The Life and Times of Vin McCarthy

By Martha Henry

You don’t get much more Boston than Vincent P. McCarthy. Vin grew up in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood in the 1940s and 50s. All four of his grandparents were Irish immigrants. After graduating from Boston College in 1962 and Harvard Law School in 1965, he joined Hale and Dorr, a prominent Boston law firm. “For a peasant, I’ve had a very good life,” jokes McCarthy.

When Bobby Kennedy ran for president in 1968, McCarthy managed his Massachusetts campaign. Shortly after the candidate was assassinated, McCarthy cofounded the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps, a child welfare agency, “as a living memorial to Bobby.”

By 1970, McCarthy had made partner at Hale and Dorr. He and his wife had three children.  Vin looked like a success. In reality, he was desperately trying to hide two important pieces of information—that he was an alcoholic and that he was gay. Things went from bad to worse, then changed. He and his wife divorced.

In August of 1971, McCarthy achieved permanent sobriety. Not coincidentally, he began doing pro bono legal work for the Pine Street Inn, then a fledging Boston shelter for homeless men. “Faith without works is dead,” said McCarthy, quoting St. James. Over the decades, Pine Street has become one of the finest “settlement house” homeless programs in the country, now serving both men and women.

Around this time, McCarthy came out as one of the first openly gay partners in a major U.S. law firm.

The 80s and 90s were decades of activism for McCarthy. He cofounded the Human Rights Campaign, today the nation’s largest advocacy group for LGBT people, and served on its board during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when no effective treatment was available and death was ever-present. He co-founded the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association. In 1991, under Governor William Weld, he co-founded and chaired the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Gay and Lesbian Youth—the first of its kind in the nation.

He helped organize gay and lesbian alumni throughout Harvard. McCarthy and other alumni met with Harvard’s president, Derek Bok, and several deans, which led to a university-wide non-discrimination policy in the early 80s.

In 1985, McCarthy ran for Congress as an openly gay man. He lost, but his candidacy encouraged other gay candidates, who went on to hold national office. In 1987, he received the American Bar Association Pro Bono Publico Award for his work with the homeless.

The early years of the AIDS epidemic was a terrifying time to be young and gay. McCarthy lost many friends, including the man he considered his “soulmate.”

Vincent McCarthy introduces the movie, Philadelphia.
McCarthy introduces Philadelphia.

“Like everyone, before the test, I thought I was going to die,” said McCarthy. He joined the Harvard AIDS Institute’s (HAI) International Advisory Council in 1993. That same year, HAI hosted a screening of Philadelphia, the AIDS movie starring Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks. McCarthy introduced the movie at the Harvard Square Theatre. In 1995, he was honored to present the actor Richard Gere, a Massachusetts native, with HAI’s Leadership Award.

“Vin is a constant reminder of what one person with a good heart and lots of energy can do,” said Dr. Richard Marlink, HAI’s Executive Director at the time and now the Director of Rutgers’ Global Health Institute.

McCarthy retired from practicing law in 2010. He currently works for the Office of the State Auditor, dealing with municipal concerns about unfunded mandates. His three children each have three children of their own, “all of whom are thriving and are a blessing,” said McCarthy.

Last year, in the 50th reunion notes for Harvard Law School’s Class of 1965, there’s a long list of McCarthy’s achievements—faith alive and working.

Title Image: Vincent P. McCarthy, photo by Lucia Ricci