owner of Raynham-Taunton Greyhound Park; former treasurer John Driscoll; publicist George Regan; Jack Connors, chairman of the Hill, Holiday ad agency; and City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy.

''People say I spend a lot of time with Kevin, but it's time I love," says Crane. ''It's time we love, because we're perfectly compatible. We disagree about nothing."

White smiles.

''We really do get along, don't we?"

Jack Thomas can be reached at thomas@globe.com.

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