Friends remember Alan Lupo

By CLIF GARBODEN  |  October 22, 2008

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Words as music: Alan Lupo was many things — among them, the best metro columnist Boston may ever see. By Margaret Doris.

The people's gravelly voice: Alan Lupo, 1938 - 2008. By Clif Garboden.

“Because I grew up in a family and in a neighborhood that had no voice, I have tried in some small way to be a voice for those whose feelings are too rarely heard, or even expressed. I hope this was not presumptuous, and I hope that I can continue to do that, for in today's neighborhoods there are also large numbers who do not "fit."

“I am still — foolishly, perhaps — enough of an idealist to believe that the media are too often the only ones in town to help redress the grievances of those who have nobody to lobby for them in the corridors of public and private power.

“I still believe that it is our job to raise hell responsibly and comfort the afflicted, to focus public attention on issues and events that people in power would just as soon see disappear from public discourse.”

 — Alan Lupo
 December 31, 1993

The Boston Phoenix is collecting memories from all those whose lives were touched by our friend and colleague, Alan Lupo. If you have thoughts you'd like to share, please e-mail them to Clif Garboden, Senior Managing Editor, the Boston Phoenix, cgarboden@phx.com or Margaret Doris, contributor, the Boston Phoenix, MEDoris@bu.edu.

The first time I saw Alan Lupo was during one of my earliest Phoenix freelance assignments, circa 1980. I was doing some work in the newsroom and just a few desks away was this larger-than-life character who had achieved a journalistic stature worth aspiring too. Although Alan was the last person one could be intimidated by, I don't believe I worked up the gumption to introduce myself. But I did get to know him well during my 1995 to 2005 stint at the Globe, and in my view, he played a unique role in that institution.

Put simply, a visit to Alan's office was a welcome oasis from the pressures of unstinting deadlines, unappreciative editors, uncooperative sources, and any other problems that were impinging on your day. It was a place to spin yarns, to joke (he had a completely infectious laugh), and to soak up some homespun wisdom that managed to put things in perspective. For several years, I was the Globe ombudsman — a sometimes thankless task — and it's fair to say that Alan displayed far more than the typical level of empathy and support. The thing I most remember about him is that I always ended up feeling better after I left his office. And that's no mean feat.

— Mark Jurkowitz, former Phoenix news editor and media columnist

He's the salt of the earth. The best of the breed. The last of the street and beat reporters.  He knew every bar, every precinct, every pole in Boston.  He'd give you the shirt off his back. Fill you with bagels, coffee, and ribs.  He was there when you were up and when you were down, never patronizing, always considerate and kind. 

His jokes and tales of Jewish life in Winthrop were legendary (with a hint of the borscht belt).  He was love personified — love of journalism, his native Winthrop, his rambling house by the bay (where the doorknobs rarely stayed put), his friends, and, most of all, Caryl and the kids  But when you were alone with Alan Lupo, you felt all that love was just for you, alone   All my love to you! 

— Amy Zuckerman, journalist

I attended Columbia journalism school with Al and his future wife, Caryl Rivers, and for a few months in the summer and fall of 1960, I was his roommate. We sublet a grungy basement apartment on W. 113th Street from a classmate. Both of us were working temporary jobs at the AP while waiting to go into the military, I as a draftee, Al as a reserve second lieutenant at Fort Knox. (He must have been the most unlikely ROTC student at UMass.)

The apartment had so many cockroaches we thought about putting numbers on them and betting on which one would disappear first when we turned the lights on. We kept in close touch for years, twice sharing vacation quarters on Cape Cod. When I quit journalism in the early ’90s to join the US Foreign Service, we saw less of each other but exchanged occasional emails — the last one early this year, informing me of his cancer but expressing optimism, laced with wisecracks, that he could beat it. Like everyone else, I remember Al as the consummate mensch, someone who made you proud to be a fellow member of the human race.

As you know, he wrote a fine book, Liberty's Chosen Home, on the Boston busing controversy. Al's book never drew a fraction of the attention given to Tony Lukas' later work, Common Ground (in which Lukas acknowledged help from both Al and Caryl). I asked Al once whether he didn't resent being overshadowed. "Nah," he said, "Lukas blew me out of the water. He deserved what he got."

