RIP, John Patrick Driscoll, at 77; Man for Ireland, Man for the People

Ed Forry

When Jack Driscoll died suddenly last month, the Boston Irish community lost a wonderful friend and a compassionate leader. More precisely, with the death of 77-year-old John Patrick Driscoll Jr. on Nov. 15, the loss was felt throughout the Greater Boston community, from the conference rooms at the Nutter law firm on the South Boston waterfront, where he was a longtime partner, to the leafy hills of Belmont where he and his wife Jane raised three sons and a daughter, to the shores of Hyannisport, where he spent many happy summers as a neighbor and lifelong friend and adviser to the late Ted Kennedy.

I was fortunate to meet Jack Driscoll almost two decades ago, when we gathered for an event hosted by the Irish American Partnership, one of the many local civic organizations that benefited from his wise counsel. A native of Somerville, he had settled in Belmont, the same town where my late wife, Mary Casey Forry, had been raised, and these two Irish Belmont transplants developed an instant affinity.

Late in 2002, I sat with him to prepare a cover story for the BIR, and in a wide-ranging interview, he spoke of his pride in his family roots - both his parents came from the Beara peninsula, in County Cork.

His father, John Patrick Driscoll, emigrated to America from the village of Eyerise in 1922 at the age of 23. "It was a very poor part of Ireland. He was educated to the sixth grade, and settled in a boarding house in Charlestown," he told me in that interview. "He had a tremendous work ethic. He got a job at the Everett gas works shoveling coal and got interested in boilers. At that time, MIT used to have a certificate program, and he took classes and earned a license as a third-class engineer. He was good with his hands, and he always had two jobs. He worked on furnaces and also in carpentry and painting."

His mother, Mary Sullivan, lived in Castletown Bear, about six miles from Eyerise, but the two never met until they attended an Irish dance in Boston at Hibernian Hall on Dudley Street.

"She was a domestic, working on Commonwealth Ave. Mrs. Sears was her employer. They married in 1930. My father by then owned a three-family house in Somerville, he had furnished it and even had a new stove and Frigidaire. One of my sisters once asked my mother, ‘Where did you spend your honeymoon?' "What are you talking about? We went home to the house. Your father had everything set up for me."

The young Jack Driscoll was educated at the parish grammar school in Somerville, and at Malden Catholic High School, where he lettered in football. He won a scholarship to the University of New Hampshire, and was named to the first academic All America team in 1952. Later, he enrolled at Harvard Law School, and while there he worked as a graduate assistant with the varsity football team, where he coached two future US senators: Edward Kenendy and Paul Kirk.

"Sports helped teach me the value of teamwork, discipline, hard work and the importance of being part of something larger than yourself," he said. "These are values that I have carried throughout my life and in everything I do." Along with many professional and civic accomplishments through his life, he seemed most comfortable being known by those he mentored as, simply, "Coach."

While serving as president of the Boston Bar Association in 1991, he headed a study on the status of drugs and crime in the city. "It was a severe criticism of the lack of coordination between community leadership, the city government, the state government, law enforcement, and the courts and the federal government," Driscoll said in 2002. "It was like ships passing in the night. We were very fortunate as a city that things didn't get worse. The first and second reports came out during my watch and I resolved that they would not sit and collect dust. We needed an entity to serve as a convener."

For 18 months, Driscoll organized meetings of people from all over the city and in early 1993 he formed the Boston Coalition, with task forces on such topics as a drug-free workplace, criminal justice, children and youth, and the religious community.

He also served on the St. Clair Commission that studied the Boston Police Department. "We were a lucky city," he said, recalling the severity of the crime wave in those years, and reflecting the belief that things could have become much worse.

A Boston Globe obituary on Nov. 17 reported many tributes for him: "Jack poured his heart and soul into improving race relations in our city and protecting the legal rights of people living with HIV/AIDS,'' current association president Jack Regan said in a statement. "A lawyer with a seemingly endless list of friends and contacts through the city and the nation, Jack also started the Boston Bar Association Law Day Dinner, an event that now attracts more than 1,200 lawyers and judges each year; he created a task force to improve the correctional system in Massachusetts; and he played an active role in preventing a tax on legal services.'' 

"I was stunned to receive the news of his death, for Jack was a force of nature, a man of endless, abundant energy, who directed all of that energy in one direction: to make ours a better society for all,'' Margaret H. Marshall, chief justice of the state's Supreme Judicial Court, wrote in an e-mail to he paper. "He had a special compassion for the despised and downtrodden. A man who handled his position of influence with ease, he looked always to expand opportunities and open doors for those less fortunate than himself. He was a great lawyer and wise counselor. The Massachusetts bar will not be the same without him.''

Said Sen. Paul Kirk, "I think in the best sense of the word he was an activist lawyer, and by that I mean he felt a real responsibility to take the law and the profession beyond the courtroom and into the community to serve as a force for good.''

As Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree said to the Globe, "Boston has lost a true legendary lawyer. Jack was a warm, kind, and generous man. My heart is broken to learn that he passed away and that I will no longer have his sage advice and counsel that was so important to me over the years.''

 "He was one of the nicest, sweetest people I've ever known, just an amazing individual,'' said Peter Lynch, vice chairman of Fidelity Investments. "You meet few people like him in your lifetime, and you only meet people like him if you're lucky.''

Jack Driscoll was buried on Nov. 19 in Belmont Cemetery. He leaves his wife, Jane (Bourque), and three sons, John P. of Greenwich, CT, James M. of Atlanta, and Joseph E. Philadelphia; and three sisters, Mary Murphy of Florida, Irene Giggie of Belmont, and Marguerite Litsas of Arlington.