William M. Bulger

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William M. Bulger
Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and Massachusetts Senate President William M. Bulger.jpg
Bulger (right) with Boston Mayor Ray Flynn
President of the University of Massachusetts
In office
Appointed by William Weld
Preceded by Shirley Penney
Succeeded by Jack M. Wilson
President of the Massachusetts Senate
In office
Preceded by Kevin B. Harrington
Succeeded by Tom Birmingham
Member of the
Massachusetts Senate
for the First Suffolk District
In office
Preceded by Joe Moakley
Succeeded by Stephen Lynch
Member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives
In office
Preceded by Joe Moakley
Succeeded by Raymond Flynn
Personal details
Born William Michael Bulger
(1934-02-02) February 2, 1934 (age 81)
Dorchester, Massachusetts
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Mary Bulger (1960–present)
Relations Whitey Bulger (brother)
Children Bill
Education B.A. Boston College, 1957 (English Literature)
J.D. Boston College (Law), 1961
Occupation Politician, educator, attorney
Religion Roman Catholicism
Nickname(s) Billy

William Michael "Billy" Bulger (born February 2, 1934) is a retired American Democratic politician, lawyer, and educator from South Boston, Massachusetts, whose eighteen-year tenure as President of the Massachusetts Senate is the longest in history, and who was also president of the University of Massachusetts. He was forced to resign from the latter post after he refused to testify in a 2003 Congressional hearing about communications he had had with his then-fugitive brother, James "Whitey" Bulger, Jr., a Boston crime boss.[1]

Early life[edit]

Bulger was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to James Joseph Bulger, Senior and Jane Veronica "Jean" McCarthy, who were of Irish descent. He is the third of six children in the family, and younger brother of former mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger. When Bulger was four years old, the family moved to South Boston's Old Harbor Village housing project, soon after it opened, in 1938. He grew up there and has maintained lifelong friendships with many of those who were his former neighbors, including best friend, Korean War Marine P.O.W. and Purple Heart recipient Fred L. Toomey. The late Congressman Joe Moakley (1927–2001) was also a close childhood neighbor.[2] Although the Bulger family was poor, William matriculated into Boston College High School. He enrolled at Boston College in 1952, but his undergraduate career was interrupted when he joined the United States Army. He served from September 1953 to November 1955, then returned to Boston College, completing his undergraduate degree in English Literature with the help of the G.I. Bill. He attended Boston College Law School, from which he received his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree in 1961.[2] He is also the recipient of over 20 honorary degrees from a variety of academic institutions.[2]

Political career[edit]

Bulger became interested in politics in 1959 and was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1960. After serving five terms, Bulger was elected to the Massachusetts State Senate in 1970 representing the First Suffolk District. In 1973 he was named Second Assistant Floor Majority Leader.[3] After Joseph DiCarlo's conviction for extortion in 1977, Bulger succeeded him as Senate Majority Leader.[4] Bulger was elected President of the Massachusetts State Senate in 1978 and was re-elected every two years to 1996, making his time as State Senate president the longest tenure in Massachusetts history.

Bulger joined other Irish American neighborhood leaders in opposition to court-ordered desegregated busing.

Like other Massachusetts politicians who were elected leaders of their legislative chambers, Bulger was frequently pilloried in the media, but remained very popular in his district. He won his district election every two years from 1961 to 1994 without ever facing a challenge more serious than he faced in the Democratic primary in 1988, when Stephen Holt, a neophyte liberal activist and bookstore owner from Dorchester won 31 out of 60 precincts, only to lose the district by a landslide due to the huge turnout of Bulger supporters in South Boston.

Political milestones[edit]

During the 1960s, he led efforts to write the first child abuse reporting laws in the state. He was supportive of environmental protection legislation.

Bulger was among the first advocates of charter schools and public school choice. During the 1980s, he advocated funding of public libraries, the expansion of childhood nutrition services and fuel assistance programs. As Senate president, Bulger led the debate on welfare reform in the early 1990s, with the resulting legislation becoming the model for a national law.

For many years, Bulger hosted the annual St. Patrick's Day Breakfast in South Boston. This is a "roast" of politicians.[2]

President of the University of Massachusetts system[edit]

Bulger was appointed President of the University of Massachusetts by the Board of Trustees on November 28, 1995. His candidacy for the UMass position was supported by Governor William Weld.

On August 6, 2003, Bulger announced that he would resign as president of the system effective September 1, 2003. His resignation came due to pressure from Governor Mitt Romney after Bulger had refused to cooperate with authorities who were searching for Bulger's brother, the notorious mobster James "Whitey" Bulger.[5] Jack Wilson, Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, who had come to UMass from the post of J. Erik Jonsson Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to create UMassOnline, was tapped to be the interim president. Wilson was appointed as the president in March 2004 after the conclusion of a national search.

Controversy over brother[edit]

Bulger's older brother James "Whitey" Bulger, Jr., is a convicted murderer[6] and the former boss of the Winter Hill Gang. Whitey was a fugitive from justice from 1995 until his arrest in June 2011.

