BOSTON — Tributes poured in Saturday for longtime Boston Mayor Kevin White, who diedat his Beacon Hill home Friday at the age of 82. White suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for the past decade.
White led the city for 16 years, from 1968 to 1984, during a time of great change and turbulence — during court-ordered school desegregation busing and the creation of the Faneuil Hall marketplace.
Two city leaders who got their start working in the mayor’s office for White joined Morning Edition Saturday: Micho Spring, who became deputy mayor under White; and Peter Meade, who held several positions under White, including director of public safety during court-ordered busing.
Bob Oakes: Boston, as we know it today — Faneuil Hall, the Big Dig — came in a way from Kevin White. Micho, how did Kevin White influence modern day Boston?
Micho Spring: Well, I think “brick by brick” is the best way to say it. I think both the re-energizing of the neighborhoods — you’ve got to go back to how Boston looked in 1968 to understand the full impact in this city. There hadn’t been a new building built in Boston between, I think the first one was the Prudential after the Custom House. I mean, the Depression had really affected Boston. And this economy was just stagnant. And both re-energizing Downtown, but equally important the energy that he put into the neighborhoods. The Little City Halls that Peter knows well, neighborhood health centers, community schools. It was just an endless infusion of investment, and I think it was his belief that Boston could come back.
Peter, I remember growing up as a kid in central Massachusetts in the late 1960s and early ’70s, in my high school years, that Boston was simply not an inviting place to come. Kevin White wanted to change that.
Peter Meade: Well Micho talked about his rebuilding the city brick by brick, and she’s right. He also rebuilt the city in terms of who was working in City Hall. I mean a young woman from Cuba who became deputy mayor. Chief Jones, who was the first African-American deputy Mayor. Barney Frank his first chief of staff who was a fellow from Bayone, N.J. City Hall itself opened up. It was certainly a white, largely Irish male bastion. And Kevin White changed that.
The two of you in the administration, you mention the future congressman, Barney Frank, Frank’s brilliant sister, Ann Lewis, Paul Grogan, future head of The Boston Foundation, Fred Salvucci, future head of the State Department of Transportation — who was eventually given the title “Father of the Big Dig.” What was it that drew young up-and-commers to Kevin White and he to them?
Spring: Well, his incredible energy and commitment, and belief in the city was infectious. But I think also his philosophy, he used to very deliberately always say that he wanted to bring in people that he felt were smarter than him, and that that was fine. His really feeling comfortable whatever talent it took. He took huge risks, he gave us a lot of responsibility, and then drove us very hard. You always knew that you had to try to out-work the mayor, or out-think him. And it was really impossible, he always had that one question that nobody in the room had thought about.
Meade: It was amazing, his intellect. And I think he failed at his mission to hire people smarter than he — I don’t think I’ve met an individual that’s smarter than Kevin. And he loved challenging people. I mean, getting into a tussle about “Do we have all the options on the table?” And as Micho said, he always asked the question that no one had thought of. So, you knew that when you were talking to Kevin White about a serious problem, that every scintilla of energy and intellect had to be at the fore in order to make a go of it.
Peter, what do you remember, what will your remember most as Kevin White’s biggest dream?
Meade: Well, I think to put this city back on the charts. We’ve talked about we didn’t recover as a city from the Depression until the ’70s. And the Prudential Building was built, taking the place of the McCannick Hall. We were stuck as a city in some ways back in the ’20s, and Kevin White propelled this city into the 1970s and ’80s.
Spring: And he would never allow Boston to be considered anything but first-rate.
Meade: We use words like transformational figure and things like that. Truly the case in Kevin White. Just one other point if I could, I had breakfast with Kevin, he was long out of office, and Ray Flynn had left to become the ambassador to the Vatican. The new mayor, Tom Menino, went to see Kevin White when he was over teaching at BU. And at breakfast the next week, Kevin was saying to me, “You know, that Menino’s got something.” And Menino had been supporting Joe Timilty in mayor’s races against Kevin, but they almost instantly hit it off and became great friends. And it was a modicum of no matter whether you’re Tom Menino from Readville, who a lot of people dismissed, or a Harvard academic, or somebody who just had an idea; if you had talent, if you had some gift, Kevin had a great way to see it and nurture it.
Spring: You know Peter, to that, I was think the other day of one thing he would always say, that there were two kinds of politicians: politicians who thought the business, as he called it, was for real, and politicians who thought it was a game. Obviously he thought it was for real, and I think he understood that Tom Menino thinks it’s for real.
Tough subject: Kevin White shepherded the city during the busing-desegregation years. Peter, you were working in public safety for that time, or part of that time, as Kevin White prepared to leave office, he said he wished he could have used his skills more in the spring of 1974, and maybe it, busing, would have worked. Did you sense at that time that Mayor White was unsure how to handle busing, and what do you both think that he would have done differently?
