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An ailing Kevin White takes to the trail

Former Hub mayor battles Alzheimer's

Former Boston mayor Kevin H. White and his daughter walked up to a construction site on the waterfront yesterday, and he whispered advice to the budding politician.

"Shake everything that moves," he said, as she began pumping the workers' outstretched hands.

Basking in her father's campaign presence, City Council candidate Patricia H. White confirmed for the first time the current struggle of his life. The four-term mayor who presided over Boston during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s is "in the early stages" of Alzheimer's disease, she said.

"He has good days and bad days," White said. "He still looks like Paul Newman or somebody, and he still has his charm and charisma."

Known for his formidable intellect, the former mayor is losing his short-term memory, but his long-term memory remains, and he exudes energy, friends said yesterday. He has not been seen in public much since his retirement from teaching at Boston University last year, and his family has been reluctant to discuss his health.

But the 73-year-old former mayor has resurfaced in recent months as his daughter seeks to follow him into politics, attending private fund-raisers and her announcement speech. He spoke briefly with the Globe after the event yesterday.

"I couldn't be more pleased," he said of his 33-year-old daughter's campaign for an at-large seat, as he looked at her with admiration.

"She's got it in her heritage. She's going to outstrip all of us before it's all through. Particularly for younger people, under 40, you really shouldn't finish without going through the intricacies and the delights [of politics]," said the former mayor.

As White left the construction site yesterday and strode across Congress Street in a steady rain, his soft white hair never fell out of place. On a dreary day, he seemed a beaming picture of health, his fit frame draped with a gray suit, white pinstripe collar, and red paisley tie. The jaw is still squared, the eyes still that penetrating blue.

White has been itching to get out and stump for his daughter, Patricia White said. But she said she will carefully guard his exposure to the chaotic world of campaigning. Soon, she said, she will take him to visit her campaign headquarters in West Roxbury.

"Is it a dump?" she said her father asked her.

The former mayor will campaign for his daughter at elderly housing complexes and bingo nights, among voters who remember his time in office, serving from 1967 until 1983.

On the campaign trail, strangers constantly ask after her father, who has stayed out of politics since leaving office.

"How's your father? We miss him!" an elderly woman playing bingo in the basement of St. Brendan's Church in Dorchester asked her one recent day.

"Well, he's had some health problems and things, but he's doing OK," she said, summoning fresh cheer at answering the inevitable question. "He's still got all his charm, you know."

In 2001, White, who lives on Beacon Hill, suffered a heart attack, and since then the family has been guarded releasing news of his health. His daughter yesterday declined to discuss details of his treatment or when he was diagnosed. Alzheimer's, which affects about 4 million Americans, is a degenerative disease that causes the gradual loss of brain cells. It advances at different rates in each individual.

Yesterday's visit to the Manulife Financial building under construction allowed the former mayor to see the changes in the cityscape, said his daughter, who has been endorsed by IBEW Local 103, whose members are working on the project.

"He hasn't been down here in a long time," Patricia White said. "As a man who developed downtown Boston and had real vision for the city, I wanted to show him the waterfront. None of this was here when he was mayor."

Standing in the open air on a 15th floor not yet fitted with windows, father and daughter pointed to familiar landmarks, reminiscing about a time when Anthony's Pier 4 restaurant was almost the only building on the waterfront.

White entered City Hall during a turbulent time, of Vietnam protests and a black population increasingly angered by the melees over civil rights all over the country. Under his administration, he established `Little City Halls' in neighborhoods to convince residents he was responding to their concerns, rebuilt schools, and the confidence in black neighborhoods with frequent visits. His success made him a rising national star, and in the early years, his ambitions rose as rapidly as the downtown skyscrapers he welcomed. But a bid for governor in his first term failed. There was talk of his being tapped as a vice presidential candidate in 1972, but Democratic nominee Senator George McGovern eventually passed him over.

Bruised by those setbacks, and by the ugly battles over busing in the mid-1970s, White receded from view in the neighborhoods, and shifted his focus to downtown development. His popularity was diminished during the national economic downturn and formerly devoted constituents began to complain that he was remote. He soon garnered the moniker "Kevin Deluxe."

Still, after he left office, he was admired for his political astuteness, and became the standard by which other city politicians were measured.

"Kevin White was a change agent and he changed the face of Boston," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "Kevin and I have been friends since I've been mayor and I'll continue to support him the best I can. When I was a young man in this, I probably sought his advice more than I did anybody's. He's really a class act."

Alan Lupo of the Globe staff contributed to this story.

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