For Katherine Craven, public service goes with being Judge John J. Craven’s daughter

William Shakespeare once wrote, “It is a wise father that knows his own child.” Retired Boston Juvenile Court Judge John J. Craven, a member of the Boston School Committee and Governor’s Council in the late 1960s and early ’70s, knew his daughter Katherine the way a literary genius knows the denouement of a great work. Through the collective wisdom of an extended family marinated in Boston politics and public service, Judge Craven passed down to his daughter, a standout in state government, the essence of the Irish: wit, a sturdy work ethic, and perseverance.

At 38, Harvard-educated Katherine P. Craven, sporting an impressive resume of achievements, is first deputy treasurer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and executive director and chief executive officer of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which she assembled from scratch as an independent state agency designed to institute fiscal responsibility and apply critical reforms to a school building process that had been rife with abuse and stood more than $11 billion in debt. In seven years under her tenure, the authority has reimbursed cities, towns, and school regions more than $8 billion in a streamlined process that cuts against the grain of an old boy political network in Massachusetts where the biggest hand always got the largest wad of cash.

This month, Craven the problem solver will leave the state agency to become executive director of the University of Massachusetts Building Authority where she will oversee a five-year plan to spend $3.1 billion in building and renovating science labs, dorms, and athletic facilities in what has become one of the finest state university systems in the nation.

“My father was the center of my universe,” Craven said in an interview late last month. “He taught me all the things a boy should know.” You’d think Katherine Craven is fully contented, but she isn’t. Less than 12 hours earlier, on the eve of Thanksgiving, her father passed away, succumbing to a long, lonely battle with Lewy Body Dementia, an Alzheimer’s variant—a rapid onset disease that robs a person of memory, thinking, language, and, finally, life itself.

The loss of her father, she said, is paralyzing. Symptoms of the disease, a precursor to its final stages, were apparent after her father’s retirement in 2005, she said, but he had the will to fight on with the loving care of family members. She often took her father, who had been admitted recently to a nursing home, on trips to familiar places to jog his memory and his spirit—a father/daughter connection that will live on for an eternity. Her dad is free now.

In many ways, Craven is a mirror image of her father, a Gov. Edward King appointee to the Boston Municipal Court bench, and a composite of her mother, Patricia: humble, resolute, and a person of great vision.

Raised in West Roxbury, which is something of an Irish waiting room to Heaven, Craven belonged to a faith-centered family with a younger brother John Robert, now an attorney with the state Inspector General’s office, and a younger sister Patty, who has Down Syndrome. Craven’s son, Joe, a precious 8 year old, also is a Down child.

For all that and more, faith and perseverance are family currency. “Someone once described my father as relentless,” she said. “I think that’s true. Relentless in the pursuit that his children got the best education possible, and used their God-given gifts to the fullest. My dad was a life coach.”

At Harvard, John J. Craven, Roxbury Latin-educated and with roots in Roscommon, was called the “greasy grind,” a moniker for his “persistent studying; he was very much a perfectionist in that way,” she said. His father, John J. Craven, Sr., a second generation Irish American, was a state representative from the Roxbury district from 1930-38, and his mother, Katherine “Kitty” (Kane), who with John Sr. raised 11 children, was the first woman ever elected citywide to the Boston City Council. A vociferous opponent of urban renewal, she once “tossed an ashtray at a fellow councillor who had insulted her, and called another ‘a bald-headed SOB,’ threatening to poke him in the jaw,” according to a Boston Globe story at the time.

John Jr.’s wife, Patricia, whose family came from Cork, added needed ballast, humor, and balance to a family driven to public service. She was raised in Mattapan, and her father, the first in the family to attend college, grew up in the “Leaky Roof” section of Roxbury, “a place where all the three-deckers leaked,” said Katherine.

“My grandparents’ mission and focus was the political world,” Katherine said, “a response to the inability of the Irish back then to break into the line of business in Boston.”

That response was a calling passed down to her father, who served on the Governor’s Council from 1968-70, and on the Boston School Committee from 1970-74. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for numerous other elective offices: lieutenant governor, Suffolk County sheriff, the state Senate and the City Council. A man of routine and discipline down to a Spartan science, he mentored as much as he monitored. “On the Juvenile Court, my dad always sought ways of helping people. But he was a disciplinarian if you weren’t doing the best job possible. He inspired me to go into public service, to never give up. He had a way about him.”

