Collins, John Frederick

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Collins, John Frederick

(b. 20 July 1919 in Boston, Massachusetts; d. 23 November 1995 in Brighton, Massachusetts), lawyer and politician, who as the mayor of Boston from 1960 to 1968 provided political leadership and worked with the business community to support urban redevelopment that left a revitalized Boston positioned to take advantage of the new information-based economy.

Collins was the oldest of three children born to Frederick B. Collins, a mechanic for the Boston Elevated Railway, and Margaret Mellyn, a homemaker. Educated in the Boston public schools, he graduated from Roxbury Memorial High School in 1937. He attended Suffolk University Law School from 1937 to 1941, earning a bachelors of law degree cum laude and graduating first in his class. He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1941, and later that year ran unsuccessfully for the Boston City Council. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, served in the counterintelligence corps, and was discharged in 1946 with the rank of captain. On 6 September 1947 Collins married Mary Patricia Cunniff; they had four children.

Collins, who lived in the Roxbury section of Boston, was elected as a Democrat to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in November 1946 and served two terms from 1947 to 1951. Elected to the Massachusetts Senate in November 1950, he served two terms from 1951 to 1955. In the Senate Collins sponsored anti-Communist legislation and bills to control narcotics. In 1954 he was the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts’s attorney general, but was defeated by the Republican incumbent George Fingold.

In 1955 Collins ran for the Boston City Council. Ten days before the September primary, he and three of his children were stricken with polio. His children recovered, but Collins was almost totally paralyzed and nearly died. Recovery was slow, although after ten years in a wheelchair he was able to walk with crutches. His physicians thought he should withdraw from the campaign, but he refused and his wife managed the campaign. Collins finished eleventh among the eighteen finalists in the primary, but few thought he could win one of the nine seats in the November election. During a televised speech he predicted victory and promised to attend the first meeting of the city council in January. He finished third among the nine winners, took the oath of office at his home, and was present for the first council meeting.

Collins served on the city council from 1956 to 1957. He resigned to accept an appointment as the registrar of probate and insolvency for Suffolk County from Governor Foster Furcolo. In 1958 he was elected to a full six-year term as registrar.

When Collins announced his candidacy for mayor of Boston in 1959, most observers doubted he could prevail over the state senate president John E. Powers in the contest to succeed the retiring mayor John B. Hynes. Powers, a legislator for twenty-one years, had a large campaign war chest and the support of most Boston and state political groups and leaders. Collins ran his campaign as a political outsider and underdog. He used television to present a clean-cut, wholesome, nonpolitical image. He generated sympathy and respect because, like former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, he had not been defeated by polio. His well-run campaign played on his opponent’s name, pledging to “stop power politics.” He supported a limited state sales tax to help cut property taxes, a more efficient municipal government, and urban renewal. In the September primary Collins received twenty-two percent of the vote, second to Powers, who received only thirty-four percent. Four days before the November election, Collins capitalized on a federal raid on a Boston bookmaker whom he said had ties to Powers. Collins captured fifty-six percent of the ballots, defeating his opponent by more than 24,000 votes.

On 4 January 1960 Collins was inaugurated as the mayor of Boston. As the city’s chief executive, this blunt, articulate, hard-working veteran of Boston politics was not fooled or frightened by anyone. He even had a private phone line installed in the mayor’s office, gave its number to only selected individuals, and answered it himself.

As mayor, Collins met with a group of Boston’s business leaders every other week. Collins set the agenda and used these contacts to convince the business community to loan technically trained individuals to help him reorganize the city, recruit experts to work for the city, lobby the legislature, and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrate to the business leaders that their mayor was competent and honest and would work with them to develop the city.

Collins selected effective legislative lobbyists and was willing to call and visit with state legislators in support of pending bills. He also lobbied the federal government to provide funds for renewal projects. Toward the end of his administration, however, the federal government began to reduce assistance because of increased spending for the Vietnam War.

To supervise urban renewal Collins hired Edward J. Logue, a lawyer and urban planner who had been directing New Haven, Connecticut’s, redevelopment since 1954 and who had a reputation for attracting federal funds. Collins had the board of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) name Logue as development administrator. Although most of his salary came from the BRA, some came from the mayor’s office, so Logue worked directly under Collins. The mayor instructed Logue to prepare a comprehensive development plan for Boston and then carry it out.

