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October 13, 2008

Funeral for a friend

Last week, I went to a memorial service for my dear friend and former colleague Alan Lupo, a beloved columnist at the Boston Globe who died last month. Alan was an institution in this town, one of a dying breed of journalists who wrote about the regular folks who eked out an existence in the city's colorful neighborhoods. He was a man who grew up literally walking and talking a beat. He lamented the isolation of the newsroom and thrived when he was out on the street discovering stories and striking up conversations friends and strangers alike. He championed social justice and raged against inequity. He also wrote loving and often hilarious columns about his family, including his son, the cop, and his daughter, the actress. Given his daughter's profession, he often gave me unsolicited opinions about the "theatah," offering uproarious accounts, told in his gruff, Yiddish-inflected accent, about plays he claimed to be too unsophisticated to understand. (Trust me, he wasn't.)

Anyway, I've been thinking about Alan a lot, especially as I read recent posts about the past and future of our field. He was one of a handful of Old Timers whose sheer presence gave me moral support when I was a young arts reporter and critic at the Globe. He was the first to offer a compliment, always in person, never via email - or electronic message, as we called it back in the days of Atex. When things got testy with a particularly socially-challenged editor, I'd always make a trip over to Alan's office to kvetch. He'd notice the look on my face, the cup of coffee clenched in my trembling hand, and open his desk drawer and pull out his trusty bottle of Sambuca. Not my taste - especially first thing in the morning - but I appreciated the gesture. I thought this was our little secret, and I admit a twinge of jealousy when someone else mentioned the Sambuca at Alan's memorial service.

Alan was well-known for being extremely kind and generous to young reporters, and I'll never forget the day many years ago when he walked by my desk and said, "Call Lenny" and walked away. That was it. "Call Lenny." Now if you know Alan's work and if you know Boston, you know who Lenny is. If you don't, drive into Boston from north of the city some day and drive over the new, billowing bridge that takes you downtown. It's named after Lenny. Needless to say, I made the call and filled the air with small talk for as long as I could, improvising variations on the question, "What do you know?" Eventually, I got a tidbit that led straight to Page One. The story, about a simmering controversy at a major arts institution, went on for a few weeks, and it helped solidify my status as the Real Deal instead of the New Young Thing. Alan could have taken what he knew and written a column, but instead, he quietly gave me enough of a nudge so that I could go out and get the story myself. He was like the loveable, curmudgeonly Jewish uncle I never had. A true mensch. A true mentor. And a true journalist.

I never told anyone about that little tip until after the memorial service, when I was reminiscing with another colleague who was once a "young reporter" herself. This colleague, who went on to become a crackerjack reporter in Metro, confided that Alan had taken her out to lunch on her first day at the paper, when she had the shell-shocked look of someone who had just realized that the inmates were running the asylum. I felt another twinge of jealousy: All these years, I had thought I was the only one who was singled out for such kindness, such generosity of spirit. I saw the same look of jealousy on my colleague's face when I told my story. Alan had that gift: He made everyone feel uniquely special as he shared his wealth of knowledge and imparted his wisdom with humor and grace.

I hate to sound like I'm channeling David Simon in Season Five of "The Wire," but the memories of Alan underscore what the industry stands to lose in these days of downsizing and buyouts. Alan was the personification of institutional memory. He knew the business, he knew the city, he knew all manner of trivia about the good ol' boys and the backroom politics and even, to some extent, the "theatah." He was more than willing to share his knowledge with the next generation. All of this will be lost if we all become free agents typing away in the privacy of our homes, clicking for information and never having the opportunity to be blessed with the stories of those who paved the way before us. Every young reporter could use an influence like my late friend, and I can only hope that all institutional memory doesn't slip out the back door as newspapers struggle to evolve. I was just one of many who received Alan Lupo's gifts and grace, and for that, I am eternally grateful. I lift a glass - or a cup of Joe laced with licorice liqueur - to his memory. May tomorrow's reporters be blessed to know others just like him.

October 13, 2008 7:51 PM | | Comments (0)

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