It was the first day of school in 1974, and a hostile crowd had gathered outside South Boston High School, waiting for buses to arrive with the first black students enrolled there under a court-ordered desegregation plan.
Keeping the peace were a single patrol officer and Robert J. di Grazia, Boston’s larger-than-life police commissioner, who was wearing cherry-red trousers and a bright red necktie with a white floral design that spelled out an expletive when turned sideways. As the crowd grew angrier, Mr. di Grazia called for backup and tried to draw the protesters’ attention away from the students and his officers by prancing back and forth and trading jibes with the crowd.
The ploy worked, but the city’s long and painful struggle with busing was just beginning, as was Mr. di Grazia’s battle to keep Boston under control during a period of explosive racial tension.
Mr. di Grazia, who was police commissioner during the height of the busing crisis from 1972 to 1976, died Thursday after collapsing at his home in Fort Myers, Fla., said his son, Robert P. di Grazia. The former commissioner was 90, and left behind a complex and controversial legacy as a reformer who helped the city survive one of its most tumultuous chapters.
On Friday, some of those who worked with Mr. di Grazia recalled him as Boston’s first truly modern police commissioner, an outsider recruited from St. Louis County, Mo., who helped root out corruption, improve training, and professionalize an old-school department.
Along the way, he clashed with the powerful patrolmen’s union and angered South Boston residents who resented what they considered his heavy-handed tactics against busing protesters.
Robert P. di Grazia said his father “always wanted to be a cop and a leader of cops.” But the police commissioner was “stuck between a rock and a hard place” in Boston, because he didn’t make the desegregation law, but was responsible for enforcing it, his son said.
Di Grazia said his father’s proudest accomplishment was “surviving that period.”
“He was polarizing but he didn’t care, because the bottom line was protecting the citizens and his officers,” said di Grazia, an attorney in Salem, who called his father a very strong individual with a strong personality. “He had no problems standing up, and being the focus of people not happy with the situation.”
Some critics said Mr. di Grazia needlessly antagonized opponents of busing.
“I thought he was a bit strident in dealing with the people, the people from South Boston,” said former mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who was South Boston’s state representative when Mr. di Grazia was commissioner. Flynn recalled one time when he said Mr. di Grazia ordered officers to break up a crowd of peaceful protesters outside South Boston High, which was a focal point of antibusing sentiment.
“Even some of the police officers didn’t particularly like the idea of going into the crowd and dispersing them for doing nothing other than protesting,” Flynn said.
Born in San Francisco, Mr. di Grazia entered police work in Novato, Calif., in 1960. He rose swiftly in the ranks, serving as chief of the town’s 27-person department, and as chief of the 660-member department in St. Louis County, before Mayor Kevin H. White hired him to lead Boston’s 2,300-officer department in 1972.
Ira A. Jackson, White’s chief of staff, said Mr. di Grazia was an inspired choice because he was an outsider, a reformer, and Italian. He was also charismatic, photogenic, and quotable, Jackson said.
A staple at city functions, Mr. di Grazia was known to wear a lapel pin shaped like a pig — a cheeky allusion to the derogatory term for police. Pigs, he insisted, stood for Pride, Integrity, Guts, and Service.
“I had enormous respect for Mayor Kevin White in selecting Bob, and for not being envious or threatened by Bob’s high visibility,” Jackson said.
Mr. di Grazia told the Globe in 1978 that he tended to attract controversy because, unlike most police chiefs, he sought to upend old ways of policing.
“Most police heads retire the day they take the job,” Mr. di Grazia told the Globe that year. “They’ve played their little games and finally made it and will not do anything to rock the boat. Only about 50 chiefs in the US are activists or change agents. What they do threatens everybody: the other police chiefs, the politicians who play games with constituencies, and police officers.”
One of Mr. di Grazia’s first tasks as commissioner was to stamp out corruption, which had become a prominent issue after a 1972 police raid on the West Roxbury home of convicted bookie Francis A. Vitello revealed the names of 58 Boston officers on an alleged payoff list.
“I don’t like bad cops, and I will do everything possible to get rid of bad cops,” Mr. di Grazia said during a City Hall press conference in October 1972, his first week on the job.
Mr. di Grazia created a special unit to probe allegations against officers; increased training from 16 weeks to a year; decentralized the command staff by sending deputy superintendents into six areas so they could function as community police chiefs; and held neighborhood meetings where residents could complain to him about police services.
“You had had an old-school department set in its ways,” said Paul F. Evans, who was commissioner from 1994 to 2003 and was promoted to sergeant under Mr. di Grazia, when Evans was 25. “He took it on, and drove a lot of change. He did a lot of good in his time.”
Mr. di Grazia is best remembered for confronting the unrest that followed the court-ordered desegregation of city schools in 1974. He complained that judges, particularly in South Boston, encouraged lawlessness by not dealing sternly with protesters arrested for throwing rocks and bottles at police officers.
Adding to the challenge was the fact that many officers on the white, predominantly Irish police force opposed busing and sympathized with the protesters, said Mel King, the veteran civil rights activist.
“Unfortunately, there were too many police officers who didn’t want to enforce the issue and make sure that the schools could be desegregated,” King said. “His task was to make sure that they understood that their real responsibility was to enforce the law and protect the interests of the children.”
To Mr. di Grazia’s credit, King said, “he listened to people.”
When Mr. di Grazia faced angry demonstrators and some powerful politicians at South Boston High School in 1974, “he became a symbol of strength and determination,” Jackson said.
“While there was violence and busing was undeniably traumatic, Bob di Grazia was firm and reassuring and sent a strong message that the Boston Police Department would protect the kids,” he said. “In retrospect, that may sound basic, but at the time it was a very powerful signal and a needed source of stability.”
In October 1976, Mr. di Grazia took a position as police chief in Montgomery County, Md., a Washington suburb. The salary was $45,000 — $10,000 more than he earned in Boston. About a year later, he was fired. Montgomery County officials accused him of undermining department morale. Mr. di Grazia said he had tried to institute progressive changes and management reforms.
A father of seven who was married for 40 years to Donna Woods Mahoney, Mr. di Grazia worked for the rest of his career as an expert witness in criminal trials.Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.