By John Lynds
His job was to balance the needs of the Massachusetts Port Authority with the needs of the communities impacted by Logan Airport operations. At community meetings in East Boston, Winthrop, Revere, Chelsea and South Boston, Thomas Butler, known here as ‘Tommy’, was the ever lovable punching bag for community activists that needed to vent their frustrations about the endless impacts of airport noise and pollution.
At meetings, after sometimes being lambasted over something Massport had recently done that the neighborhood perceived as unfair on not entirely geuine, Butler would take all the name calling and shouting and then with that trademark twinkle in his eye and boyish grin he would step forward and say something like, “Funny, my wife called me that last night”.
The crowd would usually erupt in laughter and with this ability to disarm a volatile crowd, Butler’s good nature would allow Massport and the community to get down to business on a compromise that usually pleased both parties.
Butler, the long-time director of Government and Community Affairs for the Massachusetts Port Authority who fiercely believed that economic growth fueled by Boston Logan International Airport and the Port of Boston needed to be tempered with compassion for residents of communities most impacted by Massport’s facilities, died Friday, March 4 of complications from leukemia at Brigham and Women’s Hospital surrounded by his family. He was 59.
A son of South Boston who never forgot where he came from, Butler worked the corridors of power on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill with the same zest he applied to helping residents of Eastie and South Boston. He was revered in Southie; Eastie residents viewed him with kindness and respect – sentiments they did not usually have for Massport.
“As Massport’s director of Government and Community Affairs during the largest building effort in our history, Tommy had a very difficult job to do reconciling the needs of this Authority and the traveling public with the legitimate concerns of surrounding communities asked to shoulder the burdens of our facilities and make sacrifices for the greater public good,’’ said Massport’s CEO and Executive Director Thomas Kinton. “It was a job Tommy did brilliantly, never giving in when it came time to remind the community of the good that Massport did or reminding Massport of our obligation to the local communities and their quality of life.’’
Known for his booming voice, boyish-sense of fun and a hearty laugh, Butler’s keen intellect could be overlooked, but doing so was a mistake for those involved in negotiations with him rarely made twice.
Butler worked extraordinarily hard to make sure funding for airports was protected yearly in the federal budget. On the local level, he was closely involved in Transportation Reform and the transfer of the Tobin Bridge from Massport to MassDOT . He was a critical player in the complicated negotiations between Massport, the City of Worcester, and the Federal Aviation Administration, regarding Massport’s purchase last year of Worcester Regional Airport.
In 2007, Butler was struck by a taxicab in South Boston and nearly died, but dedicated himself in grueling rehabilitation and by 2008, he was walking without a cane. Last year, he was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant when his sister Donna proved to be a match.
“What should have began as a natural relationship of conflict and mistrust turned out to be one of my most treasured and productive relationships in all of my time in public service,” said close friend and former Senate President Robert Travaglini. “Tommy was a real friend and whenever I had the opportunity to work with him I knew two things would happen, one we would have fun and two, things would get done.”
In his work in the community it never seemed to matter how complicated or challenging the circumstance were or emotionally charged the issue was, Butler always knew there was a way to satisfy all the different fractions.
“Tommy was a man who really cared about East Boston,” said City Councilor Sal LaMattina. “I would always enjoy our battles with Massport because I knew that behind the scene Tommy would get Massport to do the right thing. I could always count on Tommy for being there for us. He will be deeply missed.”
Senator Anthony Petruccelli said that Butler had the uncanny ability to put himself in the community’s shoes because, as a son of Southie, was an impacted resident of Massport.
“To serve in that position for as long as he did he had to be good,” said Petruccelli. “There was no pretending in Tommy Butler and he was in the business of delivering for the people here in East Boston and other impacted communities and his reputation preceded him on many occasions. While he had to deliver for the Port Authority he would always leave the community at ease that they were not getting steam rolled and that our thoughts and concerns were given great consideration.”
Representative Carlo Basile added that Butler was a dear friend, a valuable asset to the community and an irreplaceable member of Massport that will be truly missed.
“I am deeply saddened by this loss,” he said. “My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Butler attended the John P. Bigelow Grammar School in South Boston, South Boston High School and graduated on the Dean’s List from Boston State College in 1975. He majored in political science and sociology. If life experience counted, he would have had doctorate degrees in both those fields.
He was the former mayor of the South Boston Boys Club, Youth Counselor and then Director of Little City Hall in Charlestown and the former president of the South Boston Citizens Association and member of the South Boston Irish American Society.
When he arrived at Massport in 1987 as a manager of intergovernmental relations, he was a licensed social worker who had worked in Boston Juvenile Court, and for the City of Boston and had been active in civic associations in South Boston. By 1993, he was the head of the department.
“He was as big as the City, the Authority, the City Hall and State House, the South Boston Irish neighborhood and the family that he loved,’’ said Kinton. “The tenacity with which he fought for all of his attachments can be measured by the courage he showed while fighting for his own life after surviving the debilitating injuries of that horrific traffic accident and then the shattering news he had leukemia.’’
Butler is survived by his wife, Helen; a son, Thomas Jr.; and a daughter, Jillian; a brother, Edward; a sister, Donna; many nieces and nephews.