That was characteristically gracious and free of ego. Al had every right to his measure of hubris, but he never exercised it. My sympathies go not only to Caryl, Steven, and Aylissa but also to Boston and to the shrinking world of serious print journalism.

— George Newman, Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

Alan was an aficionado of feuds, as long as they were Boston feuds. Nothing angered him except injustices (he laughed at fraud and pretension), but a special part of Alan's more-than-encyclopedic knowledge of Boston was his appreciation for one of its most important products — spite.

Alan could tell you who hated who in this town, why they did, and what began it all. Didn't matter if the feud began in 1894 and ended when both parties passed on in FDR's first term. Feuds made for good stories, and Alan never, ever, ignored or forgot one of those.

Nothing was jollier than listening to Alan describe the slights of yesteryear. Nothing was more valuable to someone learning how to function as a newspaper person in Boston. Simply put, before working with Alan Lupo, I didn't know nuttin' but nuttin' about this town.

How does one pay tribute to the finest native guide a traveler could possibly have? I'd lived in Boston for several years before crossing paths with Alan at the Phoenix, and had no idea it was different from anyplace else someone might live. And, if one was a recovering hippie living in Inman Square whose last port of call was Oakland, California, it wasn't. It only took me five years to travel south of Huntington Avenue.

Alan changed that. Simply by listening to him (the Phoenix was, and I hope is, a shrine for schmoozing), I got my first clues as to the real nature of the contrary, splendid, maddening city Alan loved and understood as no one else. There was the day I mentioned in a meeting that I was seeing a lot of a certain construction company's cement mixers around Cambridge and Somerville. Ten minutes later, I had the family tree of all partners in my head, knowledge painlessly imparted amid bursts of laughter.

The best reporters and the best writers are always the best storytellers. Without that ability to hold an audience, what good are facts and a prose style? If a reporter can't sit in the office, or a coffee shop or bar, and TELL the story they want to write, he or she won't do the story justice.

I never heard Alan tell a story he didn't do justice. I only wish I could remember them all.

— Michael Gee, former Phoenix writer and Herald sports writer


I was lucky enough to share face-to-face adjoining desks with Loops for five years in the old Phoenix newsroom. I still believe it was a perverse experiment by [editor] Bob Sales to attempt to create nuclear fission through a collision of fashion styles. (In 1991, I took a job writing for GQ. Three months later, I told Alan. I think he finally stopped laughing shortly before the passing of the millennium.) Also, at the time, I was living on the top floor of a three-decker up near Franklin Park in Jamaica Plain.

My local was down on Washington Street. It was Doyle's Café. It was dark and cavernous and it featured an odd array of folksingers on weekends. It was not yet Six Flags Over Curley, the Irish-American political theme park that it is today. Anyway, one day a few years down the line, Loops came into the newsroom bubbling with enthusiasm about this great new spot he'd found in JP called Doyle's. Not long after that, I went there with him. Now I'd been hanging around that place for three years at that point and I think I knew one bartender and one waitress. Alan knew everybody. He knew the cooks, for God's sake. (I didn't even know they had cooks.) And everybody knew him. I was momentarily resentful — This was my  place, after all. Who's this thooleramawn from Winthrop anyway? — and then permanently awed by the depth of the empathy, compassion, and simple humanity that were so fundamental to the person Alan was. It was what people responded to in him.

It was how he came to know everybody in the joint. That these qualities also made him one of the greatest journalists this town will ever see is simply a bonus, a grace note for us all. Godspeed, my friend. Flights of angels and all that. And, as they say in the Old Country — my Old Country, not your Old Country — we knew the two days.

— Charles P. Pierce, Boston Phoenix writer, 1978-1983, 10/10/08

There's too many injustices in our world. So, I believe a journalist should write by the standard of "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." Alan Lupo did this for many decades and Boston and Massachusetts are really a better place because he practiced this.

