By Brian R. Merrick
Robert H. Quinn died Sunday here on the Cape at his summer home in Falmouth at age 85. Obituaries in the Cape Cod Times and other newspapers in the commonwealth general led with his sponsorship of the eponymous Quinn Bill.
That signal legislation provided a payroll incentive for police officers to obtain advanced educational degrees, leavening the often jaded police roll call with a generation of officers armed with a broader understanding of the problems of the people they serve and the justice system of which they are a part. Enacted in days of prosperity, the program has, alas, foundered in recent hard times.
Uniformly the obituaries also recited Quinn’s service as speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, attorney general of the commonwealth and chairman of both the Trustees of the University of Massachusetts and the Boston Convention Center Authority.
Finally, the obituaries largely made reference to Quinn’s good nature and the high regard in which he was held. It was only there they fell short by reason of understatement.
Thousands of people loved Bob Quinn and considered him a personal friend. The requirements of friendship — a ready willingness to help in time of trial and uncomplaining sufferance of inconvenience to meet the needs of another — limit most mortals in the number of friendships they can maintain. To Bob Quinn they were second nature.
Quinn’s gift for friendship was effortless, his kindness unrehearsed. He never walked down a street in Boston without being repeatedly interrupted by someone wanting to thank him for his help or just say hello.
Bob Quinn did not, however, rise from Dorchester boy to speaker of the House while still in his 30s just by being a good guy. His natural intelligence, the strength gained from a lengthy near-fatal illness in his youth and the savvy of a kid from a Savin Hill triple-decker who attended the Harvard Law School propelled him.
Quinn liked to tell the story of his initial election as speaker in 1967. Massachusetts Secretary of State Kevin H. White had been elected mayor of Boston, and House Speaker John F.X. Davoren was the expected choice of the joint session of the Legislature that would meet to elect White’s successor as secretary of state. Quinn, as majority leader, was in line to succeed Davoren as speaker.
White announced that he would not resign as secretary of state unless the Legislature passed a state takeover of welfare, which had previously been the burden of cities and towns.
Eager to help, both as potential speaker and as a representative from the Dorchester section of Boston, which would benefit greatly from the state takeover, Quinn engineered passage of the takeover bill through a reluctant Legislature. Quinn then met with White at the Parker House and promised he would see that the takeover was funded in the budget. White balked and said he would not resign until the funding was passed.
Fuming over White’s unwillingness to accept his word, Quinn later said he considered tossing White out the window.
Cooler heads prevailed, the mayor-elect left by the door and Quinn got the funding passed. White resigned and Quinn was elected speaker by his peers at age 39.
If Quinn carried any rancor from the label “Boston pol” when his service with honor and integrity in high offices merited the title of “statesman,” he bore it with wry humor.
His lucky but sad friends will miss him.
God bless you, Bob Quinn.
Judge Brian R. Merrick is the First Justice of the Orleans District Court.