Barbara McDonough’s column, “View From Pope’s Hill,” made its debut in September 1983, in the first issue of The Reporter, and like the author herself, the column was conversational, informative, and modest, utterly without guile.
And yet, because it was buried on page 12, under a nonchalant headline, “Civic Activities Pick Up As New Season Begins,” readers and editors may be forgiven for not recognizing that, like Larry Bird’s first basket or Tom Brady’s first touchdown pass, a legend had been introduced. Today, in the city room of what is now the Dorchester Reporter, there’s a melancholy, because after 33 years, and more than 1,300 columns that included an estimated 66,000 names, Barbara McDonough has decided the time has come to draw the lace curtains on her career as a columnist so that she can tend to her own health, and spend more time with her family, especially with Vinnie, popularized in her column as “Hubby,” and enjoy the luxury, at age 81, of sleeping a bit past what has been her normal rising time, 4 a.m.
In an age when news is transmitted instantly, not only around the globe, but also from outer space, and when consumers expect news to be portrayed in live video, as it happens, Barbara McDonough is bidding adieu to a genre of journalism increasingly rare in America, one that focuses microscopically on local news to an extent an impatient reader might dismiss as mundane. Although her reports, one by one, may seem trivial to some, in their entirety the events recorded in Barbara McDonough’s column say more about the character of individual Americans than shenanigans in Congress and diplomatic maneuvers around the world. Without Barbara McDonough, who will tell us about the annual Pope’s Hill Neighborhood lawn party, or Ashley Cellini’s bridal shower, or vacations at the Irish Village, and how would we know about the St. Gregory Christmas brunch with the centerpieces of red and white carnations and pine cones and holly berries that were given, at each table, to the guest with the nearest birthday, which happened to be Eileen Burke, whose birthday was that day. And for those unable to make it to Venezia for Joe Chaisson’s Appreciation Party, it was Barbara McDonough who advised us that if you asked Sheila Lawn about her terrific boyfriend, State Trooper Mike Cowin, you would be shown her left hand and her beautiful engagement and wedding rings, and who else, by the way, would think to alert us that if we find ourselves in South Yarmouth, at the Irish Village, the steak tips are especially good. Mundane? To some, perhaps, but for better or worse, to quote the daytime soap opera, the items in Barbara McDonough’s column are the days of our lives.
“It’s been a view from Pope’s Hill, because that’s where she lives,” says Ed Forry, associate publisher of The Reporter, “but it’s not about Pope’s Hill so much as it is about any neighborhood in Boston. For 33 years, she’s been looking after everybody and every thing, talking about the events of everyday life so that, when you see them recorded in print, you realize how valuable ordinariness can be.”
Mundane or not, readers are loyal to Barbara; when the column is posted late on the newspaper’s website, readers telephone to find out why.
As Publisher William P. Forry says, “To reporters who think they’re writing the most important story of the day, it’s a reminder, and a humbling one, that in the online edition, Barbara’s column is often the most viewed. When you look at the breadth of her work, it’s fascinating that it’s a chronicle of unchanging events in a city that’s constantly changing. She’s kept The Reporter grounded, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, in a way that is unrivaled by any other person on the staff, myself included.”
Breakfast with Barbara at Gerard’s in Adams Village is like her column: cordial, self-effacing, and chummy, even when it’s been a bad morning, which it has.
“I was worried I’d be late,” she says, sliding into her seat and adjusting her floral blouse. “You won’t believe this, but Vinnie cut his ear shaving. How? Don’t ask, but there was blood everywhere, on his tee shirt, his pants, everywhere, and then, what do I do but drop a jar of jelly on my foot. What kind? Grape jelly, the only kind that comes in two pound jars, and it landed right on my big toe.”
At a time when she looks so good, works so hard, and writes with as much ebullience she did three decades ago, why retire?
“Well, I flunked the Registry eye exam, and I went to my eye doctor that I see once a year, because of diabetes, and he told me I have macular degeneration. I have a little hole in my left eye, and it will get bigger until I won’t be able to see. I sometimes have to use a magnifying glass now, and I just decided I don’t want to do it that way.
“My sister-in-law, Peg, has it, more advanced, and I have trouble distinguishing colors. We went to a shower for Peg’s granddaughter, and I wrote about the pretty purple decoration. Peg saw it as purple, too, but it wasn’t purple. It was brown.”
Because McDonough doesn’t drive, she has been driven for years by “Hubby,” and now, also by “Daughter Susan,” as they’re known in her column, and after dropping Barbara off at Gerard’s for the interview, the two head off on errands, to the bank, and to deliver a few back copies of The Reporter. Twenty minutes later, errands complete, Hubby and Daughter Susan return to Gerard’s, wave from a distance and retreat to a far corner for coffee and a look at the day’s newspapers.
“We’ll be going to the Kmart in Brockton,” Barbara explains. “The one in Braintree closed, and Susan saw a wonderful jacket at the Kmart in Attleboro, but they didn’t have her size, so we’re hoping to find her size in Brockton.”
