For the cup of coffee that changed their lives, John Walsh and Deval Patrick met at a Dunkin’ Donuts.
Patrick, who wanted to be governor, arrived first and glanced up to see Mr. Walsh, a former college football lineman who stood a few inches north of 6 feet tall, fill the doorway with his frame and his smile.
Already a master of grass-roots campaigning, Mr. Walsh was frank with Patrick, a first-time candidate who for the most part was a household name in only his own household. “By any traditional measure, you can’t win,” Mr. Walsh cautioned him.
So together, they defied tradition. As campaign manager, Mr. Walsh recruited a network of volunteers to spread Patrick’s message of inviting back into civic life those who felt left out or left behind. By propelling Patrick to victory in 2006, Mr. Walsh gave Massachusetts its first Black governor and its first Democratic leader in 16 years, and he created a campaign template Barack Obama would build upon during his road to the White House two years later.
A son of Irish immigrants who grew up in an Abington home where John F. Kennedy’s photo was on the wall next to the pope’s, Mr. Walsh died in hospice care Monday. He was 65, had been diagnosed with stomach cancer earlier this year, and divided his time between Boston and Falmouth.
“He was the best grass-roots strategist in America, and yet without an ounce of cynicism,” Patrick said.
Mr. Walsh’s “level of genius was astounding, and you would never know it because he always remained so humble,” said Attorney General Andrea Campbell, who sought his advice for all her campaigns, including her first City Council victory — a race some advised her not to enter.
“I sat down with John at a local restaurant in Dorchester,” Campbell said. “He pulled out a napkin and diagrammed how it was absolutely possible to win the race. He was that intelligent.”
Markey said Mr. Walsh “was a cognitive liberal, but he was also an operational liberal. He knew how to take ideas and put them into action.”
That was the case when Mr. Walsh returned home to Abington after graduating from Princeton University. He immediately entered politics, serving on the town Finance Committee, as a selectman for a decade, and as a Democratic organizer who helped snag back Plymouth County offices for Democratic candidates.
Even then, he was low-key about his accomplishments.
“He never told anyone he went to Princeton,” said Kevin Whalen of Abington, a friend of more than four decades, “and he would never tell you who he knew, even though he knew everyone.”
Although Mr. Walsh was suddenly well-known after Patrick’s 2006 campaign, “John was a 25-year overnight success,” Whalen said. “Some of the same principles he implemented with Deval’s campaign? He was working on those back in the 1980s.”
After Patrick’s win, Mr. Walsh was elected state Democratic Party chairman.
In a statement, current chairman Steve Kerrigan hailed Mr. Walsh’s “unrelenting efforts to bring new energy and people into the Democratic Party. John knew there was power in constantly growing and evolving our Party. The status quo was never good enough for John.”
As chairman, Mr. Walsh endured his most significant setback when Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in the 2010 special election for the US Senate seat the late Edward M. Kennedy had held for 47 years.
Rebounding with renewed focus on grass-roots campaigning, he led the party as Elizabeth Warren and Markey secured their US Senate wins in 2012 and 2013.
Mr. Walsh also pushed party delegates to be active in their own communities, and he worked to expand diversity among the candidate ranks at all levels.
“Our talent pool is diverse as well as deep,” he wrote to state Democrats when he stepped down as chairman in 2013.
Campbell said Mr. Walsh’s “legacy is significant and quite amazing. The network that he has created is so robust, so beautiful, and so special.”
Mr. Walsh formed the Walsh Strategies consulting firm in 2015 and was a founder of the Reason to Believe political action committee.
With each campaign and every new political post, he kept focusing on the volunteers he assembled, who numbered in the thousands for statewide campaigns.
“You are the grass roots of the grass roots,” he said when the state Democratic Party reelected him as chairman in 2012, “and you know how much I value that people-to-people level of what we all call politics.”
John Edward Walsh was born in Brockton Hospital on April 14, 1958, and grew up in Abington, the second of three siblings. His sister Margaret Jones died in June.
Mr. Walsh’s parents were Irish immigrants. Peggy Predenville Walsh, a nurse’s aide, was from County Kerry. His father, John Walsh, was from County Cork and was a janitor at Regis College. As a youth, Mr. Walsh mowed lawns for his father’s side landscaping business.
“John never lost the perspective of coming from those roots,” Whalen said.
John F. Kennedy, meanwhile, was more than just a photo on the wall in the Walsh family home. “His call was to the best of what we are,” Mr. Walsh told the Globe in 2007. “It is foundational in my approach to Democratic politics.”
He graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton and from Princeton, where he was captain of the freshman football team and an offensive lineman. Mr. Walsh then went home to work in insurance, initially for John Hancock and later as president of his own agency, Independence Insurance.
Mr. Walsh met Donna Akins at an office Christmas party and they married in 1993. They have a son, Coleman, of Boston, who works with a firm that handles brand partnerships.
“He was always there for us, even if there were political events,” said Donna, an information security compliance analyst. “We would let him know what our schedules were and he would always show up.”
At Thanksgiving time, she and Mr. Walsh would travel to places such as North Carolina’s Outer Banks to see the wild horses — checking off bucket list items, “though I think it was more my bucket list because he didn’t have one,” Donna said.
In a way, Coleman said, “his hobbies were my hobbies and my mom’s hobbies. Everything I did, and it was the same with my mom, was what he was most excited about.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Walsh leaves his sister, Patti Vantine.
Family and friends will gather at 11 a.m. on Nov. 28 in Faneuil Hall to celebrate Mr. Walsh’s life.
Even though the victorious Patrick and Markey campaigns defined Mr. Walsh in the eyes of many, he was equally intent on helping people in low-profile campaigns that never make news, Coleman said.
Mr. Walsh “was a titan of Massachusetts politics,” US Representative Ayanna Pressley said in a statement.
“His belief in the power of personal connection was indefatigable,” Pressley said, “and it drove transformational change not only in Massachusetts, but across the country.”
Mr. Walsh would always say “trust the grass roots,” Markey said in an interview.
“And for him trust meant knowing the innate genius and innate goodness of people in their own homes and communities,” Markey added. “John also knew trust meant believing that young people know the world that they want to live in, and giving them a chance to build that future. That has always been his message.”
Mr. Walsh “genuinely believed that everyone everywhere deserves to be heard, to be listened to, to be asked,” Patrick said. “His respect for people was real and they felt it. We all did.”
Since word spread that Mr. Walsh was ill, “I’ve been getting messages from people all over the country whose first introduction to politics was John,” Patrick added. “And they all say the same thing: He took a chance on me, and they feel so grateful, and that’s what I’m feeling right now.”
Even facing adversity — illness or a campaign setback — “he was so positive,” Markey said. “In our campaign, John had a nickname, which was ‘Captain Sunshine.’ No one did optimism like him. John led with love.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.