Edward McColgan recalled as ‘elder statesman’

  • Edward McColgan, who served as a state representative and Northampton city councilor in the 1960s and 70s, died last week at the age of 89. PUBLIC OFFICERS OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS, 1969-70

  • Edward McColgan, the Northampton St. Patrick’s Association 2017 marshal, laughs while jokes are told at the association’s 37th annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast at the Hotel Northampton on March 17, 2017. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Dressed as Revolutionary War figure Henry Knox and flanked by his sons Mick, left, and Daniel, Edward McColgan is shown during the Knox Trail re-enactment in 1976, one of the events meant to publicize and celebrate the 200th birthday of the United States. McColgan was the executive director of the Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission. PHOTO COURTESY OF EILEEN MCCOLGAN

Staff Writer
Published: 1/10/2022 6:37:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Former Northampton City Councilor and state legislator Edward McColgan, described by friends as the city’s “elder statesman” and one of a class of Democrats whose elections tilted the city’s political landscape to the left, died Wednesday at his home in Cummington at the age of 89.

Born in 1932 and raised in Haydenville, McColgan served Ward 4 on the Northampton City Council for two terms in the 1960s before his election as state representative in the 1st Hampshire District in 1968. He served in the Legislature until 1975, when he lost a race for Congress, then retired to a life of farming in Cummington mixed with political volunteer work in Northampton.

Before his time in office, McColgan was a history professor at institutions including Hampton Institute, a historically Black college in Virginia, Holyoke Community College and Westfield State College. He married his first wife, Mary McColgan, née Shaughnessy, in 1955, and they had seven children. Mary McColgan served in the Ward 4 City Council seat in the 1970s.

McColgan’s eldest daughter, Eileen McColgan, said her father died of congestive heart failure.

The McColgan family will hold public calling hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Ahearn Funeral Home, 783 Bridge Road, Northampton.

Pugilist, professor, politician

McColgan dropped out of school at 14; later in life, he placed great value on education and would urge young people to stay in school. As a teenager, he regularly lied about his age in order to find work; a silk manufacturer fired him when management found out he was a minor, according to Eileen McColgan, and he ran his own roadside hamburger stand in Leeds for six months before closing it down.

“He was self-sufficient, contributing to the household at an early age,” Eileen said. “He did a lot of things because you had to make your way in life.”

At 15, McColgan enlisted in the U.S. Army but was discharged when his true age was discovered. Soon after, at 16, he joined the Navy using a forged birth certificate and served for four years until he was honorably discharged as a gunner’s mate second class in 1951, a year after the outbreak of the Korean War.

“After serving in the Navy, he had come out with a perspective of a world bigger than him,” Eileen said.

McColgan returned to civilian life in two capacities: a non-traditional high school student finishing his education in his early 20s and a professional prizefighter, boxing for paydays in Holyoke, Hartford, New Haven and New York.

McColgan went on to earn degrees in education and history, attending Georgetown University in Washington, Springfield College and the University of Connecticut.

“Pugilist, professor and politician. That’s what he was,” longtime friend William O’Riordan said.

The pair met before McColgan’s career in elected office; O’Riordan’s brother-in-law was a friend of McColgan when he was teaching at Westfield State and they shared an interest in politics.

Later in life, McColgan was a horse-racing enthusiast and a regular at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He and O’Riordan taught an intersession class on the sport of horse racing at Smith College and other local colleges in 2005.

In 2017 and 2018 respectively, McColgan and O’Riordan served as parade marshals for the Northampton contingent in the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Parade.

“I’ll be talking about Ed for the rest of my life,” O’Riordan said.

Siding with the underdog

McColgan was elected to the Ward 4 seat on the Northampton City Council in 1964 and served two terms. He won the 1968 election for state representative with Sean Dunphy as his campaign manager. Dunphy, a fellow left-leaning Democrat, was elected in 1969 as the youngest mayor in Northampton’s history at the age of 28.

Retired judge and district attorney W. Michael Ryan said McColgan and Dunphy were part of a “crew” of young liberals who challenged the conservative leaders of the Democratic Party in the city and state. At the time, Northampton held party primaries for local races, a practice that ended in the 1980s.

“They tried to take over, and they did take over the Democratic Party. They converted it to a liberal party, and they tried to recruit more women to run for office,” Ryan said. “They had such high hopes for America and strong beliefs in it. They were progressive, they were brave, and they wanted to institute changes.”

Ryan said many of those in power at the time had a “wait your turn” attitude toward younger up-and-coming leaders. When McColgan served in the Legislature, Ryan said, he “didn’t get along that well with the Speaker of the House,” who was a conservative Democrat.

“It was new and it was different, and they weren’t willing to wait their turn,” Ryan said. “They were excited. They had a lot of fun. They caused a lot of aggravation among the older ones.”

McColgan “was a big advocate for mental health issues when a lot of the state institutions were open,” O’Riordan said. “He was a big advocate for racial equality in Boston, and that was a tough time then. It was the time just before busing and Ed had stood up and took a lot of heat.”

McColgan was named executive director of the state-appointed Massachusetts Bicentennial Commission, which prepared and publicized events across the state to celebrate the 200th birthday of the United States. He participated in the 18-day Knox Trail Trek, a walking, biking and driving re-enactment of the Revolutionary march from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Cambridge, covering 300 miles.

“There are some pictures of him on a horse in a tricorn hat and a cape,” Eileen said. “A lot of people will tell me, ‘Oh, I remember your dad. He was on the Knox Trail!’”

In 1976, McColgan ran for Congress, resigning from his role on the commission and as chairman of the Democratic City Committee to focus on campaigning.

He secured Sen. Ted Kennedy’s endorsement and won the Democratic primary against Edward O’Brien after a recount gave McColgan the lead, but voters reelected Republican Silvio O. Conte in the general election.

The elder statesman

After his public service career came to a close, McColgan moved to Cummington to open Cumworth Farms. He raised cows, pigs and sheep, grew blueberries, sold fencing and homemade maple products, and ran a bed and breakfast.

The appeal of the farm, Eileen said, is that “you were sustaining yourself by dint of your own effort. He was a modest man. He didn’t need a lot.” She said that her father’s hard work embodied the adage, “You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind.”

Mary McColgan died in 1995, and Edward McColgan married Marcia Burick in 1999. In 2007, the Mary McColgan Apartments were dedicated on Grove Street to serve clients of the state Department of Mental Health.

Throughout the later years of Edward McColgan’s life, O’Riordan said, there were “not a lot” of elected officials in Northampton who ran for office without seeking his counsel.

“He became like the elder statesman,” O’Riordan said, dispensing advice to candidates for sheriff, city clerk, district attorney and more.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said McColgan was “a wonderful mentor and a teacher to me about the art of politics.” He said he first met McColgan when Sullivan ran for Hampshire County register of probate in 2001. Sullivan prevailed and served for eight years before winning the district attorney’s office, again with McColgan as a campaign volunteer.

The Democratic City Committee named McColgan and Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne LaBarge the Democrats of the Year in 2005.

Every year, Sullivan said he would see McColgan and Burick at the Chesterfield Fourth of July parade, and said McColgan was “beloved in the hilltowns.”

Ryan, the retired judge, said McColgan was a “remarkable” man and never shied away from a fight that mattered to him.

“You could knock him down,” Ryan said, using a metaphor inspired by McColgan’s time as a boxer, “but you could never knock him out.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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