WATERTOWN–George Keverian, whose six-year tenure as speaker of the Massachusetts House began in the warm euphoria of reform and ended as the state struggled with a harsh economic downturn, was found dead in his Everett home Friday morning. He was 77 and had been scheduled to read a Dr. Seuss book to first-graders at the elementary school that bears his name.
The Armenian National Committee of Massachusetts joined with Armenian Americans throughout the commonwealth in mourning the passing of the former House Speaker and government reform champion.
“Speaker Keverian’s commitment to free speech and open government set the standard for civic reform throughout the Commonwealth–a legacy which has touched all levels of Massachusetts governance,” said ANC Eastern Massachusetts Chairwoman Sharistan Melkonian. “At the same time, his commitment to proper U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide and devotion to Armenian American concerns garnered the respect and admiration of our communities nationwide.”
Keverian grew up in Everett, MA, and attended Everett High School and later Tufts College and Harvard College. He began his political life in 1953 at the age of 21, with his election of to the Everett Common Council. He would later serve 24 years in the Massachusetts House, six of which as Speaker.
During his years in the House, Keverian organized the first Armenian Genocide observance at the State Capitol ‘s an event which continues annually to this day.
His commitment to education touched the lives of many. He had also served on the boards of directors of vital institutions including the St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary school in Watertown, Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Service Alliance.
"George Keverian served as the definition of the words ‘public service,’ " House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement today. "Speaker Keverian championed free debate and governmental reform. He led the House during a tough fiscal time and was not afraid to make difficult decisions for the benefit of the entire Commonwealth."
Carl Surabian, one of Keverian’s co-workers, found him Friday morning after going to his house when Keverian didn’t show up for his 9:30 appointment at the elementary school. Everett Fire Chief David Butler said the cause of death had not been determined.
"He had a wonderful feel for — the phrase we use is ‘the little guy,’ " said Thomas M. Finneran, the former House speaker who served under Keverian. "That probably comes from his childhood in Everett. George just had a great empathy and a great feel for what the little guy and the little girl was up against."
Keverian’s life was politics, beginning with his election in 1953 to the Everett Common Council at 21, just after graduating from Harvard. But the House of Representatives became almost as much of a home to him as his hometown during the 24 years he served in the chamber.
"I am a creature of the Legislature," he said in 1983, when he banded with other reform-minded representatives in an effort that ended with Keverian wresting the speakership in a coup from Thomas McGee, a mentor he had served as majority leader.
Keverian Initially was praised for an open, democratic style of leadership that departed from his predecessor’s more autocratic reign. Coming at a time when Eastern European countries were straining to shake off the shackles of Soviet rule, some saw in Mr. Keverian their own heroic leader.
"George Keverian was a Lech Walesa figure, a Vaclav Havel figure to a very dejected and woebegone Massachusetts House," Michael Barrett, then a state senator from Cambridge, told the Globe in 1990 as Keverian’s tenure as speaker was ending.
When Keverian stepped to the speaker’s podium for the first time in 1985, the state’s economy "was full steam ahead," Finneran recalled. "It was like a fabulous rocket ship to be riding the first three or four years of his speakership."
Then the financial road got rocky and critics derided Keverian for presiding, rather than prevailing, over the House, and letting the chamber drift when swift action was needed.
Still, Keverian, a lifelong bachelor, loved the House with an affection few politicians muster, and for many of his colleagues, the feeling was mutual.
"The members of the House really became, in many, many ways, his adopted family," Finneran’said. "He knew your wife and your family, he knew if your child was sick, he knew if your child became valedictorian, and he would comment on it and send a note. The House was his family, and as you would dote upon your family members, he would dote upon us in many ways."
In 1990, Keverian ran for state treasurer and lost in the Democratic primary, assuring his exit from state politics, Tears flowed, not least of all Keverian’s, when he bid farewell to his colleagues at 3 a.m. in the final House session of the year in December 1990.
"I’ve made many friends here, and hope you feel the same," he said that morning. "I’ve tried to maintain certain principles and ideals despite the pressures and criticisms that come with the profession we’re in, and it has been not without a great deal of suffering."
Back home in Everett after his time in the House ended, he took a part-time job as chief assessor in 1995 and served in that post ever since.