Former House Speaker, Attorney General Robert H. Quinn dead at 85

Robert H. QuinnRobert H. Quinn

Robert H. Quinn, a Savin Hill native who recovered from a life and death bout with tuberculosis as a young man to became one of the Commonwealth’s most powerful political leaders of his generation, died on Sunday morning after being stricken at his home in Falmouth.

Mr. Quinn, 85, was a state representative from Ward 13 who became speaker of the Massachusetts House and, later, state attorney general. He was a pivotal figure in bringing the University of Massachusetts to its present home on Dorchester’s Columbia Point in the 1970s.

He will lie in repose today from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at St. Margaret Church at Blessed Mother Teresa Parish on Columbia Road. His funeral Mass will be said tomorrow at 10 a.m. at St. Margaret’s with interment to follow at Cataumet Cemetery on Cape Cod.

Jim Keefe, president of the Boston development firm Trinity Financial, recalled that Quinn spent several years in his youth recovering from tuberculosis at the now-defunct Boston Specialty Rehabilitation Hospital on River Street. Trinity converted the main hospital building into an assisted living housing complex in 2003, and Keefe dedicated one of the rooms in the building to Quinn in a ceremony several years ago.

“Bob was a lovely man,” said Keefe, a fellow Dorchester resident. “Cheerful, enthusiastic, and a great story teller. He told me once that the trip down to River Street, in a snow storm, was one of the saddest days of his life. He almost died there, and it was a full year before he could even get out of bed. He credited the staff as having saved his life.”

Mr. Quinn was a Harvard Law School graduate who was first elected to the Dorchester House seat in 1957. He quickly moved up the leadership ranks and was elected speaker in 1967. He was later appointed to fill a vacancy as attorney general before winning the office on his own in the following election. He left public life after an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1974. After living in Milton for many years, Mr. Quinn and his wife Claudina moved recently back into his childhood home on Auckland Street in Savin Hill, where he was often seen at the local MBTA stop during his commute into and out of the city.

After his retirement from politics, Mr. Quinn became a leading Boston attorney and a partner at the firm Quinn & Morris and a frequent presence at UMass Boston, where one of the administrative buildings is named for him. The university’s most prestigious award, for community service, is also named for Quinn, who has been an outspoken booster of the university’s growth.

In a 2010 essay in the Reporter, Mr. Quinn endorsed a master plan that calls for new buildings and on-campus housing on the peninsula, writing that “the greater community should be excited, but not concerned, about these plans. One might argue against parts of them, or say that we did not intend a school this big. Well, we wanted it as good as it is, and success secures the followers.”

In a statement issued Monday morning, UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley said that the university had “lost a true friend. … Bob was a strong advocate for access to public higher education, and as a co-founder of UMass Boston, he opened the doors to urban public higher education in our city. Bob’s contributions to the commonwealth extend far beyond our campus. … We were proud to recognize his unwavering commitment to public service and higher education in 1987 with the establishment of the Robert H. Quinn Award, which is given each year to members of the community who embody his ideals.

“We will miss Bob dearly, said Motley, “but we are gratified that he was able to see the university he helped found mark its 50th anniversary this year as Boston’s premier urban public research university. Our thoughts are with Bob’s wife, Claudina, and his family.”

On hearing of Mr. Quinn’s death, former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, his opponent in the 1974 Democratic gubernatorial primary, said he respected him, calling him “thoughtful, intelligent,” and a “pretty good speaker.” In terms of politics, the two men legislated from opposite corners at the State House. As Quinn moved up through the ranks to the speakership, Dukakis grouped himself with young, reform-minded Democrats. Quinn left the House in 1969 to become attorney general after Elliot Richardson resigned to take a post in President Richard Nixon’s administration.

Dukakis intended to run for attorney general in 1974, since Quinn had declared that he would seek the Corner Office. But at the urging of his wife, Kitty, Dukakis switched gears to the gubernatorial race, setting up the Democratic primary. “It wasn’t a knockdown, drag out thing,” Dukakis recalled. Since the Bay State was starting to head into a recession, they focused on ways to revive the economy, he said. “By and large, it was a pretty positive campaign.” Dukakis won the primary and then beat the Republican incumbent, Francis Sargent.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who represented the same section of Dorchester that Quinn did decades earlier, saluted him in a statement on Monday afternoon: “Robert Quinn dedicated his life in the service of the Commonwealth, and his legacy as a statesman and advocate for justice will be felt for generations to come. He championed his namesake bill and, through this work, was able to open the doors for young men and women to pursue successful and fruitful careers in law enforcement.

“I was honored to represent his former House district, and proud to have him stand with me at my inauguration one week ago today. General Quinn held a deep love for Dorchester – in particular for his neighborhood of Savin Hill – and I will always hold great respect for him as a friend and as an outstanding state representative and House Speaker.”

Mr. Quinn was a “a passionate public servant,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley. “Often on the forefront of some of the country’s most pressing issues, General Quinn established the Environmental Protection Division in the attorney general’s office, led a multi-state coalition to challenge the federal government’s ability to drill for oil off our shores, and established the New England Organized Crime Intelligence System,” Coakley noted in a statement. “We will miss his vision and leadership, and I will miss his friendship and sound advice. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”

Martin F. Nolan, longtime reporter and editor at The Boston Globe who covered the State House and Washington beats in the 1960s and 1970s, recalled those days, noting that, “Elliot Richardson once told me, and other people, that Bob Quinn was an excellent attorney general and one of the brightest individuals he had ever met,” Nolan said in recalling that when Richardson, who was then the state’s attorney general left to join the Nixon administration in 1969, he insisted that Quinn be his successor. “He said he wouldn’t leave Boston for DC and the first of his many positions in the Nixon administration until the Legislature agreed to name Quinn as his successor,” recalled Nolan. “Not that it was a problem for legislators to do that.”

Mr. Quinn leaves his wife Claudina and his children Andrea and her husband Ralph Bernardo of Rockville, Maryland; Michael J. Quinn of Norwood; Elaina M. Quinn and her husband Alan Aikens of Dorchester; and Stephanie M. and her husband Robert Fallon of Milton; a sister, Catherine M. Keating of Hyde Park; seven grandchildren, Annabel, Ralph, and Patrick Bernardo, India and Quentin Aikens, and Henry and Nora Fallon; and many nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Mr. Quinn’s memory may be made to St. Mary’s Women and Children’s Center, 90 Cushing Ave., Dorchester, MA 02125 or Boston College High School, 150 William T. Morrissey Blvd., Dorchester, MA 02125.

Reporter editors Gintautas Dumcius and Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr. contributed to this report.

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