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Former longtime town treasurer dies

Those who worked with him recall his independence

John J. BilaferJohn Bilafer

UPDATED, July 14: John J. Bilafer, who served as town treasurer for 33 years, an outspoken manager of Arlington's public funds as well as a fervent Red Sox fan, died Tuesday, July 10, at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, after a brief illness. He was 86.

In 1983, Bilafer petitioned the state Legislature to allow Arlington to reformat its tax bills so local taxpayers could, by simply checking a box, make voluntary contributions to a scholarship foundation. This program, known as Dollars for Scholars, became a model for other municipalities.

Soon, generous Arlington residents began to endow scholarships by donating a minimum of $10,000 to dedicated accounts established by the treasurer's office, according to an account in the 2015 Legendary Locals of Arlington.

Value of scholarships

In 1985, the first year of the program, four scholarships of $500 were granted. In 2014, over 60 students received awards through the check-off program; in addition, 31 endowed scholarships were given. The value of the scholarship portfolio is $2.8 million as of 2015. Bilafer also created two awards: his Arlington High School class of 1949 scholarship and the Bilafer/Kovich Family Scholarship.

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Foskett: Bilafer took long view

'While others were playing checkers, John was playing chess'

Kenneth W. Hughes, a retired Arlington police lieutenant, worked on the town Contributory Retirement Board with Bilafer since 2009, and he provided this statement.

"It was my distinct honor and pleasure to work with such a class act as John. The man was the epitome of integrity and loyalty. When he was faced with a challenge, he carefully weighed the options and would make a clear and unequivocal decision. "He never took the easiest route; he took the right road. His word was his bond. If he said he was going to do something, he did it.

"You may have been his best friend, but if he thought you were wrong, he would tell you.

"John was clearly a visionary. While others were playing checkers, he was playing chess.

"He was not content in just solving the problems of today, he would pick up the 'can' that others were merely kicking done the road and deal with it right then and there.

"His administration of the 'Dollars For Scholars' program positively impacted the lives of this and many generations of Arlingtonians to come. He made the dream of college education more attainable for those who could least afford it.

"He had helped establish a prudent funding schedule that should eliminate the town’s unfunded pension liability well before the state’s mandated deadline. And It was through his foresight and efforts of that Arlington established the first trust fund in Massachusetts for Post-Employment Health Care Costs, a model which has since been followed by many other communities. "John Bilafer thank you for all you have done. Arlington and the world are a greater place because of you. Rest in peace, my friend."

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Before serving a treasurer, he was a selectmen for eight years.

He was born on Feb. 1, 1932, to Christopher and Rose (Susnar) Bilafer at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. An obituary from the Keefe Funeral Home, says he "was brought home to Arlington by his parents to be raised in the town that he would call home for his entire life and to which he devoted decades of community service."

He attended the Crosby School, the Junior High East and Arlington High School, graduating in 1949. After one year at New Preparatory School in Cambridge, he went on to attend Harvard College, graduating in 1954 with a degree in government.

He served two years in the U.S. Navy stationed on the U.S.S. Olmstead, achieving the rank of lieutenant commander. He attended Boston College Law School, graduating in 1959, and practiced law in Arlington and served on the Board of Selectman.

In 1972, he was elected town treasurer, a post he held until retiring in 2005. Among his many accomplishments as a town official, he was most proud of instituting the Town of Arlington Scholarship Program, which has helped many Arlington residents further their education. The program has since been renamed as the John J. Bilafer Arlington Citizens’ Scholarship Foundation in this honor.

Guided retirement board

He also served as chair of the Arlington Contributory Retirement Board from 2001 until his passing. A lifelong learner, he attained a bachelor of science degree in economics and finance in 1995 and a master's in finance in 1999, both from Bentley College.

His expertise in municipal finance led him to serve on the executive board of the Government Finance Officers Association of U.S. and Canada, and then as group’s parliamentarian.

On Nov. 25, 1965, he married Elizabeth Russell. Their life together of more than 50 years was filled with laughter and good times with family and friends, travel across the U.S. and abroad, and winter months on Sanibel Island, Fla.

They had two children, Stephen and Mary Ellen, and two grandchildren.

Longtime Sox fan

Outside of his family and community, John’s lifelong passion was the fates and fortunes of the Boston Red Sox. Spanning eras from a Ted Williams to Dustin Pedroia, he was a regular attendee at Fenway Park and spring training in Fort Myers and a member of the BoSox Club.

His presence also will be missed at Harvard Stadium and Bright-Landry Hockey Center, where he faithfully supported Harvard football and hockey throughout the years.

He is survived by his wife; his son, Stephen Bilafer, and his wife, Maura; daughter Mary Ellen and her husband, Tom Bache; grandchildren Brian Bilafer and Gloria Bilafer; and several nieces and nephews.

The wake will be Sunday, July 15, from 3 to 7 p.m., at Keefe's Funeral Home, Arlington

The funeral Mass will be at St. Agnes 1t 10 a.m. Monday, July 16.

Burial in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Arlington. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made instead to the Bilafer/Kovich Family Scholarship, c/o John J. Bilafer Dollars for Scholars Program, Office of the Treasurer/Collector, Robbins Memorial Town Hall, 730 Mass. Ave., Arlington, MA, 02476.

This news announcement was published Wednesday, July 11, 2018, and updated July 14, to add a statement plus a link to another. 

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