Collins worked with Logue to get favorable court rulings, federal funds, and the necessary legislation to enable the BRA to carry out urban redevelopment. He also worked with local business leaders to plan the reconstruction of the downtown business district. New construction began with the fifty-two-story Prudential Tower, followed by completion of the Boston Common underground garage, demolition of Scollay Square and its replacement with a new Government Center including a new Boston City Hall, and reconstruction of the waterfront including a new aquarium. Highways were built, historic Quincy Market behind Faneuil Hall was restored, and some housing was rehabilitated. The BRA publicized its accomplishments nationally and invited private business to locate and build in Boston. By 1966 new construction occupied about one quarter of the city’s land and was called by many the “New Boston.”

Promising to “complete the job we have started,” Collins ran for reelection in 1963, basing his campaign on four years of property tax cuts, a three percent reduction in the city budget, and the urban renewal program that he said produced more construction, more jobs, and more family income. He won with sixty percent of the vote.

Collins discovered that while business leaders, tourists, and urban planners hailed the New Boston, the working-class residents of the surrounding neighborhoods opposed redevelopment as they saw residences and communities demolished and replaced by upscale housing developments. Also, the African American community perceived Collins as an unfriendly executive who did not do enough to respond to its needs. In 1966 Collins sought the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, but lost both the convention endorsement and the primary. On 6 June 1967 Collins announced that he would not seek a third term as mayor. Although the new City Hall would not be ready for use until the middle of 1968, Collins moved to the mayor’s office in December 1967, where he met with his successor, Kevin H. White. Then he developed a case of pneumonia that prevented him from attending White’s inauguration.

Collins served as a visiting professor of urban affairs at the Alfred P. Sloan School of Management of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1968 to 1980. While there he served as chief advisor to the MIT Fellows in the Urban Affairs Program. The program sponsored junior faculty who worked full time for a year with city officials on urban problems. He resumed his law practice, maintaining an office in Boston until 1990. He served as a consultant, wrote occasional articles on political and moral issues, and was a television panelist on Five on Five, a program on Boston’s Channel 5. He chaired the Massachusetts Democrats and Independents for Nixon in 1972 while serving as co-vice chairman of the national organization and was an unofficial advisor to Governor Edward King from 1979 to 1983. Hospitalized with pneumonia in July 1995, Collins died of a myocardial infarction four months later, and is buried in Saint Joseph’s Cemetery in West Roxbury.

Collins was a large man, six-feet, two-inches tall and weighing 190 pounds. He was intelligent, hardworking, knowledgeable, articulate, tough, and straightforward. If he did not like an article in a newspaper, he would call the reporter, not the editor. He understood the ins and outs of Boston politics. That understanding, combined with his independence from other political leaders, enabled him to pursue his goals of efficient city government and urban redevelopment. Although successful in rebuilding the downtown business district, he did not have the support of the residents in the poorer neighborhoods, who saw redevelopment as destroying their homes and communities. The rebuilt New Boston, however, attracted high technology, finance, and service industries that made the city a leader in the world economy.

Collins’s papers are in Special Collections, Boston Public Library, Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts. The papers cover his two terms as mayor as well as his campaigns for mayor and for the U.S. Senate. For a detailed analysis of Boston’s 1959 mayoral election and Collins’s victory, see Murray B. Levin, The Alienated Voter: Politics in Boston, (1960). Lawrence W. Kennedy, Planning the City upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630 (1992), discusses Collins’s role as a municipal leader who was essential to Boston’s urban planning and redevelopment. Thomas H. O’Connor, Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950–1970 (1993), covers extensively the mayor’s contributions to Boston’s redevelopment. O’Connor’s The Boston Irish: A Political History (1995), places Collins in the context of the Boston Irish community. Mark I. Gelfand, Trustee for a City: Ralph Lowell of Boston (1998), contains information about Collins and his relationship with leaders of the Boston business community. Walter McQuade, “Boston: What Can a Sick City Do?” in Fortune (June 1964), is a contemporary view of Boston’s redevelopment. For a critical view of Boston’s redevelopment during Collins’s administration see Jack Tager, “Urban Renewal in Boston: Municipal Entrepreneurs and Urban Elites,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 21 (winter 1993): 1-32. Obituaries are in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and New York Times (all 24 Nov. 1995).

William A. Hasenfus

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Collins, John Frederick

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