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Kevin Fitzgerald; ex-legislator was advocate for Mission Hill

Kevin Fitzgerald served in the State House for more than a quarter of a century. Kevin Fitzgerald served in the State House for more than a quarter of a century. (globe file 1986)

By the time he had been in the Legislature for six years, Kevin Fitzgerald was considered a rising star. Elected in 1975 at age 24, he was seen as someone who could be mayor of Boston or speaker of the Massachusetts House.

The corridors of power in the State House seemed far from the first-floor apartment on Sunset Street that Mr. Fitzgerald had shared with his parents and six siblings while growing up. He found the path from Mission Hill to Beacon Hill, "but I never forgot where I come from," Mr. Fitzgerald told the Globe in 1981.

And he never left. As Mission Hill changed, Mr. Fitzgerald remained an advocate for a community that became more diverse racially.

"Kevin is one of those unique individuals who touched everybody in a positive way," House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi said yesterday. "He came from meager and poor beginnings in a neighborhood where he was given an opportunity to succeed in life. Not only was he grateful, but he gave back tenfold what he received."

Mr. Fitzgerald, a Democrat who served in the House for more than a quarter century, rose to majority whip, and became the chamber's sergeant at arms five years ago, died of cancer yesterday, DiMasi's office said. He was 57.

"People are completely devastated. This guy touched so many lives," said Representative Jeffrey Sanchez, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who was elected in 2002 to succeed Mr. Fitzgerald in the House. "He never gave up on the idea of community."

"He could be a powerful orator - and was - in defending the people of his district," said Secretary of State William F. Galvin.

Galvin, who had served in the House with Mr. Fitzgerald, called him "a person who didn't leave his community and continued to advocate for it long after it had changed politically."

Sanchez, who grew up in Mr. Fitzgerald's district, said that "when Kevin would show up, he lit up a room. He was in some cases bigger than life."

Political promise blossomed early for Mr. Fitzgerald, yet at the time he was hesitant to accept it. Although he was elected student council president at Mission Church High School in 1967, he was more interested in sports than politics. When he was picked by lottery to serve as the state's student governor for a day, the lanky 6-foot-3 senior was daunted by the prospect of delivering an inaugural address and attending committee hearings, if even for a few hours.

"I was trying very hard to find a graceful way out," he told the Globe in 1981. "Then my father took me aside and said that Mission Hill and Roxbury always make the paper when something bad happens, but I had a chance to represent the community in a positive way."

Neighbors called out "Good luck, Kevin" from their windows as a black limousine picked him up outside the three-decker where his family lived. That evening, back in his bed on the top bunk in the room he shared with three brothers, he mused: "Governor today, Roxbury and down to earth tonight."

A more devastating fall came in 1991 when Mr. Fitzgerald resigned as majority whip after the House Committee on Ethics voted to relieve him of the powerful post. Those actions followed a ruling by the State Ethics Commission that he had violated state conflict of interest laws by accepting a bequest of about $200,000 from a troubled woman. A decade earlier, Mr. Fitzgerald had come to her aid when she was embroiled in an eviction dispute and sought his help. He denied any impropriety occurred and continued to be reelected.

Colleagues said Mr. Fitzgerald had built his political career on advocating for the poor and dispossessed, an outgrowth of growing up in a close-knit Irish-Catholic family that believed strongly in education and helping others.

He was a city youth worker in South Boston at the outset of desegregation, trying, in his works, to keep the peace on the streets.

"He was very involved with kids in the area and had some semblance of control over them. Kids respected him," Milton Cole, then-acting director of security for the Boston Housing Authority, told the Globe in 1981.

In the interview with the Globe, Mr. Fitzgerald recalled an incident that prompted him to run for office. He said he was working at a South Boston housing project "and we requisitioned the city for equipment and they wouldn't give us any. That motivated me."

After he was elected, Mr. Fitzgerald stepped forward when assistance was needed - in the State House or his own house.

Mr. Fitzgerald and his wife, Patricia, were expecting their first child and living in a first-floor apartment near his parents in the early 1980s when a family of three in Mission Hill needed a place to stay after fire destroyed their home. The couple welcomed them into their two-bedroom abode. At the same time, a friend needed a place to stay while recovering from an accident, so the Fitzgeralds slept on the couch while their guests took the beds.

"He was a very selfless individual who cared about people a great deal," DiMasi said. "He was a man of great character, of great compassion. He just loved to help kids and wanted to give them the opportunities he was given.

"He should be admired for that," DiMasi added. "There are many people who forget where they came from. Kevin never forgot. He remained loyal to his friends and his neighborhood. And not only did he remain loyal, he was a moving force for the community. I know he was comforted at the end knowing he had accomplished good things in his life."

Funeral arrangements were not available last night.

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