Boston City Councillor James M. Kelly died early Tuesday morning after a prolonged battle with colon cancer. Those who knew him for any of the roles in which he served &endash; as a city councillor, sheet metal worker, friend, or father &endash; spent this week celebrating the life of a man known for his tireless commitment to those who depended on him.
Kelly, who was 66, has long been noted for his unwavering loyalty to the constituents of his increasingly diverse second council district (Kelly represented South Boston, a portion of the South End, and the Polish Triangle section of Dorchester) as well as for his controversial opinions, most notably his resistance to the busing of Boston's public school students in a court-ordered desegregation plan in the 1970s.
Kelly was a sheet metal worker before joining the Boston City Council in 1983. He holds the record for longest tenure as city council president, serving in that capacity from 1994 through 2000, and remained actively involved in council business as his health worsened significantly over much of the past year.
Kelly's passing prompted a Tuesday morning appearance by Mayor Thomas Menino, an emotional City Council gathering led by newly-elected Council President Maureen Feeney, and responses from other prominent politicians, including an afternoon statement from newly inaugurated Governor Deval Patrick.
"He was a passionate advocate for his beloved neighborhood and constituents," read Patrick's statement in part. "His dedication to public service was unquestioned."
Mayor Menino remembered Kelly as a man whose opinion he did not always share, but whose respect he always valued.
"No way could you change his mind," Menino told reporters during a morning walk-through for his State of the City address. "He was a straight-ahead guy, and would not waiver. And he loved his job."
Eleven of Kelly's 12 city council colleagues (At-large Councillor Stephen Murphy was out of state this week) gathered in City Hall's Curley Room on Tuesday to send their collective condolences to the Kelly family and to share stories of their friend and colleague.
At-Large Councillor Sam Yoon, a Dorchester resident elected in 2005 after Kelly's illness was already impacting his ability to participate in the day-to-day business of the council, remembered Kelly pulling him aside and asking that he "take care of Chinatown," a part of Kelly's district where Yoon once worked as a community organizer.
At-large Councillor Michael Flaherty, who served as council president for five years prior to Feeney's victory last week, remembered Kelly as a South Boston neighbor and a mentor.
"Jimmy's love expands beyond the Jim Kelly bridge, as we'll be calling it soon, to throughout the entire city," said Flaherty, referring to the Broadway Bridge, which was to be renamed in honor of Kelly in a ceremony today. Kelly's family has asked that the ceremony be postponed to a later date.
After the press conference, councillors processed into the council chamber, where each signed a guest book in Kelly's memory. A placard bearing his name had been affixed to the president's podium, and a bouquet of flowers lay across the table.
The guest book will be available for the public to sign in the council chambers through the close of business hours on Friday.
State Sen. Jack Hart, a South Boston native whose district includes most of Dorchester, said that Kelly had been an important mentor during his ten years in the state legislature.
"He was always a voice for the underdog," said Hart, "a voice for those who in many cases didn't have one, whether that be veterans, the elderly, or fighting for union jobs, he was the voice that people relied on."
In addition to his advocacy as a councillor, and even before his time as a politician, Kelly was a sheet metal worker. He joined the Sheet Metal Workers union local 17 in 1962. For the past 26 years he was an officer in the organization, serving as recording secretary up until his death.
"He was involved in almost everything we did as a union, and as a councillor always acted as a friend of the working man," said Festus Joyce, the financial secretary-treasurer of Local 17. Joyce pointed out that Kelly was instrumental in orchestrating the construction of the union's new hall on Adams Street where the lower level meeting hall bears his name.
Kelly is survived by his wife, three children, and seven grandchildren.
Kelly will be waked today (Thursday, Jan. 11) from 2 to 8 p.m. at St. Brigid's church in South Boston. The address is 844 East Broadway.
A funeral Mass will be held tomorrow (Friday, Jan. 12) at noon, again at St. Brigid's. A private burial at Cedar Grove cemetery will follow.
Kelly's passing and the vacancy of his second district seat will prompt a special council election. According to a city council aide, the city clerk has 21 days to officially notify the city council of Kelly's death. The notification must take place during an official city council session, and with the next such meeting scheduled for January 24, it is assumed that City Clerk Rosaria Salerno will deliver notice at that time. The city charter dictates that the council must determine the date of a special election to be held within 62 and 76 days of that time.
An open council seat in South Boston, a city neighborhood notable both for its fervent political history and the rapid pace of its recent change, is sure to prompt the interest of a wide range of viable candidates. But this week, city councillors and the constituents of that district will pause to remember the man who fought long and hard for the often eclectic needs of his fellow Bostonians.
"There is a motto the Jesuits often use, to be, 'a man for others,' said Feeney. "If one phrase describes James Kelly the man, James Kelly the dad, James Kelly the sheet metal worker, James Kelly the councillor, it's that he was truly a man for others."