'Complex beauty' of David Nyhan remembered

By John Ellement and Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff | January 29, 2005

BROOKLINE -- When Nicholas Nyhan finished speaking yesterday at the memorial
service for his father, retired Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan, some 800
people in the United Parish of Brookline stood up and applauded.

They applauded when Mr. Nyhan's oldest child described the "complex beauty"
of his father, but they were also applauding the life of the 64-year-old
newspaper reporter and proudly liberal columnist who died unexpectedly after
shoveling at his Brookline home Sunday.

"His muscles and his words were just tools for him to express feelings,
principles, hope, benevolence," said Nicholas Nyhan, speaking on behalf of
his younger sisters, Veronica and Kate. "How do you get all that in one
beautiful guy? I don't know, but we got it in Dad."

It was a celebratory service that reflected the personality of the
Harvard-educated man who grew up proudly Irish in Brookline's Whiskey Point
neighborhood and went on to establish himself as one of the most insightful
political observers in both Boston and Washington.

Among the mourners were giants of journalism, including Pulitzer
Prize-winner Jack Nelson of the Los Angeles Times, who introduced Mr. Nyhan
to his wife, Olivia. Also in attendance were the unseen cogs of journalism
who make newspapers run, like Rose Devine and Barbara McDonough, two retired
Globe telephone operators whose counsel Mr. Nyhan often sought and kept.

There were powerful politicians -- US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who
delivered the eulogy, and US Senator John F. Kerry, Mayor Thomas M. Menino
of Boston, and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly. There were also less
visible political operatives, such as Edward F. Jesser and Robert "Skinner"
Donahue, whose friendships Mr. Nyhan valued more than their news tips.

In his eulogy, Kennedy recalled that Mr. Nyhan had taken to heart the advice
that poet Robert Frost gave his brother, John F. Kennedy, another Brookline
native who went to Harvard, at the 1961 presidential inauguration: "Be more
Irish than Harvard."

Mr. Nyhan played football at Harvard. He did not boast about his Harvard
background, Kennedy said, pointing out that Martin F. Nolan, a longtime
Globe editor and columnist, sat next to Mr. Nyhan in the newspaper's
Washington bureau for five years before learning that he went to Harvard and
played football. Nolan, one of Mr. Nyhan's close friends whose dogged
reporting earned him a place on Richard Nixon's enemy list, nodded to
confirm the story.

"Dave was a man of amazing talent, but most of all he was a man of the
people who never forgot his roots," Kennedy said. "He was an uncommon
champion of the common folk. He counted among his friends not only his
newspaper colleagues, but the men and women who worked in the boatyard near
his summer home in Maine and the lobstermen he met along the coast."

Mr. Nyhan enjoyed listening to the sing-song lilt of fishermen in West Cork,
his family's ancestral home, which he visited often. In tribute to his Irish
roots, the congregation stood and sang the traditional Irish drinking song,
"The Wild Rover," perhaps the only time, Mr. Nyhan's friends surmised later,
the rollicking tune was sung to the sober accompaniment of an organ in a
Protestant church.

Mr. Nyhan's brother, John, acknowledged that Mr. Nyhan's fatal heart attack
while shoveling snow had been a shock to his family and friends, who knew
him as a robust man who into his 60s continued to play bruising games of
pickup basketball at the Colonel Daniel Marr Boys and Girls Club near the
Globe in Dorchester.

"Our mother, Peg, used to say that she would rather wear out than rust out,"
John Nyhan said. "It is clear that David's heart wore out Sunday morning,
but not his spirit."

Another brother, Chris, said his brother was never happier than when on
Chebeague Island in Maine's Casco Bay, where he had a summer home. Mr. Nyhan
especially loved the island's unpretentious golf course, where the
membership cost $400 and the members weren't required to wear a collared
shirt. Mr. Nyhan called it "the working man's Pebble Beach."

"The big heart beats no more," his brother said, "but the big spirit we will
cherish forever."

Nicholas Nyhan said he found among his father's papers a piece he wrote
about dying.

"When your pickup truck starts on the first crank after wintering stoically
through its latest Maine hibernation, that's a gift from the gods," the
newspaperman wrote. "What are my odds of ever starting up again after
holding my breath all winter? I mean, is that not worth celebrating?"

Once, Nicholas Nyhan said, relatives were out on Casco Bay after dusk,
making it difficult to navigate to shore, until they saw a light in the
dark. "They follow it and come to see Dad, holding the mooring, waving the
flashlight," he said. "He was chest deep in the cold water. A one-man
lighthouse. The rock you could count on to help you find your way."

Nicholas Nyhan said the life lessons taught by his father were curiosity, a
strong work ethic, an interest in leaders, an interest in dreamers, and to
value family above all else.

"You did right by our family and took care of us," Nicholas Nyhan told his
father. "You are the father we wanted. . . . You are now free. . . . You
made our lives better, and now we want you to be free and proud of