In 1999, Whitey's longtime aide, Kevin Weeks, pleaded guilty to a number of charges related to Whitey's crime spree and became a cooperating witness. Weeks revealed that in 1995, William talked to Whitey during an arranged phone conversation just two weeks after Whitey fled a pending racketeering indictment. William was called before a grand jury in April 2001 and admitted to talking with his brother. When asked why he didn't urge Whitey to turn himself in, William replied that he didn't feel it was in his brother's best interest to give himself up at the time.[7]

After portions of Bulger's testimony were published in The Boston Globe, he testified to a Congressional committee about the incident on June 19, 2003 after being granted immunity from prosecution for obstruction of justice. Bulger revealed that he "went to an arranged location in 1995 to take a call from his fugitive brother, apparently to avoid electronic eavesdropping. He claimed that not notifying authorities about the call was "in no way inconsistent with my devotion to my own responsibilities, my public responsibilities" as state senate president.[8][7]

During the hearing, when asked what he thought James (Whitey) did for a living, William Bulger said:

I had the feeling that he was in the business of gaming and... whatever. It was vague to me but I didn't think, for a long while he had some jobs but ultimately it was clear that he was not being, you know, he wasn't doing what I'd like him to do.[8]

He added that he loved his brother and hoped that the most brutal rumors concerning him will be proven false.

Bulger came under harsh criticism for his apparent evasiveness, and Governor Mitt Romney, among others, demanded his resignation. Under pressure from all quarters, Bulger resigned as president of the University of Massachusetts in the fall of 2003.

Bulger also testified that the FBI never asked if he knew of Whitey's location. Those remarks were disputed by a former FBI agent who claimed Bulger declined to submit to an interview with the Bureau.[9] Months later, the committee report found Bulger's testimony "inconsistent" about whether the FBI had contacted him in its search for his fugitive brother.[9]

Upon Whitey's arrest in California in June 2011, William Bulger issued a statement expressing his "sympathies to the families hurt" in the case, and asking for privacy for his family.[10]

In the 2015 film Black Mass, which is based on the life of Whitey, William is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Active retirement and family[edit]

Bulger is a past president of the Boston Public Library Board of Trustees and continues to serve on the board. He is also Overseer Emeritus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he is a former member of the Massachusetts General Hospital Board of Trustees, Museum of Fine Arts Board of Trustees, McLean Hospital Board of Trustees and Citizens Bank of Massachusetts Board of Directors. He joined the faculties of Boston College and Suffolk University as a lecturer of political science in 2004. Bulger lives in South Boston with Mary, his wife whom he married in 1960. They have nine children and 33 grandchildren. According to the Massachusetts Open Checkbook list of state pensions, Bulger is currently receiving a pension from Massachusetts at a rate of $200,486 annually.[11]

Bibliographical works[edit]

  • Bulger, William M. While the Music Lasts: My Life in Politics. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. ISBN 0-395-72041-9.
  • Bulger, William M. "James Michael Curley: A Short Biography with personal reminiscences by William M. Bulger". Beverly Massachusetts: Commonwealth Editions, 2009. ISBN 978-1-933212-97-5.
  • Burke, John J. A Profile in Political Power, a 2010 documentary produced by JAMAR Productions, highlights the political career of William M. Bulger.[12]
  • Carr, Howie. The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston For a Quarter Century. Lebanon, IN: Warner Books (Hachette Book Group, Inc.), 2006. ISBN 0-446-57651-4.


  1. ^ Seelye, Katharine Q. (November 24, 2013). "Sticking by a Murderous Brother, and Paying for It Dearly". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ a b c d Bulger, William (1996). While the Music Lasts. Houghton Miffen Co. ISBN 0-395-72041-9. 
  3. ^ Public Officers of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 1977-78. p. 49. 
  4. ^ Robert Turner; Robert Carr (March 1, 1977). "Bulger promoted to majority leader". The Boston Globe. 
  5. ^ Lohr, David (June 23, 2011). "Whitey Bulger Arrested: Infamous Mob Fugitive Caught In Santa Monica". The Huffington Post. 
  6. ^ "Boston gangster ‘Whitey’ Bulger found guilty of gangland crimes, including 11 slayings". Washington Post. [dead link]
  7. ^ a b Lehr, Dick; O'Neill, Garard (2000). Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob (2001 1st Perennial ed.). HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-095925-8. 
  8. ^ a b Edward Achorn,"The Anti-Brahmins: Not Every Massachusetts Dynasty Is Great," book review of The Brothers Bulger: How They Terrorized and Corrupted Boston For a Quarter Century, by Howie Carr, The Weekly Standard magazine, July 24, 2006.
  9. ^ a b Fox Butterfield, "F.B.I.Used Killers as Informants, Report Says," New York Times November 21, 2003, accessed September 10, 2006
  10. ^ "William Bulger Issues Statement Regarding Brother Whitey’s Arrest". CBS. 
  11. ^ "View Pensions", Massachusetts Open Checkbook, 2015
  12. ^ "A Profile in Political Power", Jamar Productions, 2010

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Joseph DiCarlo
Majority Leader of the Massachusetts Senate
Succeeded by
Daniel J. Foley
Preceded by
Kevin Harrington
President of the Massachusetts Senate
Succeeded by
Thomas Birmingham
Academic offices
Preceded by
Sherry H. Penney
President of the University of Massachusetts
Succeeded by
Jack M. Wilson