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BELLA ENGLISH

Serving the public with integrity

It has been four months since Allan McKinnon left his beloved South Shore to live with his younger daughter, Megan, in Medford. He has been battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma, but he looks -- and says he feels -- good, and is grateful, at age 74, for the life he has led: as husband and father, school teacher, state senator, and, finally, head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

McKinnon grew up in Weymouth, the last of nine children. Later, he raised four -- make that five -- children in the same town. The fifth was Bob O'Brien, a friend of his son's, who came to stay overnight and basically never left. His parents both died a year apart, and the McKinnons took him in as their own.

In 1996, Allan and Anne McKinnon retired and downsized, moving to a condominium in Rockland. Three years ago, Anne lost a battle against breast cancer. Then came Allan's diagnosis a year ago. He discontinued chemotherapy after it proved too tough on him and had a difficult summer because of various hospitalizations. Right now, he remains in partial remission. By all accounts -- friends and family -- he is a modest man, and he agreed rather reluctantly to sit for an interview at the prodding of his daughters, who are rightly proud of him.

''God has been good to me," he said on a recent Saturday morning, sitting on the shady porch of his daughter's home. ''I've had a good life. I've done things I've enjoyed doing. I think we did a certain amount of good things." He is grateful, he said, ''for every day on the right side of the grass."

For 14 years, from 1970-1984, McKinnon represented what was then the Norfolk Plymouth district in the state Senate. He is remembered for taking on Billy Bulger, the powerful Senate president, which wasn't a good career move. But McKinnon didn't care. His heated comments were made in the closing days of the 1982 legislative session, as Bulger gaveled through last-minute patronage provisions, including pay raises for political friends, a measure to allow judges to retire with higher pensions than they were eligible for, and a law that let office-holders keep surplus campaign funds.

McKinnon chastised colleagues on the Senate floor, saying he had never ''been more depressed and ashamed of our public image." The moves had nothing to do with the public interest, he told them, and the best Christmas gift the Legislature could give the people would be to adjourn for the rest of the session.

''The clubs, the boys, were going to be taken care of, regardless of whether they'd served well," he said, looking back. McKinnon was majority whip at the time, with hopes of moving up to majority leader. But his comments cost him. He ended up as chairman of the committee on insurance. ''They didn't know where else to put me," he said.

After he graduated from Tufts University in 1955, McKinnon taught history and government in the Weymouth and Holbrook school systems. He decided to practice what he'd been preaching and ran for state Senate in 1970, representing 10 towns from Weymouth to Duxbury. A child of the Depression, he never went for the trappings of power. He proudly parked his Honda Civic with its Senate license plates among his colleagues' Lincolns and Mercedes. And while others held fancy fund-raisers, he preferred ''steak bakes," where people paid 10 bucks and got a steak dinner and live music. ''We didn't raise much money, but people had a good time," he said.

One day, he checked his appointment book and saw constituent meetings scribbled in for an entire weekend. Looking back, he realized his entire Senate career had been like that, to the detriment of his family life. ''It was a seven-day-a-week job, and the pay was modest," he said. He decided not to run for an eighth term, and went to work as a deputy secretary in the state Department of Transportation.

One of the projects he felt most strongly about was commuter boat service to the South Shore. He arranged the initial state financing for it and is proud that thousands of people ride it from Hingham every day, helping ease some of the gridlock south of Boston.

As for the controversial Greenbush commuter rail line through Hingham and Scituate, he's a supporter.

''I can see some of the residents' concern," he said, ''but frankly, I think it's a boon to the area. It's going to mean higher real estate values. People will find riding the train into the city, while reading a book or newspaper, relaxing. And they don't have to worry about parking once they get there. We have to do something about America's romance with the automobile."

While in the Senate, McKinnon also spoke out on the school busing issue, which was tearing Boston apart. McKinnon was for school integration, but he believed that ''the people of Boston got screwed." Housing discrimination meant that most black people lived in the city, and ''it seemed unfair that the burden of integration had to fall on the city," while the suburban schools remained all white. ''I felt it shouldn't fall upon the blue collar and the poor. I felt integration should be broader."

Today, he said, he is happy to see the fruits of integration spreading to the South Shore, with Asians, blacks, and Hispanics living in area communities. ''It's so healthy. I don't see how you live in this world if you don't have acceptance of all people."

McKinnon was also staunchly opposed to the death penalty. After the Legislature passed it and Governor Francis W. Sargent vetoed it, the House overruled his veto. The bill went to the Senate, where McKinnon was one of a handful of legislators who voted to uphold the veto. This was way before the recent stories of DNA evidence resulting in innocent people being released from prison years after conviction. ''I got a lot of pressure for that," he said. ''Talk show hosts were fanning the flames."

But it wasn't a tough vote for him. ''I don't think society should say, 'You have done this horrible thing; you took a human life and you know what we're going to do? Take your life,' " he said. ''I'm just against it philosophically."

In 1987, Governor Michael S. Dukakis appointed him head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, a job he held until retirement in 1996. He pushed for inverted barriers on the sides of the roads, helping the state win the best record for the fewest fatalities on major turnpikes in the country. Under him, the decrepit and dangerous Callahan and Sumner tunnels were rehabbed, litter patrol and wildflower programs were established, and bridges rebuilt.

Dukakis, who met McKinnon when he was a teacher, now says that he was largely responsible for creating a ''young, progressive, Democratic Party on the South Shore . . . which had been solidly Republican before he came along. Allen was the guy around whom the others revolved and evolved. He was the inspiration for the active, grass-roots Democratic organization there."

Dukakis remains proud of his turnpike appointee, saying: ''He rebuilt the bridges, and we're thanking our lucky stars he did. He and I were obsessive about public spaces looking good. Under Allen, the Turnpike was a model for how you maintain a highway."

McKinnon won't tell you about his charitable causes, but his daughter Kerin will. ''He doesn't have a lot of money, but has a separate account for charitable donations, from animals to children to cancer victims," she said. Ask him about it, and McKinnon will just say: ''There are so many needs out there, and we live so well."

These days, he's keeping up with the presidential campaign, appalled at the way the Bush campaign has put a negative spin on John Kerry's Vietnam War record. ''One guy went over there and fought and how in God's name he gets criticized when the other guy avoided the conflict." He shook his head.

The South Shore was the better for it.

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at english@globe.com.

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