BOSTON (SHNS) – Former Senate President Thomas Birmingham, who ascended to the Senate presidency after helping to write the state’s landmark 1993 education reform law, died last Friday at the age of 73.

A union lawyer who worked with the Pioneer Institute in recent years, Birmingham quickly rose through the Senate. Joining the upper branch in 1991, he chaired the powerful Ways and Means Committee starting in 1993 and was elected president in 1996, succeeding William Bulger of South Boston.

“Senate President Thomas Birmingham was an incredible public servant dedicated to moving Massachusetts forward,” Gov. Maura Healey said in a statement on Saturday. “He had a towering intellect and curiosity and an ability to connect with a range of people. Though he walked through rooms of power and privilege, he stayed true to his roots and never forgot where he came from or what mattered.”

Healey over the weekend ordered flags to fly at half-staff in Massachusetts in Birmingham’s honor, and those flags will stay at half-staff until after the late president’s funeral services on Saturday.

A funeral Mass is planned for Jan. 28 at 10 a.m. at St. Francis de Sales Church in Charlestown, according to his obituary.

Senate President Karen Spilka shared the news of Birmingham’s passing with staff in an email early Friday evening.

“Tom served in the Senate for twelve years. He was instrumental in the passage and implementation of the landmark 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act,” Spilka wrote. “For seven years he ably led this body as President of the Senate. He will be deeply missed by those fortunate enough to know and work with him.”

A Chelsea Democrat, Birmingham was followed in the president’s chair by Robert Travaglini of East Boston after retiring from the Senate in 2002.

Birmingham ran for governor earlier that year, placing third in the Democratic primary behind Shannon O’Brien and Robert Reich. Known for riding his bicycle between his Chelsea home and his State House office, Birmingham took his bike on the road for campaign tours of Massachusetts cities and towns.

Former Senate President Thomas Birmingham. [SHNS/File]

The Pioneer Institute said that Birmingham, as a senior fellow at the institute, “dedicated the final years of his life to protecting high academic standards, MCAS, accountability measures, and school choice — elements at the heart of education reform. He fought tirelessly for the Commonwealth’s outstanding public charter, Catholic, and vocational-technical schools.”

“Tom Birmingham leaves a legacy of innovation, independence, and integrity in public service,” said Greg Sullivan, former state inspector general and former research director at Pioneer. “He dedicated his life to helping others and succeeded magnificently.”

Birmingham’s official portrait, which hangs in the Senate Reading Room, showcases his love of education policy. Another face appears in the painting — a portrait over Birmingham’s shoulder of former Senate President Horace Mann, the state’s first education secretary.

The setting of the portrait is an office across from the State House, with the Golden Dome visible through a window over his other shoulder. According to the artist, that was meant to paint the president as both “an insider and an outsider.”

In addition to the 1993 education reforms, longtime community organizer Lew Finfer pointed to two other milestones on Birmingham’s legislative resume, including the creation of a surcharge on unemployment insurance that funds the Workforce Training Fund.

Finfer also described Birmingham as “the key legislator” in passing the Affordable Housing Trust Fund in 2001 after the Chelsea Democrat committed to it at a Greater Boston Interfaith Organization event that was attended by thousands.

Initially directing $20 million toward “much-needed subsidies” for affordable housing development, the funding has doubled, Finfer said, and “it will undoubtedly [be] funded again in proposals for a new Housing Bond bill that were filed on Friday.”

Birmingham also helped craft the $70 million legislative package in 1999 that kept the New England Patriots from moving to Connecticut and presided over the 2002 Constitutional Convention that voted to adjourn without considering a constitutional ban on gay marriages.

“This was a highly retrograde piece of legislation,” he said of the marriage amendment at the time. “I believe it is done.”

After rising rapidly through the ranks to the Senate presidency, Birmingham tapped another relative newcomer, Sen. Mark Montigny, to helm Ways and Means in 1999. Montigny said the president was never one to micromanage and was “respectful of allowing me to do my job.”

“And I always felt that was a sign of his political security or his personal security,” Montigny said, adding that it is sometimes common in legislative bodies to see things “driven by ego and insecurity.”

“He had kind of an interesting, quiet confidence, and just let us do our thing. … He cared, he absolutely battled for ‘the proverbial little guy’ and allowed me to do the same,” said Montigny.

When people think of the law regulating the privatization of state services, they often think of Sen. Marc Pacheco — it’s known as the Pacheco Law. But Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, said Birmingham was a key player in making that bill a law when he was chairman of Ways and Means.

“If I didn’t have his support at the time — and usually the recognition is solely on me because it bears my name, the Pacheco Law — but he was very instrumental,” Pacheco said. “And his legal team — David Sullivan at the time — and staff at Ways and Means, working with me on that language, and working with the labor community.”

Pacheco remembered Birmingham as “an outstanding Democratic leader” and said he “played a significant role with the labor movement to bring about greater fairness and opportunity for the average working man and woman in the commonwealth,” and on organized labor’s big wins in that era, “you’d have to point back to Tom Birmingham as one of the people that led the way.”

But at the end of the day, for all the wins on a legislative scorecard, Montigny said the positive impacts of a bill will outlast the memories of its architects — and therein lies the legacy.

Birmingham’s former budget chief recalled working on a landmark children’s health care bill in the ’90s, which was at the time dubbed the Montigny-McDonough bill, and how the 1993 education reforms were referred to as a Roosevelt-Birmingham package.

“Over the years, you forget Roosevelt and Birmingham. And you’ll forget Montigny and McDonough. But, like, the stuff still exists,” Montigny said. “There’s still, like, the best health care percentages in the country for children are in Massachusetts from that bill. Like, the funding that has flowed to places — to cities — since that bill was passed on ed reform is in the many billions. It’s made a huge difference. So even if people forget who the real block and tackles were on the offense of it, it still resonates.”

Birmingham struck a similar note in his farewell address in the Senate Chamber on Dec. 30, 2002.

“Some may deride Beacon Hill as a mess’ — and of course, the state government is a human institution and therefore far from perfect — but, I hope we at least remember the gains we have made to improve the lives of our citizens,” the departing president said.

He promised not to “indulge me in a long substantive litany” of examples, though he did point to health care expansion, increasing the minimum wage, and education reforms.

“This is not about bragging rights,” he said, “this is not about my legacy because it is our achievement; this is not about altruism either. This is about making our Commonwealth as strong as it can be economically and as fair as it can be socially. And that’s not a bad definition of what state government should be about.”

There is no question that Birmingham — a Rhodes Scholar — was “an intellectual,” Montigny said Monday.

“And there’s no question some people may have even been turned off by that,” he said. “But I’ve met a lot of intellectuals in my life, and I’ll say this: he did a great job continuing to stay grounded, despite the fact that his brain was working faster than most people. He understood where he was elected, he understood the membership gave him the votes and could take it away, and I don’t think he ever turned his back on … the little guy.”