From the fight to save neighborhoods from the 10-lane Inner Belt Highway in the 1960s, to the busing/desegregation years of strife in the 1970s, to so many stories that mattered year in and year out into this year, he was there to record, empathize, and tell what wouldn't be otherwise told. He shined a light on injustices and brought to life the characters in our midst with humor and honesty.

I first met Alan in the early 1970s when he came to our community group's Dorchester office to listen and write stories about city issues when he was a member of the Boston Globe's hard working Urban Team. He had a big life as a journalist with the Globe, Herald, Phoenix, and Channel 2.

He wrote numerous stories about and a book called Rites of Way about the fight of Boston neighborhood leaders against the 10-lane Inner Belt Highway that was to be built from Route 128 in Dedham through Boston's neighborhoods, cross the Charles River, and the through Cambridge to connect to I-93 in Somerville.  He is recognized in a memorial history of this campaign that stands outside of the Roxbury Crossing Station on the Orange Line where this 10-lane highway would have run.

Alan Lupo wrote many news stories and a thoughtful book about the years of busing and desegregation that pulled apart our neighborhoods during the 1970s. It's called Liberty's Chosen Home.  He was a champion of the East Boston community leaders who successfully fought the expansion of Logan Airport into their neighborhood for decades.

He was always someone that a community leader, community organizer, or just an average Joe or Mary could call and get his ear to talk about the grievance that you had that you thought should be covered by a newspaper.

I remember he was doing an article about the organization I worked for in the 1980s called Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance and some campaign we were doing about mortgage red-lining by banks.  But always the observant and humorous guy, he happened to spot a hand written sign posted on the door to the downstairs from our office that warned people of rats on the stairwell. Lupo then remarked in the story how the big bankers in their big office buildings that we were taking on did not have to venture through such hazards.  It was very funny though our landlord gave us hell about it.

Alan's message machine when he was a Globe reporter used to say something like, “he was sorry he was not there but he was out avoiding editors and hoped he wouldn't slip out of his mortal coil.”

In his columns in recent years, he continued to bring up what Congressman Barney Frank called the "no say'ims" about what was true but often avoided. Lupo said if we wanted good city and state services, we needed to pay taxes to support them and sometimes even a little higher taxes.

He was a what we call a real Boston original. He will be much missed.

— Lew Finfer, Executive Director, Massachusetts Community Action Network

I first got to know Alan Lupo through a class on community journalism that he taught during the spring of 1974 while I was a student at UMass/Boston's College of Public and Community Service.  I had recently moved down from Vermont, so I was not yet familiar with his work as a journalist. When I brought home an announcement of his course, my then partner strongly praised Alan from The Reporters on television.  It didn't take much to convince me, and I signed up immediately.

I was not to be disappointed — he was a fascinating teacher!  At the time I was a member of a small group of people putting out Boston's pioneering weekly Gay Community News, a seat-of-the-pants operation just then getting underway.  He was warm and supportive, and I found his comments very helpful for my writing on GCN and elsewhere.  Long after that class had concluded, I would run into him or talk with him on the phone, and he would always stop to give me some good advice.  I also looked forward to reading his regular columns in the Globe and Phoenix.  He made the art of journalism a little more comprehensible to a layperson and gave me the confidence to contribute to the public discourse when I felt I had something worth writing about.

— John Kyper, Roxbury

I learned of Lupo's passing in the backwards way I learn of many events these days. I was skimming the arts section of the Oregonian here in Portland and saw a review of Dennis Lehane's latest which I happened to be reading, and the reviewer, Jeff Baker, added a list of books related to Boston that he felt were also worth reading. I was happy to see Liberty's Chosen Home listed between The Last Hurrah and Johnny Tremain. Happy, that is until the second sentence which mentioned Alan's recent death.

Upon our first meeting, Alan shared his take on my father (they had crossed paths in Boston political circles years earlier) and how that had given me a hint of how my father was seen by people outside of family and friends. Since my father had died a few years earlier, at age 57, and I was still in my early 20s I had not gotten to really know him adult to adult. Alan's recollections helped me gain a more complete picture of him.

