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Brian McGrory

Southie loses a stalwart

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / March 11, 2011

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The first time Tom Butler was hit by a car, a taxi driver plowed into him on Broadway. Paramedics at the scene thought he was dead. He spent eight months in the hospital with a broken back. Everyone who knew him, which included pretty much everyone in South Boston, shook their heads at how unlucky he was.

The second time Butler was hit by a car, two years later, he was stepping out of a vehicle in front of Joe Tecce’s. A truck clipped his door and flung him into the street. A passing car skidded to a halt, pinning him underneath. Everyone in his native Southie looked at him wide-eyed and decided he was invincible.

“It added to the legend,’’ his son, Tommy Jr., said yesterday.

Not that the legend had room for much more. You see, in a neighborhood famous for its politicians and characters, Thomas J. Butler might have been the most colorful of the crew. He never had the celebrity of a Bulger, or the electoral victories of a Flaherty, or reached the heights of a Moakley. What he did have, though, was a relationship with the people, common, everyday people, that even the most gifted officials couldn’t rightfully claim.

On paper, Butler was the director of government and community affairs at Massport. Rip up the paper, though, because the title did no justice to his role.

In life, Butler was a cunning and unlikely diplomat who brokered a fragile peace between neighborhoods such as East Boston, South Boston, and Roxbury and the airport that they loathed.

He did it with a booming voice, a steady diet of jokes, and with gobs of money, which he got by twisting arms in the corridors of power, and which he then spread to any number of civic groups, sports teams, and CYOs in the areas where planes flew overhead.

“He could pull a rabbit out of a hat,’’ said Jack Hart, the popular state senator from South Boston. He recalled the jobs that Butler secured for people, housing for those down on their luck, the trip to Washington he arranged for World War II vets who had never been there.

Tom Kinton, the executive director at Logan, remembered Butler’s reaction when US officials created odd boundaries in Eastie and Southie over who could get government-funded soundproofed windows and who couldn’t, and one such line ran down the middle of a street.

“He said, ‘I’m not going to say yes to this woman, and no to the woman across the street,’ ’’ Kinton said. “He said we should have a common sense line, and we convinced the feds to do it.’’

Butler was a social worker by training, a juvenile probation officer by vocation, and an activist at heart — the combination being a guy brimming with empathy. His small house, the cliché ringing true, was always open to visitors, one of them being John F. Kennedy Jr., who followed Butler around many years ago for a college internship in the courts.

“I came walking in one day, and the phone rings, and I keep talking,’’ said Bernie O’Donnell, a longtime friend. “He cupped his hand over the phone and told me to shut up, that it’s Jackie Kennedy. And I said, yeah, and the Duke of Windsor is at the door.’’

Added O’Donnell: “It was Jackie Kennedy. She checked in about her son every week.’’

That was the thing about Butler — a Kennedy one moment, a resident of Marian Manor the next. Everyone got the familiar tone, the mischievous looks, the confidence he could make things right.

Tom Butler, just 59, died last week of leukemia, creating a void as long as Broadway in the community he loved.

Our politicians are increasingly colorless, our activists imperious, and the public suspicious. Butler, the straight-talking, horse-trading, old-school son of Southie, brought people back to a better day and an easier way with the gift of getting things done.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com

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