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Thomas Menino, Boston's Longest-Serving Mayor, Dies At 71

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A powerful figure in Boston politics, former Mayor Tom Menino died today at the age of 71. Menino was diagnosed with advanced cancer earlier this year, just a month after he finished serving a record five terms. NPR's Tovia Smith reports from Boston.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Mayor Menino had just begun a book tour last month for his newly released memoir when his declining health forced him to cancel. That followed a long stretch of illness that compelled him last year to quit the job he loved in the city that overwhelmingly loved him back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Which nobody can deny.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: Serenaded as he left office, Menino enjoyed an almost unheard of 75 percent public support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We love you, Mayor.

MAYOR TOM MENINO: Thank you all.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

SMITH: Looking back on his 20 years in office, in some ways, Menino's most astounding accomplishment was his 20 years in office. University of Massachusetts professor Paul Watanabe says, no one expected that little-known Italian-American city counselor to become a political titan in Brahmin, Boston.

PAUL WATANABE: That, I think, is something that would not have been predicted in what we call the Athens of America - somebody who was almost laughed at behind his back as Mumbles Menino.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MENINO: Today, we dedicate this plaque, which will serve as a remember - reminder...

SMITH: Indeed, with his frequent mispronunciations and malapropisms, Menino himself would often be the first to tell you he was hardly the smooth-talking pol.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MENINO: So, you know, I am not a fancy talker. That's for sure.

(LAUGHTER)

CITY COUNSELOR LAWRENCE DICARA: I think that makes him more lovable.

SMITH: Former city counselor Lawrence DiCara watched Menino catapult from city councilor to acting mayor in 1993. DiCara says, Menino held onto the job because of his ability to connect with folks from every corner of the city, as he did after the Boston Marathon attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MENINO: I'm telling you, nothing can defeat the heart of this city...

DICARA: I think his performance...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MENINO: Nothing will take us down.

DICARA: ...At the memorial service...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MENINO: Even the smell of smoke in the air and blood on the streets.

DICARA: ...To express the sorrow of his city...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MENINO: Tears in our eyes, we triumphed over that hateful act.

DICARA: ...Was one of the great presentations in my adult life.

SMITH: Connecting was what Menino loved most - at countless coffee shops, ribbon cuttings or out on the streets overnight to help count the city's homeless. Menino was one of the earliest supporters of gay rights and spoke passionately about moving Boston past its racially fraught past. Menino was often called the Urban Mechanic. No broken fence or pothole was to petty for him to personally pick up the phone. Some say that kept him from making bolder moves to improve public education, but the mayor was nothing if not bold on development - from revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods to creating a brand-new, high-tech hub he branded the Innovation District. As Paul Grogan, the president of the Boston Foundation, says Boston is booming.

PAUL GROGAN: Now, he didn't do that all by himself. But I think that's the achievement - is that Boston is just envied now among a handful of the most vital and dynamic cities in the United States.

SMITH: Menino's most recent job was sharing the secrets of his success at a new urban think tank. At a joint event recently, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Menino's many accomplishments and impressive legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: And when you get to heaven, my attitude is don't stop and ask. Just walk right in. You have earned this.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: When you write the history of Boston, Bloomberg said, certain names will stand out, and Tom Menino will always be one. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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