During his career as a reporter for the Boston Herald and other newspapers, Joe Heaney wrote about the Vietnam War, the troubles in Ireland, political scandals, and organized crime in Boston. But some nights, he drove through the city with Raymond L. Flynn, looking for homeless people who needed a lift to the Pine Street Inn shelter.
“Joe used to say the people we picked up were just down on their luck,” said Flynn, a former Boston mayor and US ambassador to the Vatican. “And he always said that he learned more about Boston and about being a good reporter from being out on the street on a cold winter night than he did from covering any type of event.”
After canvassing neighborhoods, Flynn said, he and Mr. Heaney usually headed to J.J. Foley’s pub in the South End for a beer.
“He was certainly a professional reporter,” he said. “He was also my dear friend, a very compassionate, sensitive guy who I considered one of the best human beings I ever met.”
Mr. Heaney, whose career spanned 50 years and spawned almost as many stories about him as those he wrote, died of pancreatic cancer Friday in Home Health & Hospice Care in Merrimack, N.H. He was 82 and lived in Mont Vernon, N.H.
Colleagues described Mr. Heaney as an old-school journalist with a gift for getting to the heart of subjects.
“He was cut from the old newspaper cloth, a romantic figure to all us young bucks,” said David Weber, who worked in the Herald newsroom with Mr. Heaney for 17 years and is now communications director for the Norfolk County sheriff’s office. “He was a veteran and we all looked up to him and loved him.”
Mr. Heaney joined the staff of what was then the Boston Herald Traveler in the early 1970s. He covered City Hall and a host of other beats, winning numerous awards, including several from the Associated Press and United Press International.
He drew national attention in the 1970s when he wrote about US Representative Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat who joined stripper Fanne Foxe onstage in Boston’s Combat Zone. Several years later, Mr. Heaney’s coverage of the Atlanta child murders also was lauded.
“Joe was an extremely gifted writer,” Weber said. “He was very versatile, and he had an astute eye for the human condition. He recognized absurdity and he recognized heartache, and he wrote with a sensitive touch and few or no wasted words.”
In 1930, Joseph Patrick Heaney was born in Cambridge to a bricklayer and a nanny who had emigrated from Ireland. He graduated from Arlington High School, and from Boston University with a degree in journalism.
Mr. Heaney worked as a reporter for a newspaper in Lafayette, La., and for the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., before joining the staff at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont’s largest city, where he remained for 13 years.
In 1969, he left newspapers to write speeches for businessman and engineer Royden C. Sanders. At about that time he moved his family to Mont Vernon and his beloved farm, Purgatory Falls, where he raised horses.
When the Herald Traveler hired Mr. Heaney, he began commuting 60 miles from his farm to Boston, until retiring in 1999.
His first marriage, to Elaine Proctor, ended in divorce. In 2005, he married Kathryn Marchocki, a Herald colleague who said she and Mr. Heaney shared a love of farming and horses.
“He would start his day and end his day feeding the horses,” she said, noting that they kept 13 or more. “He loved being outside.” She said he was a “master horseman,” hired as a stable boy and wrangler at 7.
Mr. Heaney often repaired fences and stone walls on his farm, a skill he attributed to his father and to his grandfather, who was a stonemason in Ireland.
“He said it was in his blood,” Marchocki said.
Three of Mr. Heaney’s children died, and Paul Sullivan, a longtime Herald colleague, said he “never talked about his children dying young, but you knew it ate him up inside.”
Sullivan added that Mr. Heaney had a natural gift for getting people to tell him their stories.
“I was always amazed at how he would get people talking,” he said.
Marchocki said Mr. Heaney was “a great listener. He knew how to draw people out by listening to them. He used to say, ‘The more you talk, the less people are going to tell you.’ ”
People also trusted him, she said, because of his “beautiful eyes” and the style of his clothes.
“He always wore a shirt and tie,” she said, even when “the wrinkled-shirt era came in. He believed that a tie would open doors.”
Mr. Heaney’s son Jeb of Mont Vernon said he especially enjoyed his father’s stories about interviewing mobsters, and recalled one in particular, when Mr. Heaney sat down for a conversation with Luigi Manocchio at his café in Providence. Manocchio was sentenced to federal prison earlier this year for extorting protection payments from Rhode Island strip clubs.
“It was pretty humorous to think of him in that company,” Jeb said.
In addition to his wife, son, and former wife, of Peterborough, N.H., Mr. Heaney leaves another son, Sean, of Newport, Vt.; two daughters, Joellen of Martinez, Calif., and Jocelyn of Los Angeles; and two sisters, Mary Donahue of Lexington and Eileen Halloran of Durham, N.H.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in St. Patrick’s Church in Milford, N.H. Burial will be in Green Lawn Cemetery in Mont Vernon.
“He loved meeting new people and he loved telling stories,” Jeb said. “He had that quick Irish wit, and he was such an interesting person to talk to.”
Sullivan, Mr. Heaney’s longtime colleague, said his friend “was so respected in the city room, he could write circles around anybody. He could be soft-spoken, but he was also gregarious and outgoing. He just loved to laugh.”
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