Meade: Well I think to Kevin’s eternal frustration, he wasn’t in charge of his city at that time. The School Committee was elected separately, and they set out to purposefully segregate the schools. Boston did not have de facto segregation, it was de jury segregation. And Judge Garrity, who presided over the case, did not listen to city officials. I think he made the decision that the School Committee was a disgrace and every city official was pretty much dismissed. So I think one of the frustrations for Kevin White was that it was one of those things where nobody was really in charge.
Many people recall the 1968 story that after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor White persuaded WGBH-TV to broadcast a James Brown concert live from the Boston Garden as a way to keep people in their homes and keep people safe when so many other cities were erupting into violence and quite vividly, flames. White also secured $60,000 to pay Brown for the loss of ticket revenue. Here’s an excerpt of what Kevin White said then on TV that night to residents of Boston, less than 24 hours after Dr. King was killed:
So, all I ask you tonight is this: let us look at each other here in the Gardens and back at home, and pledge that no matter what any other community might do, we in Boston, will honor Dr. King in peace.
Micho Spring, what’s that say about Kevin White?
Spring: The courage, first of all the vision, but the courage to take an enormous risk. On his personal commitment, it was all personal, he held the city together personally, by walking the streets, by reaching out. And of course he had enormous credibility because he had been elected, credibility and responsibility, because he had been elected by a very non-traditional coalition.
Meade: Another legendary evening, and some of this was just Kevin’s instinct. There are very few people who have the intellect and the gut that Kevin possessed. We were having difficulties, serious difficulties in the South End with a couple of nights of, I wouldn’t call it rioting, but disturbances in the South End. And the Rolling Stones were arrested in Rhode Island, and the Garden, the Boston Garden was full. And I remember we were talking about where are we going to put the police? And Kevin says in the South End, “We keep them here, I’m going to the Garden!” I wanted to grab him and say, “You’re out of your mind!” I don’t think he knew who the Rolling Stones were at all. But he called to Rhode Island to get them released from jail and that took some work to get them, these guys were arrested on a drug charge or something like that. And he went to the Garden and he told the people in the Garden what was going on, that the Rolling Stones had been arrested in Rhode Island, and that they were on their way, and he said, “I’ve ordered the MBTA to stay open.” Of course he had no authority to do that but he did it, and when he said they were going to stay open they did stay open. And I can’t tell you, being around Kevin, the number of parents who came up to him over the next several weeks and said to him, “Thank you for protecting my child.” I mean again, it was the instinct, and he put it on himself personally to go do that. What an incredible gut.
Spring: Yeah, and not only that, we can’t forget yes his courage, yes his intellect, but his wit. I mean Kevin White, it was, he just had the best wit and Peter, I think you told me the story, which I was remembering of [former Channel 4 reporter] John Henning meeting him down the steps of his house after a debate, right after the mayor had refused to debate his opponent. And John Henning said, “Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor! So you missed the debate tonight and Joe Timilty had to debate an empty chair. What do you have to say to the people of Boston?” And without missing a beat he said, “Who won?” He just had this instant ability to come up with the right quip.
Let me ask a question about political ambition. The insiders say that for a brief time, and when I say a brief time I mean a couple of hours in 1972, he was George McGovern’s vice-presidential running mate. The legend says that it was the Kennedy family that scuttled that, presumably wanting the Kennedy name to be the top political name associated with Boston and Massachusetts. How disappointed was Kevin White to not be George McGovern’s running mate that year?
Meade: Well I think it came as a surprise even to Kevin, that he would be considered to be vice president. And it was one of those things — you now have it, you have the brass ring in your hand! And then it’s gone. I think it was an incredible disappointment to have that taken away so quickly. But part of it was, wait a minute, I can play on this stage. And I think what happens sometimes when you see presidential candidates up close and you look at the field, and this happened to Kevin, he said, “Wait a minute, I’m as good as they are.” And I do think that a Potomac bug that was a result of him being the vice presidential nominee for a couple of hours.
Let me close by going back to a bigger picture. I remember as a reporter in some of those years that we would all chuckle because Kevin White would add, in his speech pattern, an “H” to words that didn’t necessarily belong there. And when he would talk about the phrase that Oliver Wendell Holmes first used in 1858, when Holmes called Boston “the hub of the universe” he would say “the hub of the universh.” But I bring that up because in a way that phrase was a vision for Kevin White: Boston as the hub of the universe.
Spring: And Boston as a world class city, and both. And yes, he believed in it when there was no reason to believe in it if you really looked around. And he fought every ounce to get it to where it really took off and he really deserves a lot of credit.
Meade: Well, I think even after he was mayor, that as the city made a gain, he took such pride in it. And he knew that he was, frankly, a transformational figure in the city. And he had a lifelong love affair with the city of Boston.
Peter Meade, Micho Spring, thank you very much for helping us remember former Boston Mayor Kevin White.