Would she have continued the column if it were not for the eye problem?
“No, I’m just tired. I’m tired of getting up at 4 a.m. every day, because I have to take a pill, and my husband gets up about five o’clock, and then we have breakfast. He has oatmeal, and I have corn flakes. Then, he’d drop me off at work, so I’ll be there by quarter to six, and at that hour, there’s nobody there, which was wonderful, no telephone calls, no nothing, and I could really work. But now, I can sleep till 7, take my medicine, go downstairs, and by the time I make coffee and set the table and stuff, it’s 8.”
Her week involved 25 hours at the office, where she exhibited none of the haughty egomania that consumes many columnists. She answered telephones, greeted visitors at the reception desk, and wrote tidbits for other sections. Hours in the office were brief compared to time invested in breakfasts, lunches, dinners, cocktail hours, parties, fundraisers, galas, weddings, funerals, and sundry other affairs.
With Barbara, there’s rarely a break in conversation, her anecdotes stringing together like pebbles on a necklace, with occasional pearls that sparkle.
“A couple of weeks ago –- do you know Gail Hobin from UMass, the PR person? I’ve known her for 30 years, and I love her. So, they have the UMass party, and when I got there, there were very few seats left, and I had to get up on a high seat, so I had the president of Pope’s Hill Neighborhood Assn. there, John Schneiderman, and I said, ‘I don’t know if I can get up,’ but I did, and I was so proud of myself. I’ve gotten shorter. I had knee replacements in 1995 and 1998, and I lost two and a half inches. I’m only five feet two and a half inches now, but in sixth grade, I was the tallest girl in the class.”
A modest woman, she credits others – her husband and daughter for helping her with the column, and readers who invite her to events, and even her editor, Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr., former managing editor of the Boston Globe, now associate editor of The Dorchester Reporter, and in all aspects of the English language, an uncompromising disciplinarian.
“Oh, Tom catches me on all kinds of things,” she says. “He’s wonderful, and he knows everything. I once wrote something about Queen Elizabeth I in the 1500s, and I though she took over when Henry VIII died, but there were two others, and he said, ‘No, no, that’s not right. After Henry VIII died, and before the coronation of Elizabeth, there were Edward and Mary – the whole bit, and I said to myself. ‘Whoa, I am in way over my head here.’ Now, with my bad eyes, I can’t always see the commas and periods, but I have Susan to help me, thank God, because Tom Mulvoy would kill me.”
If her words seem like a time warp, well, the technological revolution of the past three decades has whooshed past Barbara McDonough.
“In the early years, we had Monday deadlines,” recalls Ed Forry, “and on Sunday night, she and Vinnie would drive up to my house around midnight. I’d hear steps on my front porch, and then, the mail slot would open and she’d slide in her column for that week, handwritten and ready to be typed and edited.”
Although she has a computer, instead of using email, she prefers the square, yellow sticky notes that she leaves for colleagues, and despite being in the communications business, she has never owned a cell phone. “I don’t want one,” she says. “I’m not technological, and if I owned a cell phone, I’d botch it. I’d be calling China and everyplace else.”
Despite her many years of experience, she retains the enthusiasm of a cub reporter, and appears free of the cynicism that calcifies older reporters. She still gets what she calls goose bumps when she meets even pseudo celebrities, however common.
“I went to a coffee hour given by the police in Lower Mills,” she recalls, “and after I shook hands with Bill Evans, the police commissioner, I told him I was so proud to have shaken hands with him that I’d never wash that hand again. Am I talking too much? I’m sorry. I write like I talk. I can’t do it any other way. I’m not high falutin.”
At first, she was a challenge to edit.
“Early on, I was saying, ‘Gee, this is not a sentence, it’s a fragment,’ ” recalls Mulvoy, “but finally I said, to heck with it. That’s the way she writes – episodic thoughts, and I trust her on names because she simply doesn’t get them wrong. She posts yellow sticky notes on my computer to confirm the spelling for a name that might look wrong to me.”
The breakfast of English muffins and Irish bread is short on calories and long on conversation about anything and everything, because, as she says, “People want to know these things, like my cousin, Nancy, is dead now, but people always wanted to know whether she made her chocolate pudding pie for Christmas, and her husband, Bob, who’s dead now, too, did he make his fabulous coleslaw?”
On and on come the anecdotes, about the recital in the parish hall at St. Ann Church Dec. 5. “Our friend, Sheila Fahey, was doing a musical revue called ‘Christmas Wishes.’ John Sweeney was there with his wife, Kathy, and he came over to chat. He thought the Boston Teachers College luncheon at the Charles River County Club in November was wonderful, and Sheila amused the audience. She said she was so young when she married that she wore her First Communion dress, and when her mother made a Christmas wreath of macaroni, a squirrel ate the macaroni.”
And then, of course, there’s the fake plant.
