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John Corcoran, developer of real estate, good will; at 80

John M. Corcoran grew up in a triple-decker at the end of the driveway to St. Margaret's Hospital in Dorchester, and he never forgot where he came from. After earning millions as a real estate developer, he contributed time and money in the creation of St. Mary's Women and Infant Center, a multiservice agency for Dorchester residents that was born in 1993 after the closing of St. Margaret's.

"He knew what it was like to live in poverty, and knew what a difference it could make when you had support around you," Judy Beckler, president of the Women and Infant Center, said yesterday, of Mr. Corcoran, 80, who died Wednesday at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Beckler said she couldn't give a figure for how much money Mr. Corcoran donated to the center. "It's not something he would approve of," she said. "He hoped, in time, people would understand that his time and commitment were more important than any money he donated."

But the total was at least $500,000, according to a story published in the Globe in 1995.

The center now includes a homeless shelter, has 20 beds for pregnant teenagers, and is home to nine nonprofit groups that offer a number of services from child care to computer training.

"He wanted us to become a vital institution in Dorchester," said Beckler. "He had a commitment and a vision, and really believed that folks could make a difference in other people's lives."

As a member of the center's board of trustees, Mr. Corcoran was always willing to ask the hard questions. "He once told me, `I learned long ago not to practice trustee etiquette,' " said Beckler.

One of eight children of an Irish-immigrant factory worker, Mr. Corcoran sometimes hawked newspapers as a young man to help his family make ends meet. He shoveled coal at St. Margaret's. And he spent a childhood summer with relatives in Ireland.

He attended St. Peter's Elementary School and Boston English High School.

When the United States entered World War II, he answered the call and became a paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division.

In the months before the D-Day invasion of France, his family lost contact with him for three months. Every night, the sound of rosary beads rattled through the two-bedroom apartment in Dorchester as his siblings prayed for his safe return.

Finally his mother received a letter. "Mom, I smelled something today that I haven't smelled since I was seven years old," he wrote, "the sweet smell of turf burning on a fire."

To his family's relief, Mr. Corcoran was alive and well and training in Ireland.

Mr. Corcoran parachuted into France in the early hours of the D-Day invasion.

"I once asked him what D-Day was like," his brother Joe of Milton said yesterday. "He said: `It was the most exhilarating and most exciting time of my life; unfortunately, some people got killed, and others got hurt.' "

Mr. Corcoran was among the injured. He was seriously wounded and was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery as well as a Purple Heart.

After the war, Mr. Corcoran attended Boston College.

He completed his bachelor's degree in three years, even though he was working 40 hours a week shoveling coal at St. Margaret's.

He then began John M. Corcoran & Co., a real estate development firm, which he operated with his brothers Leo and Joe, who later left to start his own firm, Corcoran Jennison Companies.

"We were a lot more confident than our parents were," Mr. Corcoran said in a story published in the summer 2000 issue of The World of Hibernia magazine. "We knew we were at least as smart as anyone else -- if not smarter. And you also knew you were an American, and you had that right."

John M. Corcoran & Co. has built or managed more than 15,000 apartment units and a million square feet of suburban properties including Quincy Commons and Weymouth Commons apartment complexes.

Mr. Corcoran contributed to many charities, among them the Christian Jewish Center at Boston College, where he was a longtime trustee.

He had 50 nieces and nephews, and he loved to ski. Every year, he brought his extended family on a ski trip to New Hampshire. For many years, he rented the entire Bartlett Hotel for his family, and children would be running through its hallways for a week.

Each year, Mr. Corcoran took a trip to the Alta Ski Area in Utah. "He was looking forward to going this year," said Joe. "When you reach 80 years old, you get to ski for free. It wasn't the money, but it was a status thing with him."

In addition to his brothers, both of whom are Milton residents, he leaves two sons, John and Thomas, also of Milton; five sisters, Mary of Dorchester, Theresa of Quincy, and Claire Carten, Bernadette Richards, and Frances Richer, all of Milton; and five grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said Monday at 10 a.m. in St. Elizabeth's Church in Milton. Burial will be in Milton Cemetery.

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