John Walsh was an Irishman. More specifically, he was a Galway-man. He came to Dorchester from a little village in Connemara in 1956, joined the laborer’s union, fell in love with a pretty Irish girl, married, bought a three-decker, raised two boys, worked in construction and read the newspapers each morning with a ferocity matched only by his love of family, God and Galway sports.
Last week, John died in his tidy first-floor bedroom on Taft Street, surrounded by family and the modest trappings of a hard-working life. When he finally succumbed to illness after a five-year struggle with emphasema and skin cancer, the 82-year-old was still very much an Irishman. But he was all Dorchester.
“He would never, ever even think of moving somewhere else,” said his widow, Mary (O’Malley) Walsh, who hails from another coastal village where Irish is still the first language. The two met at a Boston dance shortly after they emigrated and married in 1965. “I moved all this way to marry a man who grew up 20 miles from me,” she laughs.
John followed his older brother Pat Walsh into the Laborers union, Local 223 and together they helped make the Southie-based chapter one of the region’s strongest and most Irish of trade unions. John earned the nickname ‘Doc’ — in part for his habit of caring for ailing young workers who, just on ocassion, might show up for work looking a bit green around the gills. For much of his later career, Walsh worked as a steward on big jobs like the construction of UMass-Boston and State Street Bank. When he wasn’t on the clock, he and his fellow laborers would often work overtime — and without pay — on labors of love. One of his prized possessions is a plaque given him by the old pastor of St. Margaret’s Church — Fr. Dunn— for his “unique contributions” to restoring the church back in the 1970s.
“It’s the only award he ever got,” his son Johnny recalled on Tuesday, the day after some 500 people packed that same Columbia Road church to say their goodbyes and celebrate his dad’s life. Among the mourners were a Congressman — Steve Lynch— and most of Boston’s political delegation, along with Speaker of the House Bob DeLeo and a scores of statewide officials who serve in the Legislature with John’s first-born son, Martin.
The night back in 1997 — when Marty Walsh won a special election to replace Jim Brett in the State House— “was the proudest moment in dad’s life,” recalls Johnny Walsh, who watched his father’s face light up when Marty announced the news in a back room at the IBEW hall. “He absolutely loved, loved, loved local politics his whole life. And for his own son to win… it was easily his proudest moment.”
The rep — who delivered a moving eulogy for his dad at Monday’s funeral — says his father never once criticized one of his votes, even if he might have differed with him on an issue.
“Our mailman put it well. He said, ‘John never had a bad word to say about anyone. Even George Bush, and I know he couldn’t stand him.’”
One night, several years back, John was mugged by a couple of thugs on his way home from his usual morning hangout at Patty’s Pantry on Dot Ave. Two knuckleheads clocked him on the head and stole his wallet. While his family raged and demanded justice, John Walsh was more forgiving: “They must’ve needed it more than I did,” he said.
In the end, John’s many simple acts of kindness were rewarded. His devoted son, Johnny, cared for him in his finals months alongside Mary, his wife of some 45 years. A niece, Meghan, helped to nurse him as well. He died where he was most comfortable: In his own home, with a coffee, a newspaper and a nip of whiskey near his bedside.
“Dad had a happy life,” Marty Walsh said. “He had everything he wanted: His family, his wife, his brothers and sisters all close by.”
In addition to his wife Mary and his sons Martin and John, Mr. Walsh left behind siblings Patrick Walsh of Dorchester, Sr. Mary Walsh of San Antonio, TX, Bridget Christopher of Braintree, Martin Walsh of Dorchester, Sally Noding of England, and the late Joseph and Thomas Walsh, Kate Cotter, Barbara Carroll, Ann Davis, and Peggy King. He is survived by many sisters and brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews, and 1 great-great-niece. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to Hospice Services of Massachusetts, 577 Main St., Wareham, MA 02571.