Kevin Hagan White: Two look back

Excerpts from U.S. Senator John Kerry’s remarks on the floor of the Senate on Jan. 31:

The mayor, the man

 In the shadows of Faneuil Hall, there is a statue today of Mayor White.  It stands 10 feet tall, larger than life.  There really could not be a more fitting tribute to a mayor and a man who was himself a huge figure in history, in the history of Boston, and a mayor who helped give our city the extraordinary skyline and the extraordinary spirit it has today. 

 He was a mayor who more importantly, through four terms, led the city of Boston through a remarkable transition, from times of division, to a time of a new international and singular identify for the city. … But this good man and groundbreaking mayor was frankly much more than a transitional leader; he was a transformative figure in a city that when it comes to history-making. Mayors does not use the word transformative lightly.

His passing gives Boston and its people a chance to reflect on how one leader, one politician, could help to reshape a major city in America, to some degree reflecting his own persona – bright, and energetic.

Kevin White was elected to City Hall in 1967, a time when big city mayors in America were political forces, even as the days of the all-powerful political machines were beginning to dwindling. … in Boston, Kevin represented a new generation of urban leader.  He was only 38 years old, filled with optimism and energy and clear ideas of what he wanted Boston to be – summarized perhaps in the notion of being a world-class city.  And he attracted brilliant, idealistic young people to help him.

When Kevin White moved into City Hall, some people assumed they were getting a “business as usual” mayor – Irish and Catholic, typical and traditional.  But the times were changing.  The political and social climate of Boston in the late 1960’s was hardly traditional and Kevin White was hardly your typical politician. 
He glided effortlessly between the old world and the new. … 
Kevin White opened up Boston’s political system to African Americans, women, Jews and gay Americans alike.  He spearheaded rent control. He decentralized the city government by forming “Little City Halls” in the neighborhoods.  He made jobs for young people a priority. … Perhaps most importantly, he sparked a downtown renaissance that began with Quincy Market, now one of the city’s top tourist attractions, and it became the heartbeat of the “New Boston” that is his legacy. …

Kevin White was, according to his most famous campaign slogan, “a loner in love with the city.”  But this self-proclaimed loner did love Boston, and Boston loved him back. His wide circle of friends and former staff remained loyal and close throughout his life.  He was, above all, a family man, devoted to his wife of 55 years, Kathryn, to his five children, and to his seven grandchildren. To all of them, and to the rest of his family, we extend my deepest sympathy and a thank-you for sharing Kevin with us.
Following are recollections of sessions with Kevin White’s from Dorchester resident and longtime community activist Lew Finfer:

Three meetings, three memories

April 1974 – The Dorchester Community Action Council organized a meeting at the Holland School in Dorchester that several hundred attended to talk about the flood of abandoned buildings in Dorchester. Mayor White told a story about dating a girl from nearby Barry Street, but after seeing a slide show in the meeting with picture after picture of abandoned buildings, he did take action.

April 1976 – Dorchester Fair Share met with him about some 400 tax abatements that we persuaded people to file because Dorchester was over-assessed compared to other neighborhoods. The city ended up granting abatements to several thousand people in these abatement campaigns done from 1974-1978.  I remember Mayor White speaking to 40 homeowners in our group at a meeting in his office. His staff thought it would be a good touch to bring the abatement refund checks and they were in a pile on his desk. After the mayor spoke for a while, people got a little restless and began to move closer to his desk as they eyed those checks, so he stopped and had his staff pass then out.

January 1977 (circa) – Some 800 people from Massachusetts Fair Share met at the Grover Cleveland School in Dorchester. Issues were the slowdown on processing abatement requests for over-assessments and White’s move for charter reform that would institute a partisan primary election to favor incumbents like him in elections. Since the mayor wouldn’t attend, we bused those at the meeting to demonstrate in front of his Beacon Hill home and filled the street around it.