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Brian McGrory

Career for the ages for retiring Gloria Negri

Gloria Negri

Barry Chin / Globe Staff

Gloria Negri waved at a Globe newsroom ceremony to honor her.

You have to wonder what Gloria Negri must have been thinking as she sat on a bench in the dark of the night in this vast and frightened city of ours, trying to attract the attention of the Boston Strangler, a decoy for this newspaper back in the early 1960s. 

I hope he comes – that’s what she was probably thinking.

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Like the time she basically forced her way into Vietnam in the throes of the war against orders from a Globe publisher who didn’t want to put a female reporter in harm’s way. She sent a cable back to the states saying, and I quote, “Gloria Negri wants to stay.”

A Globe editor sent a somewhat brief ­cable back: “No.”

Name a major event, Gloria has chronicled it, gloriously so: the race riots in the 1960s, Apollo moon shots from Mission Control, apartheid in South Africa, the ferocious 1980 earthquake in Italy that left 2,700 people dead.

She surreptitiously sipped bourbon with ­Lady Bird Johnson at the famed LBJ ranch in Texas during the 1964 presidential campaign. She trained with Joe Frazier before one of his epic fights against Muhammad Ali. She was at Shea Stadium on that October night when the ground ball skipped through Bill Buckner’s legs.

Today, Gloria Negri retires. Today, Gloria walks out of this newsroom as a full-fledged Boston Globe staffer for the final time, ending a nearly 53-year run that is unlike any journalism career this town has ever seen or will see again. Tomorrow, this paper and the world we cover will be a little less ­vibrant without her.

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Understand that Gloria Negri is a trailblazer in every sense of the word, a woman who never worked on what used to be known as the “women’s pages,” which was unheard of when she arrived here at the tail end of the Eisenhower administration. She broke barriers not as a cause, but because her talent couldn’t be contained.

She is also, it must be said, slightly idiosyncratic in the way that newspaper people used to be but, sadly, aren’t any more. When she sneezes, which is oddly often, windows rattle across Dorchester. She used to crawl under her desk to make especially sensitive calls. To this day, nights and weekends, she trundles toward the door carrying bags burdened with loose papers, notes for the stories she polishes at her kitchen table. Her voice fills the newsroom as she pulls her disarming Columbo routine with unknowing sources — “So sorry to bother you again. . . . I happened to notice something . . . . Just one more question.”

There’s something else about Gloria ­Negri, the most important thing of all. Too often these days, the blabbermouths on television and the elite national reporters who travel in herds try to tell the country what we think, though none have talked to an everyday person in years.

Then there’s Gloria. For five-plus decades she’s traveled the city and the world with pen and paper, typewriter then laptop, deftly persuading ordinary people to open up about their lives. How? Empathy. In a world too cold, it spills from her fingertips.

Which is why the best Gloria Negri stories weren’t necessarily based on the biggest events, but her poignant and wonderfully told insights into the human condition: Doc Mastrangelo, the aging physician who cared for half of Watertown but rarely sent bills; Jim Flath, the homeless shoeshine man who donated much of his pay to charity; a boy named Quinnie, born poor and sick, who spoke his first words and walked his first steps in Boston City Hospital with doctors and nurses who saw him as their son. She wrote the defining story about the disabled students at the Massachusetts Hospital School that didn’t leave a dry eye in the state.

Gloria mentioned one recent day that when she dies, she would be delighted to be described as a Globe reporter who did good work. She shouldn’t have to wait. On this day of Gloria Negri’s retirement, her rebirth, it should be known clear and wide: There hasn’t been anyone better.

McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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