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‘A nice guy, and great mayor’

White lauded for ushering in new era in Boston

By Peter Schworm, Brian Ballou and Dan Adams
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / January 29, 2012
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The city that four-term mayor Kevin White led to new heights and guided through racial strife paid tribute to his legacy yesterday in an outpouring of heartfelt remembrances from Roxbury to Beacon Hill.

White, who served as Boston’s mayor from 1968 to 1984, died Friday at 82 after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about a decade ago.

At the bronze statue of White at Faneuil Hall yesterday morning, Mayor Thomas M. Menino left a basket of flowers from “the people of the city of Boston’’ and credited White for turning Boston into a “world-class city’’ by revitalizing downtown and improving neighborhoods.

In South Boston, residents recalled him as a political dynamo whose high self-regard earned him the nickname “Kevin from Heaven’’ and who loved every inch of the city.

“He was all for the neighborhood,’’ said Kay O’Connor, 77, a South Boston native.

And near the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Roxbury, where black students were bused to other parts of the city in the 1970s, residents said White helped see the city through a bitterly divisive time.

“He did what he could do to try to make it safe,’’ said Tracey Young, 46, a Roxbury native who was bused to East Boston as a girl. “He left behind a lot that his family can be proud of.’’

White was a regular presence in Roxbury during his years as mayor, residents said, building personal relationships that helped him remain popular through turbulent times.

“You saw him walking these streets a lot,’’ said Kevin McKoy, 49. “He pushed a whole lot of positive things.’’

White’s wife, Kathryn, expressed deep gratitude yesterday for the “tremendous outpouring of support,’’ a family spokesman said. In the afternoon, White’s sister Maureen Mercier paid a visit to the statue after arriving from her home in Michigan.

White’s death took many residents back to when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and how White quickly arranged for a James Brown concert at the Boston Garden to be televised live in hopes of minimizing unrest, reimbursing the soul singer $60,000 for lost revenue. He later appeared on stage to plead for calm.

“The city did not explode that night like other cities in our country,’’ Menino said.

Civic leaders and longtime residents recalled White as a pivotal figure in city history who helped spur a striking urban revival and move the city beyond its brand of clannish, insider-dominated politics.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation who worked for White his final two terms, said White ushered in a new era in Boston politics. He described the election in 1967 as a “great fork in the road’’ when the city cast off some old ways and raised its sights.

“It was a watershed moment for the city where it chose a more expansive future,’’ he said.

When White took office, Boston was in sharp decline, Grogan said, steadily losing population and jobs to the suburbs. White reversed the slide, laying the groundwork for the vibrant Boston of today.

“There was tremendous pessimism, but White defiantly reasserted this idea that cities were special and distinctive, and could thrive,’’ Grogan said.

White was extremely well-read with a quick wit, Grogan said, and once derided the Boston legislative delegation as “street-corner quislings.’’

“He had everyone scratching their heads,’’ Grogan said with a laugh.

Grogan wrote speeches for White, and on one occasion noted that he delivered it nearly word for word. Pleased with his work, Grogan was looking forward to a pat on the back when White called him into his office.

“He told me people were saying that the content wasn’t much, but the delivery was great,’’ Grogan said. “He had a way of keeping us young upstarts in our place.’’

White’s optimism, and a healthy dose of political will, was most evident when he tried to renovate a crumbling Quincy Market. When Boston banks refused to finance the project, deeming it too risky, he worked to secure backing in New York City.

“He was the one who had the blueprint,’’ Menino said. “He put the blueprint in motion.’’

White was an ambitious leader with a “genius for the grand stroke’’ in politics, said Stephen Crosby, the head of the state’s gambling commission who ran White’s last mayoral campaign in 1979.

“He saw the world in big, bold, bright colors,’’ he said.

Lawrence DiCara, a Boston city councilor from 1972 to 1981, described White as Boston’s version of Robert Moses, New York City’s “master builder,’’ citing his role in renovating Quincy Market and the waterfront, the Charlestown Navy Yard, and Copley Place.

DiCara remembered having a long lunch with White and John Lindsay, former mayor of New York. It was an echo of an earlier time, he said.

“Cities were big, mayors were giants, and government was viewed as OK,’’ he said.

One of the first phone calls Menino made after becoming mayor was to White, he said yesterday. A few days later, while stuck in Washington D.C., he called White again to see if he could deliver a speech in his absence.

“I said ‘Mayor White,’ ’’ he recalled. “He said, ‘No, no. I’m Kevin. You’re mayor.’ ’’

Menino said White was “always on the move’’ and possessed a quick, curious intellect.

Menino fondly recalled playing golf with White, who boasted “the sweetest swing you ever want to see.’’

“Never knew where the ball was going, but he had a sweet swing,’’ Menino quipped.

In South Boston, Sister Peggy Youngclaus, a Roman Catholic nun, said she would frequently run into White as he walked around Castle Island.

“He was always very responsive and friendly,’’ Youngclaus said as she hurried off to Mass.

Boston native Robert Rowland, a retired correctional officer, said his children were young during the busing crisis, and during the riots tear gas was shot through his window. Rowland said he respected White’s handling of the turmoil.

“He was a nice guy and great mayor,’’ Rowland said. “He really built up Boston.’’

On Beacon Hill, where White lived for years, residents remembered White as a friendly neighbor who was often seen out and about. “He was a real celebrity,’’ said Adrian Cesena, manager of the Paramount Cafe.

Cesena pointed to a black-and-white photograph on the wall from about 40 years ago, showing White posing with the owners. When the cafe was sold, White agreed to pose for a re-creation of the original with the new owners, this one in color. The two photographs now hang in a single frame.

White never dined alone, always arriving with family and friends. His favorite meal was chicken piccata with a glass of sauvignon blanc.

“He was a very sweet man,’’ Cesena said. “The whole neighborhood is sad.’’

White used to stop by at least once a week, Cesena said. But over time, his visits tapered off.

On Mt. Vernon Street, where White lived, residents said they would miss their longtime neighbor. “Everyone knew Kevin,’’ said Robert Myette, 89. “He was behind all of us.’’

In Roxbury, residents struck a similar theme. Far from the skyscrapers and markets, White was responsible for small changes that sometimes made a big difference.

Toni Santio, 72, was White’s community organizer for Roxbury and Dorchester, called him “one of the greatest this city has ever known.’’ Santio later worked as a youth coordinator for White finding jobs for inner-city teens.

“Mayor White wanted the kids to have a chance in life,’’ he said.

“He helped a lot of single citizens by working to get them shuttle rides in the city,’’ said Christine Hill, 65, who grew up in Roxbury. “Mayor White, he should have been president.’’

Wendy Maeda and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete. Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com. Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com.

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