John Byrne, fixture on Dot scene, dead at 96

Longtime Dorchester business and civic leader John B. Byrne, a Braintree man who was born in Dorchester and spent all of his working years in this community, has died at the age of 96.

Byrne, once dubbed the "lord mayor of Fields Corner," died peacefully on June 26 at a Cohasset nursing home, his family said.

He was well known in the Dorchester area due to his many business and civic activities, among them being the president of the Byrne, Dailey & Pike Insurance Agency and a director of the Massachusetts Cooperative Bank.

Born in 1912 in Dorchester, Byrne lived for 40 years in the Harrison Square neighborhood, south of Fields Corner, in an area now referred to as Clam Point. He operated a successful real estate and insurance business based on Dorchester Avenue, and it continues to be operated by his son, John R. Byrne.

In the mid-1950s, Byrne and a friend, Al Desaulniers, set up a part time travel business offering winter skiing tours to Montreal and charter ship cruises to Bermuda. The business, Columbus Travel, operated from offices on Stoughton Street in Uphams Corner. At that company, Byrne was a trailblazer in developing the concept of the all-inclusive charter flights from Boston to Ireland in the1950s at Columbus Travel Service.

A descendant of Irish immigrants from County Mayo in the west of Ireland, Byrne believed that there was a real interest among first generation Irish Americans to visit Ireland, the ancestral home of their parents. Byrne's innovation was in persuading Irish hotel and rental car companies, as well as the Irish government's tourism agency, CIE, to put together packages for groups making their first-time visits. "Back then, it took 13 hours on the old DC-8," he told The Reporter in a January 2000 interview. "Of course we had to convince them over there that we weren't crazy.

"Those early days were something. At first sight of the Irish coast, the passengers would all rush to one side of the plane for a look. I swear you could feel the plane list to that side. That's how excited the second generation was for a peek at Ireland."

"We ended up running charter tours two days a week, 80 people for each departure," he said. "You couldn't do any better anywhere. It was, to say the least very successful."

Through the years, Byrne remained actively involved in the Dorchester business community, becoming president of the Dorchester Board of Trade and of the Kiwanis Club of Dorchester. He was also a longstanding trustee of Cedar Grove Cemetery.

And his love of Dorchester was rooted in an almost encyclopedic knowledge of its people and its streets. Byrne became a valuable source for historic information about the neighborhood, and in 2004 he was named a "Living Treasure" by the Dorchester Historical Society, after participating in a society-sponsored forum about 20th century life in the community.

He was predeceased by his beloved wife, Elizabeth (Johnston) and his loving daughter, Mary Byrne and is survived by his sons John R. Byrne of Weymouth and William E. Byrne of St. Augustine, FL and his daughter, Nancy E. Stebe of Tucson, AZ. He is the brother of Vincent P. Byrne of Quincy, Regina (Jeannie) Burkinshaw of South Yarmouth, the late Joseph Byrne and the late Mary Burke. He is also survived by seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

A funeral mass was celebrated on July 2 in St Thomas More Church, Braintree. He is buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Dorchester.