John Olver as grand marshal of the Fall Foliage Parade in 2011. He was a regular marcher in the annual event.
AMHERST, Mass. — Former Congressman John Olver died Thursday at age 86 at his Amherst home.
Gov. Maura T. Healey has ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff at all state buildings.
Olver represented the 1st Massachusetts District for 22 years until his retirement in 2012. Prior to that, he spent 22 years in the Legislature.
His successor and one-time colleague U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said the Amherst Democrat had dedicated his life to public service.
"Over the course of his 22 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, John was an effective leader and steadfast advocate for the people of Western and central Massachusetts," he wrote in a statement. "His approach to policymaking was a good lesson for those in public life. He lacked any malice and had the purest of intentions, focusing solely on delivering for the people he felt privileged to represent."
The former University of Massachusetts chemistry professor was the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and the only member of the delegation on the House Appropriations Committee at the time of his retirement.
He was first elected to the State House in 1969 from Hampshire County and four years later began an 18-year stint in the state Senate. He won a special election in June 1991 to fill the seat of longtime Congressman Silvio O. Conte, a Pittsfield Republican who died in office. It would make Olver the first Democrat to represent Western Massachusetts since the Spanish-American War.
The outspoken liberal had funneled federal money into his mostly rural district, and advocated for housing, community block grants, bike paths, technology, education and, especially, passenger rail.
He was thrilled to "have my hand on the throttle while it was sitting very still ... " he said after a ride on a Pan Am train engine through the Hoosac Tunnel in 2012.
Olver, instrumental in reviving passenger rail in the Pioneer Valley, boarded Amtrak's Vermonter in Holyoke during its inaugural run up the "Knowledge Corridor" in 2014.
"Use it. Use it," he urged the crowd waiting at the transit center in Greenfield named for him. "The possibility of really seeing the benefits and economic development come from the use of this facility."
In 2011, he was the grand marshal of the 56th Fall Foliage Parade, of which he has been a regular marcher, had celebrated a collaboration of local colleges in Pittsfield and was at the groundbreaking of an energy-efficiency project for the North Adams Housing Authority.
Olver had planned for a 12th run but said, at the time, that changing circumstances had lead to his decision to step down. Because of redistricting, he would have had to face off against Neal, then representing the 2nd Mass, in a newly configured 1st District and his wife, the former Rose Richardson, was ill.
Olver at his last Fall Foliage Parade appearance in 2012.
In his goodbye letter to his constituents in 2012, he wrote: "When I arrived in Washington in 1991, I never expected to be in office for 21 years but there were many important issues to fight for and many things to change. The priorities that I fought for over the years were the ones that you brought to me in meetings in my offices, in letters that you sent and in phone calls that you made. Your thoughts and opinions guided my efforts in Washington.
"I am proud of my work to protect human rights, expand energy efficiency measures and advance renewable energy technology, conserve our natural resources, expand community health centers, defend and promote affordable housing, increase access to rail and advocate for the effective use of transportation dollars."
His obituary in the Hampshire Gazette, posted Friday, said he continued to work with local land trusts and advocated for UMass to building its high rise out of wood, making it "the largest academic contemporary wood structure in the country" that was named the John W. Olver Design Building in 2017. UMass at Amherst also presented him an honorary degree for public service in 2014.
Born in Beach Lake, Pa., on Sept. 3, 1936, he tended cows on his parents farm and graduated high school at 15 and from Rensselaer (N.Y.) Polytechnic Institute at 18. He would complete his master's degree in chemistry from Tufts and his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the time he was 24.
His wife of 55 years predeceased him in 2014.
He leaves two daughters, Martha Jane Olver, of Amherst and Cary Plumer Frye of Virginia; a son, Douglas Plumer of New York City; a grandson, Marshall Plumer of New York City, and several nieces and nephews.
Congressman John Olver dedicated his life to serving the people of Western and Central Massachusetts and always stayed true to his values. He was a strong advocate for affordable health care, abortion access, public transportation and rural communities. I will always be grateful for his kindness and his friendship. He will be dearly missed, and my heart goes out to his loved ones.
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