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200 firefighters honor Donnelly at Town Hall before wake

Funeral held at St. Eulalia

Firefighters from across eastern Massachusetts march toward Town Hall on April 7. 2017. Firefighters from across eastern Massachusetts walk toward Town Hall on April 7. 2017. / Bob Sprague photo

UPDATED, April 8: To honor State Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat and 37-year veteran of the Lexington Fire Department who died from complications of brain cancer at 66 April 2, an estimated 200 firefighters walked into Town Hall on Friday April 7, including those from Arlington, Lexington and Winchester.

 On Saturday, April 8, the funeral was held at St. Eulalia Church, Winchester.

More photos >>

The Boston Globe reported the assistant majority leader who was elected in 2009 had “gallantly battled” a tumor for eight months, said Cindy Friedman, Donnelly’s chief of staff.

Before holding a moment of silence for Donnelly Monday, April 3, Selectmen Joseph Curro Jr., just elected chairman, said his memories of the late senator go back 30 years. Donnelly then represented professional firefighters, and his biggest achievement, Curro said, was protecting those exposed to carcinogens.

"It's a sad irony," he said, "that lost his struggle to cancer last night."

Curro put the community's loss in historical perspective, citing the Roman ruler Emperor Diocletian (244–312). During the persecution of Christians, he ordered a military commander to be burned at stake. The officer resisted, saying he would climb the flames that engulfed him to heaven, and the emperor decided to drown him instead.

The commander became the patron saint of firefighters, Florian, and the Florian Cross continues in use by firefighters today.

Ken Donnelly, in 2007

Curro recalled Donnelly as a firefighter who stood up against persecution and devoted life to helping others, including those with mental illness. He recalled the senator's effort to secure substantial funding for the Arlington Youth Counseling Center

 Selectmen Chairman Curro notes an irony of history. 

"Arlington is diminished without him," Curro said.

In an email from the East Arlington Livable Streets Coalition, Phil Goff and Chad Gibson wrote April 3: "We were saddened to hear of the passing of our state Senator Ken Donnelly yesterday .... Senator Donnelly fought for livability initiatives that EALS Coalition cherishes.

"He was instrumental in promoting the redesign of Mass. Ave. in East Arlington and to hold fast to the town's pedestrian- and bike-friendly plan in the face of strong opposition from some of his constituents. We all owe him a measure of gratitude for the ongoing livability we experience in Arlington. Perhaps one day, the town will name an intersection or small plaza space on Mass. Ave. in his honor?"

A statement on the town's website April 4 said Donnelly’s "distinguished legislative achievements are too numerous to list, however, his work on municipal health-care pension reform, mental health and substance abuse and advocating the Middle Skills Solutions Act stand out."

In honor of Donnelly, Governor Charlie Baker has ordered that the U.S. and the Commonwealth flags lowered to half-staff at all state buildings effective April 3, 2017, until the day of interment.

Garballey comments

Rep. Sean Garballey, Democrat of Arlington and West Medford, wrote April 3:

"Senator Donnelly was my friend and mentor. Ken was the voice for working families in the state Senate. Whether he was entering a burning building as a firefighter or passionately advocating for the most vulnerable in our Commonwealth on the floor of the State Senate, Ken always put others first.

"After working with Ken for many years, I am reminded that he always did what he thought was right. He was a man of profound character and unshakeable integrity. I will miss the time we spent together, the laughter and stories we shared, and the immense pride I had in calling him my friend and partner.

"My prayers and sincerest condolences go out to Ken’s wife Judy, his children Keith, Ryan, and Brenna, his grandchildren, his staff, his friends, and the constituents who he loved so much. Rest in peace my friend."

Rogers comments

Rep. David Rogers of North Cambridge, whose district includes Arlington, wrote on Facebook:

"It is with a heavy heart and great sadness that I note the passing of a truly outstanding public servant, Senator Ken Donnelly. Beyond his extraordinary record of service as a Senator, he served as a firefighter for 37 years. So in one way or another, his entire professional life was devoted to serving others. We should all think about that remarkable legacy today, and in the days to come. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has lost one of the best among us.

"On a personal note, Ken was an outstanding colleague in the Legislature as we shared representation of Arlington -- smart, always looking to be helpful, great sense of humor and gave truly insightful advice. I happened to represent the part of Arlington where Ken and his family lived, and often when I saw him he would flash his warm, trademark smile and say, "How's MY Representative?!?!", and we'd both laugh.

"But while we laughed, I also realize that in a fun, uplifting way he was subtly reminding me of my obligation to serve the public and inspiring me to do better. If you represented Ken, you had better do a good job! I will miss so much about Ken and am ever so grateful that I had the high honor to serve alongside him.

"My thoughts and prayers go out to Ken's wife, Judy, his three children and also to all of the many people whose lives Ken touched -- and that's a LOT of people MY Senator."

Last summer's surgery

Last Aug. 1, after feeling unwell during last-session votes on Beacon Hill, Donnelly sought medical help at a walk-in clinic. He was then taken to Mass. General Hospital, where doctors operated on a cancerous brain tumor the next day. 

The Globe reported Aug. 4 that doctors called the surgery “very successful.” Friedman, his chief of staff, told The Globe that when saw the senator Wednesday morning, he was recovering well and his spirits were high.

He won unopposed and won reelection in November. In January, he was scheduled to speak at a forum in Lexington arranged by Rep. Jay Kaufman, but Friedman stood in for him. 

"Through all these diverse efforts,” Friedman was quoted in The Globe, "Senator Donnelly never sought the accumulation of personal credit; but rather he was dedicated to the causes he believed in and the people he represented, and he brought his tremendous energy, courage, and passion to changing many lives for the better."

Those efforts included shining a light on issues involving those with mental health problems. In addition, He was a co-sponsor of the Safe Communities Act.

'Liberal lion'

An April 3 story in Boston magazine quoted Senate President Stan Rosenberg calling Donnelly "a liberal lion." Billerica Selectman Andrew Deslaurier tweeted that his town "had no fiercer champion," the story said.

In an interview with The Lowell Sun in January, Donnelly said he planned to focus on bail reform and mental health issues for those in jail on minor offenses.

Sen. Donnelly was also well known as  a hockey dad, as his boys played for Arlington Youth Hockey.  At AHS, Donnelly played junior-varsity hockey. His brother Steve was captain with Bob Bartholomew on the 1967 undefeated hockey team at AHS.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Judy; three children and five grandchildren.

Observances: Town Hall, St. Eulalia

In an event closed to media, visiting hours were held at Arlington Town Hall Auditorium on Friday, April 7, from 4 to 8 p.m.

Because of the wake, the eastbound lane of Mass. Ave. was closed from Jason Street/Mill Street to the Robbins Library, from 1 to 8 p.m. In addition, Academy Street from Mass Ave to Maple Street was closed to traffic.

During this time, there was no parking in these areas. However, meters townwide were not in effect, and parking was free in the Russell Common and Railroad Street municipal lots.

View a map of the detour areas

Read information about visiting hours.

A funeral mass was held at St. Eulalia's Church, 51 Ridge St., on Saturday, April 8, at 11 a.m. Relatives and friends were invited.

In lieu of flowers donations can be made to Arlington Youth Counseling Services, 670 R Mass. Ave., Arlington, Mass. 02476;

Appalachian Mountain Club Youth Opportunities Program, 5 Joy St., Boston, Mass. 02108

Greater Boston Legal Services, 197 Friend St., Boston, Mass., 02114.

Read an obituary from the DeVito Funeral Home in Arlington >>

ACMi: Remembering Ken Donnelly

This news report was published Monday, April 3, 2017, and updated April 8.

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