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A muted farewell

Louise Day Hicks, symbol of era, is eulogized in low-key service

Once, as the symbol of the fight against school busing, Louise Day Hicks stood before huge crowds, spoke for an angry movement, captured her neighborhood's consciousness.

But in the quarter-century that passed between the day Hicks retreated from public life and the day she died last week at 87, much in her native South Boston has changed. Political norms have shifted, passions have waned. And at her funeral yesterday, in the parish where she was baptized, there were few signs of the tumult and ardor that marked her public life.

It was a ceremony for a civic leader, with flag-draped coffin, police officers on horseback, an honor guard of neighborhood politicians flanking the doorway of St. Brigid Church. But the rest of the city's political elite -- the city councilors running for reelection next month, the bulk of politicians who served with her in the 1960s and `70s -- didn't appear. The church was half-filled, with a crowd of about 160, mostly family and longtime friends.

The service, which started with bagpipes and ended with a trumpet playing "Danny Boy," felt largely like a private affair for a neighborhood grande dame.

Some said that, after all that has passed, that wasn't a surprise.

Her legacy "is what it is. I think it's part of this country, and part of the city's history," said US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, 48, who serves in the seat Hicks held for one term, at the height of her political career. But, he said, "these are different times. And this is a different place."

As a Boston School Committee member, city councilor, and unsuccessful candidate for mayor, Hicks was one of the city's most divisive figures. Though many saw bigotry coded in her remarks and political rhetoric, she insisted her aim was to preserve the rights of working-class parents.

Yesterday, there were references to old days and old wounds. In his eulogy, former University of Massachusetts president William M. Bulger, who represented South Boston in the Legislature for 34 years, defended a woman he said had been misunderstood and vilified -- and, ultimately, he contends, vindicated.

"She opposed what she should have opposed," Bulger said. "Today, no one calls for massive busing, though the racial imbalance is much greater than it was 30 years ago. It has failed, and we know it now."

Her other defenders yesterday also stuck to familiar themes: neighborhood solidarity, class tension, mistrust of orders imposed from outside.

Hicks believed "that the children of Boston should receive the same dignity of education and quality as children of means, children of affluent families from the districts outside the city," the Rev. James M. DiPerri said in his homily, though he also seemed to acknowledge that political standards have changed.

She "wished to express the will of the people as she saw it, in the time period she served," DiPerri said. "Political correctness was not her creed."

DiPerri and Bulger also spoke at length about Hicks's other life, as a neighborhood fixture and charity patron. Bulger recalled her quick "yes" several years ago when he asked her to open her house, a sprawling Victorian with views of Boston Harbor, for a tour to raise money for South Boston's Laboure Center, a social service agency. As more than 1,000 people filed through, he said, she "greeted each and every person in a cordial and welcoming way."

Others remembered Hicks for the young priests she sent to seminary with her financial support, the days she spent reading to patients at the Carney Hospital, and the fact that she was watching Mother Teresa's beatification in Rome on television in the last hours of her life.

Many noted that she lived in South Boston all her life, and died in the room where she was born.

There was a similar constancy to her political life, friends said; she held her views, regardless of public perception or critics' scorn. That's a trait worth applauding, said State Senator Jack Hart, a Democrat from South Boston.

"Today, public officials are criticized for not standing up for what they believe in," Hart said. "Whether you agree with her or not, you have to admire her."

Hart said he was saddened that more local politicians didn't attend Hicks's funeral. "She devoted her life to the people of South Boston," he said. "Even after 24 years, people should appreciate that."

But City Council President Michael Flaherty owed the small showing to the passage of time. Many of the city's younger leaders did not know Hicks personally, he said, and did not feel connected to her fight.

"We are really of another generation," said Flaherty, 34. "I was literally in diapers when she was first running for office."

Flaherty said he knew of no coordinated effort to skip the funeral -- though many councilors are campaigning in neighborhoods where Hicks's role in the busing fight might not be viewed so charitably.

City Councilor James M. Kelly agreed that, in the last decades of her life, Hicks had largely slipped away from public consciousness. "Lots of our sons and daughters who live here don't know her," he said.

Kelly, 62, knew Hicks well and smiled at her picture on the funeral program: her dark bouffant hairstyle, her neckline decorated with a ladylike ruffle, her lips set in a thin, determined line.

"A lot of people, including myself, thought she was right on every issue," he said. And he said he respected her choice to spend her last years out of public view.

"By her own design, Louise walked away from the media attention," Kelly said. "I think she'd want a quiet, subdued funeral."

For some South Boston residents, that sort of send-off -- from people who knew her well and remembered her fondly -- was good enough.

"For her friends, her legacy will be her courage, her conviction, her integrity," said Richard DeVoe, 53, who first met Hicks when he was 17, and she autographed his high school diploma. "For the rest of the people, who knows."

Alan Lupo of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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