Francis Bevilacqua; helped bring college to Haverhill

By Brett M. Rhyne
Globe Correspondent / May 22, 2009
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Francis J. "Bevi" Bevilacqua, a former state representative who helped bring Northern Essex Community College to Haverhill, died Saturday at Lawrence General Hospital, of complications following a long battle with numerous pulmonary ailments. He was 85.

"He was probably the single most important person in bringing Northern Essex Community College to Haverhill," said John Dimitry, president of the school from 1975 to 1996. "He had a deep sense of the needs of working-class people, those who live in the triple-deckers, and how a community college can help them improve themselves. He helped us in every way with programs and financing."

"Tens of thousands have had their lives bettered through the gift of education that Bevi brought them," said Mark DiSalvo, a colleague of Mr. Bevilacqua's at the Democratic State Committee for two decades. "That piece of pork has put a lot of bacon on a lot of plates."

"Bevi helped create not only the campus buildings and the college's physical makeup, but opportunity for working-class folk in this community," said Bill Cox, Haverhill Democratic City Committee chairman and a friend of Mr. Bevilacqua's for 40 years. "In addition, Northern Essex has been a tremendous advantage to economic development in the city and the Merrimack Valley," Cox said.

Cox said Mr. Bevilacqua and former state Senator Jake Rurak worked tirelessly to found the college in Haverhill in 1961 and then to develop its permanent home. "At first, Northern Essex was a fledgling entity, located in an old city grammar school," he said.

Over the next decade, Mr. Bevilacqua used his membership on legislative committees such as Cities and Towns; Counties, which he chaired from 1965 to 1967; State Administration; and Ways and Means to help establish, in 1971, the school's current 106-acre, seven-building sylvan campus.

In 1992, the college recognized his efforts by bestowing upon him the NECC Leadership Award.

"He was very popular among his colleagues," said Phil Johnston, former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic State Committee, who served with Mr. Bevilacqua beginning in 1975.

"It was his friendships with other legislators that helped him accomplish a great deal. He didn't like to speak on the floor, preferring to get things done in committee and working behind the scenes."

"He was an old-fashioned legislator who believed in delivering the goods for his district," Johnston said.

Overall, Mr. Bevilacqua served 11 terms in the House of Representatives, from 1959 to 1981. Another of his noteworthy assignments was a seat on the Rules Committee, which coincided with his service as assistant majority leader.

In 1964, he was a member of the Electoral College that elected Lyndon B. Johnson to the White House.

After he chose not to seek reelection and left the Legislature, Mr. Bevilacqua remained an active member of local and state Democratic committees for decades.

A lifelong resident of Haverhill, Mr. Bevilacqua was the youngest of 10 children.

He attended St. James Catholic School through the eighth grade, when, according to his eldest son, Rick of Haverhill, "he had to go to work to help provide for his family." He later earned a general equivalency diploma from Haverhill High School.

Mr. Bevilacqua enlisted in the US Army toward the end of World War II and performed his service domestically. Upon his discharge, he returned to Haverhill, where he worked at 20th Century Bakery, delivering bread and later as a supervisor. He also owned Country and Town Realty & Insurance Co.

"He was universally known as Bevi, from governors to auto mechanics," said DiSalvo, who currently sits on the executive committee of the state Democratic Party. "No one ever called him anything else. That tells you how accessible he was.

"Bevi was a regional political giant for two reasons," he added, "not only because of his electoral successes and his demonstrated ability to bring things home to the district and region, but also because the word giant describes his physique and his heart."

"He never overlooked the fact that he was from the neighborhood," Dimitry said. "He was a man of the people, a very direct kind of man. He was easy to get along with, but he was also very persistent when it came to the needs of working-class people."

"He wasn't able to get an education," Mr. Bevilacqua's son Rick said, "so he wanted to make it easier for others."

In addition to his son Rick, Mr. Bevilacqua leaves his wife, Agnes K. (Conte), whom he married in 1951; three other sons, James of Haverhill, Francis J. of Plaistow, N.H., and Michael of Portland, Maine; a daughter, Linda of Haverhill; and 11 grandchildren.

A funeral Mass was said for Mr. Bevilacqua Wednesday, followed by burial at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Haverhill.