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Frances Alexander, 90; served 8 years as state representative

FRANCES ALEXANDER
FRANCES ALEXANDER
By Stewart Bishop
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2010

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Whether it was through teaching Beverly’s young children or advocating for her neighbors as a state representative, Frances Alexander was a devoted and charismatic woman who believed strongly in community activism.

A close friend and frequent political ally, former state representative Marie-Louise Kehoe of Dedham, said that despite a sometimes-tough environment in the Legislature, Mrs. Alexander remained upbeat and felt compelled to help her colleagues and constituents.

“We went through good legislative times and through some times and issues that were very challenging,’’ Kehoe said. “But Fran loved every minute of it. She felt she had a mission to serve people.’’

Mrs. Alexander, who was a longtime day-care provider in Beverly before she went into politics, died Saturday at Beverly Hospital after a heart attack. She was 90.

Born in Salem, Frances (Flynn) Alexander grew up in Danvers, where she attended Holten High School and participated in school government, cheerleading, field hockey, and basketball. She graduated in 1937.

At a dance in 1941, she met Albert Alexander, an engineer from Beverly. They married in 1942.

After moving to Beverly with her family in 1946, she worked on and off for General Electric in their secretarial pool in Lynn, and later spent several years in the company’s factory during World War II, before she began teaching at Humpty Dumpty Nursery School in Beverly.

Her marriage ended in divorce in 1966. Faced with raising four children, Mrs. Alexander started her own preschool. Initially located on the first floor of her home, Mrs. Alexander’s School grew quickly. Two years after its founding, Mrs. Alexander purchased the school’s current location at 80 Lothrop St., overlooking Beverly Harbor.

“It was a big, old mansion that had not been occupied in years. It needed a lot of work to make it livable,’’ said her son Tom, of Beverly. “She recruited all sorts of relatives and neighbors, but did much of the work herself.’’

Mrs. Alexander took the school from 12 students, mostly the children of friends and relatives, to an enrollment of 90.

“She was a natural,’’ said Sandy Walor of Beverly, a friend who bought Mrs. Alexander’s School in 2004. “She just loved being with children. She liked the school when it was full of laughter and singing.’’

In 1969, Mrs. Alexander won a seat on the Beverly School Committee, which she served on for six years, before leaving in 1975 to run for an open seat on the Beverly Board of Aldermen, now the City Council.

She spent six years on the board, four as council president.

“It was still pretty unusual for women to be involved politically,’’ her son said. “She was the only woman on the council, and a lot of the guys were not used to being commanded by a woman. Let’s just say she . . . had to make liberal use of the gavel.’’

In 1981, Mrs. Alexander lost a bid for mayor of Beverly. A year later, she was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and served eight years.

Kehoe said Mrs. Alexander was dedicated to civil service. “She and I both had that same drive, because we were so happy serving not only people across the Commonwealth, but also constituents in our own districts,’’ Kehoe said. “Fran had a mission to serve people. I’m a much better person for having had her as my friend.’’

Mrs. Alexander was instrumental in establishing the Beverly Senior Center. She persuaded Beverly Hospital to donate land, and secured about $1.5 million from the state for its construction. She also promoted legislation that made it easier for entrepreneurs to start small businesses.

“She was on the Commerce Committee, and she spent an enormous amount of time and effort on small-business incubation,’’ said Kehoe. “She worked very diligently on that legislation.’’

She was also instrumental in the adoption of a public safety regulation.

On July 4, 1984, the Elliot Chambers fire destroyed a three-story boarding house on Rantoul Street in Beverly and killed 15 people. After the fire chief told her that a sprinkler system would have saved lives, she authored a bill to require sprinkler systems in boarding houses that accommodate six or more people. Mrs. Alexander lobbied for the bill until it passed in 1986.

“She was always one to champion the underdog,’’ her son said. “She felt she had been an underdog herself, so she was always willing help those at the bottom. She reveled in helping people.’’

She lost a bid for another term in 1990, and in 1992 joined the board of trustees at Endicott College. During her 11-year tenure, she helped oversee the school’s expansion from a two-year all-girls college of 400 students to a four-year co-ed university with a student body of more than 2,000.

She was awarded an honorary doctorate from Endicott in 2007.

Mrs. Alexander continued to serve on boards of many nonprofit organizations, including: the North Shore Music Theatre, the Saint Vincent de Paul Society, the Beverly Preschool, the Girdler House, and the North Shore Chamber of Commerce.

She received many awards and honors and was especially proud of being named the local B’nai B’rith chapter’s person of the year in 1988 and receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Beverly Democratic City Committee in 2005.

In a Globe article that year, she said was pleased to be thought of as a role model, especially for women. “It’s good to see all these women becoming interested in politics, taking their place and doing a fine job,’’ she said.

Mrs. Alexander also said she took pride in the role she played in bringing about the construction of the Veterans Memorial Bridge between Beverly and Salem and her work with other women to secure passage of legislation to crack down on domestic violence.

In addition to her son Tom, Mrs. Alexander leaves two other sons, Bert of Danvers and Jack of Franklin; a daughter, Connie Giorgio of Harwich; 12 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said today in St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly at 10 a.m.

Stewart Bishop can be reached at stewartbishop5@gmail.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary incorrectly identified her maiden name. It is Flynn.