Early on, her dad taught Katherine how to keep Red Sox box scores —a skill of precision she has carried into professional life. “I was terrible in sports,” she conceded. “I didn’t have the eye-hand coordination going, but I knew how to keep score.”

She has been doing that all her life.

Craven attended elementary school at Mount Alvernia Academy in Newton and high school at Boston Latin en route to Harvard where she was a history major. In Cambridge, she managed the men’s hockey team, a position advocated by her father when he realized his daughter was better as a manager than a player. While at Harvard, Craven met her husband, Jim Kryzanski, a neurosurgeon at Tufts Medical Center. The couple has four children: Delia, 11; Joe; James Henry, 5; and John Francis Xavier, 3, a boy with a name longer than his span. The couple lost a child, Mary Erin. “She died as a baby from West Nile virus,” said Craven, noting she, too, almost died of the disease.

A quick study, Craven began her work career in the employ of Thomas M. Finneran as a budget analyst when he headed up the House Ways and Means Committee on Beacon Hill. She was named the panel’s deputy budget director when she was 23, then joined the Finneran team when he became speaker of the House.

Asked how one goes from being a history major to budget analyst in one swift leap, she replied, “History is the predictor of the future. You fall back on that skill. That’s the trick of it. You don’t have to be an accountant to be a budget analyst—at the state government level, at the intersection of budgets and policy.”

She also was good at juggling. “She’d come in carrying two briefcases and a baby under her arms,” Finneran recalled last year in a Globe feature story on Craven.

On Beacon Hill, Craven assisted in the drafting of ten state budgets and hundreds of supplemental accounts and capital appropriations bill where billions of dollars were paid out in thousands of budget line items. In the speaker’s office, she counseled on major legislative initiatives, including the financing of the $7 billion state Medicaid program and the Uncompensated Care Pool, the 2003 Economic Stimulus Act, the 2003 municipal relief package, and the marshaling of billions of dollars in capital bond bills.

Over time, Craven caught the attention of former State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who appointed her in 2004 as the first executive director of the state’s School Building Authority, a quasi-independent government agency created to reform the process of capital improvement projects in the state’s public schools. “We had to revamp the entire state school building program,” she said with some pride in her voice. “With a 90 percent state reimbursement, some school districts were getting six to eight lavish schools. There was a lot of waste and huge debt. No real budgets or planning were at play. Schools were built that never should have been built. There was no consistency. You leave things open for fraud when things happen like that. So we instituted checks and controls. We changed the culture.”

In 2007, Cahill appointed her deputy treasurer for cash management, then earlier this year, incoming Treasurer Steve Grossman appointed her first deputy treasurer, the person who keeps the box score of the commonwealth’s coffers. She has served as Grossman’s statutory proxy in all matters, including the state’s $45 billion cash management program, the $1.7 billion general obligation debt program, the $50 billion pension reserves investment trust fund, the unclaimed property division, the state retirement board, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, and the $4.5 billion State Lottery Commission. She also has lectured on topics such as executive leadership and the intricacies of the state budget at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Northeastern University, and the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts.

Craven has hit the lottery in her professional life, and she now looks forward to her new, challenging responsibilities, overseeing the vigorous building program of the University of Massachusetts’s five state campuses—Amherst, Lowell, Dartmouth, Worcester, and Boston. “UMass,” she said, “has an incredible faculty and is one of the great university systems in the country, a national leader.”

Schooled on fortitude and execution, Katherine Craven has achieved much in a young life. She looks in the rearview mirror with the training of a historian and to the future with the eyes of the community visionary who serves on the Partners Health Care Board of Incorporators and the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health and who is an advisor to the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress (MDSC).

“I strive,” she said, “to keep my priorities straight, as my dad taught me: family first. I hope in the end that I can make a difference. I hope I can help a lot of people, figure things out, and make things work.”
At the moment, though, Craven is focused on the life of her dad—on the recollections, life lessons, and the role model filled by a man who knew, and taught, his daughter well.

Greg O’Brien is president of the Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications strategy company based on Cape Cod. A regular contributor to the Boston Irish Reporter and the author/editor of several books, he writes for various regional and national publications.

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