I wanted to write something which might help Alan's children gain some new insight into their dad but the fact that I found him a generous and sensitive soul surely is something that they already know. I can only add my name to the long list of people whose lives he touched in a very positive way.

— Michael Romanos, former Phoenix photographer, Portland, Oregon

When Al worked at the Phoenix office at 100 Mass Ave, he’d start each day with coffee, to which he’d religiously add a dram of ouzo from a bottle he kept in the file drawer of his desk. It was vile stuff, which he gladly offered to share — though he had few takers . . . and certainly no repeaters.

The very first time I met Al, he scared me. We were both covering, I think, a Joe Timilty flesh-presser at some benighted VFW in Dorchester. Anyway, it was some place overpopulated with elderly Irish women who loved Joe’s hair. The shawlies were swooning, I was taking pictures, and Al, who surely must have been there for the Herald or the Globe or some place, was just leaning in the doorway, unshaven and possibly smoking.

He said something to me — I forget what — about whatever campaign was going on, and the voice alone (never mind his size) reminded me of the kids who used to beat me up at the bus stop. I was also intimidated by the idea that Al was 10 years older than I was and probably knew all the nasty/funny things about Boston politics that I’d missed. (He did.)

Some years later, when we met again on more equal footing, I had trouble justifying his presence with that memory. The guy knew how to project an image, and his “Insider” columns for the Phoenix — powerful, poignant, or hilarious — are a j-school education unto themselves.

— Clif Garboden, Senior Managing Editor, Phoenix Newspaper Group

The first time I laid eyes on Alan Lupo he was delivering a guest lecture to a class I took at Boston University called Magazine Writing.  This was either in 1969 or 1970 and our teacher was, as we called her, "Mrs. Lupo" — a/k/a Caryl Rivers, wife of Al Lupo (subsequently I learned that she called him "Loops"), and a well-regarded journalist in her own right.  She was also one of the two or three best teachers I've ever had. 

At the time I was 21 years old; Al was 31, and well on his way in a career as a first-rate cityside reporter.  For which local paper he worked at the time I cannot say, but I'm pretty sure it was the Globe.  He was a burly, plain-spoken guy with a gravelly voice and a Boston accent, but in no way was it Kennedy-esque or George Plimptonian.

Al had curly black hair and corny sideburns.  I regarded him as another "old" guy who'd missed the sturm und drang and hurly-burly of the hippie ’60s (mostly because he was out earning a living) and was trying to look semi-hip.  Nevertheless, I immediately thought to myself, as he figuratively opened to we students the reporter's notebook that was his life, "This is a man I would like to be." 

At almost the exact same moment I thought, "This is a man I will never, ever be."

Because upon initial inspection, my hipster-wannabe self knew unquestionably that Al Lupo was the goods, a guy who loved the spade work, walking the streets, talking at some length to the subjects of his stories, and telling those stories as clearly and concisely as possible. His definition and mine of the verb "to dig" were worlds apart. Al knew the value of hard work; I, on the other hand, was — and, unfortunately, am to this day — an aesthete, a snob and a dilettante. 

I lived in my head.  Al lived in, reveled in, and reported expertly on, the Real World.  Straight, no chaser. 

Years later, Al and I were colleagues, after a fashion, at the Boston Phoenix.  I doubt that he remembered my face from the small crowd that day in his beloved wife's class, but at the Phoenix he was only great to me.  Friendly, funny, and a guy who seemed to have more than a passing interest in early rock 'n' roll (e.g. Big Joe Turner) and some jazz, although I imagine he'd have told me that he couldn't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow.  

I hadn't seen Alan Lupo for some years before I learned on the evening of Monday Sept. 29, 2008 that he'd gone from this life into that.  He was smart and compassionate, one who actually believed in the perfectibility of humankind, a notion in which I, too, would like to believe but, alas, cannot . . . at least not yet.  Al never took himself too seriously — his family's dog and cat were, after all, named "Jane" and "Kitty Widdums," respectively — but he took his work very seriously. 

What better way to live a full and valuable life?

— James Isaacs 10/2/'08,
former
Phoenix music columnist

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