“Do you know I watered my cousin’s plant that was fake? She worked for Ben Tankle, our local florist. I had never thought of fake plants, but she sent me such a beautiful plant, and there I was, watering it, and the water would come out the bottom, and I’d say, what the heck is going on. It was a fake plant, I think it was supposed to be a poinsettia. I’m pretty good with plants, but I never figured I’d get an artificial plant.”
A waitress with sprigs of two Christmas reindeer in her hair returns to freshen the cups of coffee, and Barbara explains why she drinks decaffeinated. “I have a bad heart, and my husband does, too, so we get decaf. I have AFib, atrial fibrillation, or irregular heart rate, and tachycardia, an abnormally fast resting heart rate.”
Less her breakfast partner fret, however, she emphasizes that except for the heart problems and failing sight, she is in good health.
There’s another way in which Barbara McDonough differs from other journalists – she pays her own way to the events she attends, whether it’s $5 for a Christmas lunch at a church, or $50 for the harbor cruise to benefit the University of Massachusetts.
Reporters often are admitted free, she is told, and that’s why everybody hates reporters – they get the best seats at ball games.
“But that’s not me,” she says.
You pay for every event?
“Yes. I pay at the door or go to the rectory to buy a ticket.”
Do you put the items on your expense account?
“No, because my husband is with me, Vinnie – that’s Vinnie with an ‘i-e,’ not a ‘y.’ And we’re enjoying the events, too, so, no, I don’t think that would be right. I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t brought up that way. And Hubby? He’ll go anywhere. If you give him food, he’s there,” she says, elevating her voice to be heard above Frank Sinatra, crooning over the audio system that he’s got his love to keep him warm.
In an earlier incarnation, Barbara (Short) McDonough taught at the Adams School in Weymouth, 1956 to 1961.
“I taught first grade, what else? I’m not smart enough to teach geography.”
She and Vinnie met at Boston State College, and they have lived on the same street for 52 years, raising three children, Dr. Paul, 54, an engineer; Susan, 53, a retired teacher, and Jean, a nurse. “She’s 50, the baby,” says Barbara. Vinnie, 81, retired after a 39-year career as a Boston teacher, assistant principal and longtime assistant manager at the Purity Supreme Market in Fields Corner.
Barbara’s personal life is as chaste as her column. The Jamaica Plain native recalls having had only three alcoholic drinks in her life, three sloe gin fizzes, and that was in the 1950s. “I was going out with my husband and his buddies, and you had to drink something.”
Searching for some kind of vice, an interviewer tries another tack.
“Okay, what about cigarettes?
“Well, I did try cigarettes, too. Remember when you’d go on the subway to downtown Boston, and you’d come up the stairs at Filene’s? Well, there was someone there giving out tiny packets of cigarettes, three to a pack, and I took them home and started to do it, and thank God, I didn’t like the cigarettes, so I never smoked again.”
What induced her to stay with a column that required long hours and hard work?
“I like it when somebody will call – do you know Jimmy Hunt? Well, his wife, Jean, called me and she said, ‘Barbara, I didn’t know that so and so had passed away until you wrote about it.’ Also, I wanted people to know that in Dorchester, we do exactly the same things as they do in places like Belmont or other fancy town. We may not go to the same fancy resorts, but we live the same way in Dorchester that other people live. But we get such a bad rap …” And then, after a pause, “I’m sorry. I talk too much.”
In retirement, Barbara plans to do what everybody else does in retirement – clean the attic. “I have 55 years of stuff, the purple vase I had as a teacher 50 years ago, and I can’t let it go, and bicentennial Christmas ornaments we never use, and my husband goes to the dollar store and he buys the dollar row of lights, and he throws them on the bushes on Christmas Eve. They last about three hours because they use hearing-aid batteries, so they won’t last, but they look beautiful.”
With journalism changing, what is the future for a column like Barbara’s?
“If there’s anyone as devoted to the craft as Barbara, then we’d welcome it,” says Bill Forry. “But I don’t know that such a person is out there. You’d have to have somebody who never tires of going to the Keystone Club or breakfast and lunches, over and over, year after year. Other folks might say, okay, I’ve had enough. But she never tired of any of it. She finds her groove in events that are traditional.”
For young journalists, Barbara’s advice is not to follow her, but to focus on news. “And no, I would not advise my daughter to take over the column. I don’t want her to work so hard. This job takes a lot out of you, too much hard work, too much time. And she’s single. She doesn’t have a husband to help her, as I have had.”
The day after the breakfast, Barbara McDonough is spotted at a Christmas Party at the Winery, and as usual, she’s effusive in greeting people. She looks up, startled, to see a state legislator from Dorchester, Rep. Dan Hunt, who leans down with a greeting and Christmas kiss, then strolls off.
“When he was a little boy,” she says, “my daughter, Susan, was his baby sitter.” And then, suddenly, she brightens. “Oh, I wanted to tell you, at the Kmart in Brockton yesterday, we found a jacket that fits Susan, and do you know what? We bought two of them, one black and one navy.”