Years afterward, more than three decades into his career as a teacher and superintendent, one subject kept cropping up in William J. Leary’s conversations with colleagues and friends.
“People still ask me more about Boston than anything else,” he told the Globe in 1990. “They ask what really happened. I tell them it was a tough time, but it’s better now.”
The tough time was his three-year stint as superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. Little more than two years into his tenure, US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. issued his historic desegregation ruling, ordering Boston’s schools to use busing to implement integration.
Overnight, Dr. Leary’s job became one of the hardest in public school education nationwide, and as he implemented busing, on many days it was hands-down the most difficult task around.
“It was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t period in history, and I’m glad that it’s over. It was rough,” he recalled during the 1990 interview in his office in Gloucester, the last superintendent job he held before turning to college teaching full time.
Dr. Leary, who grew up in Dorchester and held two doctorates in education, died May 19, less than two weeks after he was injured in a fall. He was 86 and had lived in Boca Raton, Fla.
“To be a school superintendent is a hazardous profession at best. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s a challenge,” he told the Globe in April 1972 when the School Committee appointed him to run Boston’s schools.
Chosen after a much-publicized nationwide search, he was picked from among 197 candidates.
At the time, he was a graduate student — he ended up with doctorates from Harvard University and Boston University — and was directing the Boston Public Schools’ curriculum department and teaching in Boston State College’s continuing studies department.
Barely into his 40s, “I was a pretty knowledgeable person. Educationally, I was,” he recalled in 1990. “Politically, I was not. I had to learn things they don’t teach you at Harvard.”
A few years before becoming superintendent, he had been named director of Boston’s then-new curriculum department, where he established the school system’s first minority studies program. Though Dr. Leary dealt with a host of administrative challenges as superintendent, Garrity’s June 1974 order became the overriding measure of his tenure.
“The ultimate decisions will be made by Leary,” Boston Mayor Kevin White announced two months later, in August.
The responsibilities were exhausting. By late 1974, colleagues noticed that Dr. Leary tended to run more often than he walked when dashing from meeting to meeting and school to school.
“I was not doing much in 1975 in terms of education,” he recalled in the 1990 interview. “I was mostly putting out forest fires.”
By complying with all of the desegregation order’s details, he eventually lost the support of the majority of the Boston School Committee, some of whose members wanted him to stall and keep fending off integration. “I was trying to carry out an order of the court, and the majority of the committee was not in favor of it,” he said.
The committee had the authority to reappoint him or to let his contract lapse and chose the latter at the end of April 1975.
“We share the widespread dismay of people in and close to the school system at the replacement of William Leary,” the Globe said in an editorial when the committee announced its decision. Dr. Leary, the Globe said, wasn’t “as pliable as the committee hoped he would be.”
When he took the job, Dr. Leary had told the Globe that “change cannot be imposed from the top. People have to feel they are listened to. If they and the superintendent disagree, the superintendent has to be ready to say, ‘OK, we’ll try it your way.’ ”
Nevertheless, certain changes and burdens fell principally on his shoulders. Of the desegregation order, Dr. Leary would later say: “Somebody’s got to be the coordinator. It’s going to be me.”
Born in Boston, William James Leary grew up in Dorchester. “Ever since the age of 10, what I remember most is working,” he recalled in 1974. His father was an accountant, he told the Globe, and his mother had “never even finished high school.”
“We were working-class people,” Dr. Leary added. “I was a child of the Depression, and to meet the next tuition payment I always had to work.”
He caddied, cleaned sewers, and sold refrigerators. “I painted lines on highways,” he said. “I worked in a department store and behind the soda fountain in a drugstore. Life was school, work, maybe a little basketball. Then I went to bed, got up, and started all over again.”
Dr. Leary graduated from Matignon High School in Cambridge in 1949. He later coached the school’s basketball and baseball teams and was inducted into Matignon’s Achievement Hall of Fame in 1995.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Boston College, Dr. Leary was in the Army, stationed in Germany.
In 1960, he married JoAnn Parodi, a teacher he had met years earlier in Dorchester when they both were in a church theater production. Even early in his education career, Dr. Leary “was always busy,” his wife recalled, laughing. When he proposed, “he said, ‘How would you like to marry a teacher-coach?’ ”
Dr. Leary graduated from Boston State College with a master’s degree, and he was a Fulbright scholar at Sophia University in Tokyo. He initially taught at the Grover Cleveland School in Dorchester. En route to becoming Boston’s superintendent, he was a teacher in South Boston, at Boston Technical High School, and at Dorchester High School.
Boston was his first superintendent position and he subsequently led school districts in Rockville Centre, N.Y., North Babylon, N.Y., Broward County, Fla., and Gloucester.
At various points, sometimes overlapping with superintendent jobs, he was a lecturer, adjunct professor, visiting professor, or professor at schools including the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Suffolk University, Salem State College, C.W. Post Center of Long Island University in New York, Florida International University, the University of Mississippi, and Lynn University in Boca Raton.
Throughout, Dr. Leary kept learning about learning and studying how to best help students get enthused about education.
“All kids can learn — I really believe that,” he once told the Globe. “My question within that philosophy is, ‘How do they learn?’ ”
A service has been held for Dr. Leary, who in addition to his wife, JoAnn, leaves their three daughters, Lorraine White of Louisville, Ky., and Lisa Grandovic and Linda Spinner, both of Boca Raton; his sister, Marie Fitzgerald of Hingham; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
“Even now I’m getting sympathy cards from students who say he changed their lives. They said that he inspired them.” his wife said.
And he did so while keeping his sense of humor. Around the time of their 50th wedding anniversary, his wife said, he noted the milestone while teaching a college class: “One of the students raised his hand and said, ‘Fifty years, isn’t that boring?’ And Bill said, ‘No, she’s Italian and I’m Irish. It’s never boring.’ ”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.