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Robert L. Kierstead, 85; longtime Globe ombudsman

Robert L. Kierstead said he fielded about 30,000 calls and letters from readers.

Robert Dennehy/Globe Staff/1982

Robert L. Kierstead said he fielded about 30,000 calls and letters from readers.

Robert L. Kierstead wrote a column every other week as the Globe’s ombudsman, which he called his “favorite newspaper position,” while acknowledging that it was “an important, challenging, and often thankless role.”

Describing his duties at the outset in 1982, Mr. Kierstead wrote that “at the Globe, the ombudsman is the readers’ representative and advocate and, as such, deals primarily with complaints about the newspaper’s news coverage and editorial positions. He listens.”

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Listing his direct phone number in that first column, he might not have anticipated how many hours he would spend listening. Having committed to serving two years in the job, he stayed nine and by the end estimated that he had fielded more than 30,000 calls and letters from readers. Based on those conversations and other research, Mr. Kierstead passed judgment in columns that established him as a watchdog for errors and missteps. If readers were upset when they called him, reporters, editors, and photographers could end up even angrier after being publicly chastised in the Globe’s pages by one of their own.

“It was a tough job,” said Al Larkin, a former executive vice president at the Globe who was given his first reporting position by Mr. Kierstead when both previously worked at the Boston Herald Traveler. “He had a sense of what journalism was to society and he knew that we were the first draft of history. That was very clearly on his mind. He knew it was his job later to say, ‘OK, we got this one wrong,’ and he’d say that.”

Mr. Kierstead, who retired from the Globe in 1993 as an assistant managing editor, died of cardiovascular disease Tuesday in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 85 and lived in West Roxbury.

In his ombudsman’s column, he weighed in on subjects ranging from how developmental disabilities are characterized to quibbles readers had with headlines and photo captions. Some topics, such as how newspapers use unnamed sources, continue to be debated. Mr. Kierstead also wrote about history as it unfolded, such as how the Globe covered the case of Charles Stuart, who killed his wife, Carol, and lied about what happened before jumping to his death from the Tobin Bridge.

Mr. Kierstead wrote that “it does stretch credulity to believe that the diabolically clever Stuart . . . could so totally elude the probes of both law enforcement officials and the media for more than 10 weeks.”

“He was very ethical, professional, no-nonsense,” said Matthew Storin, the Globe’s former top editor.

Storin, who as metro editor brought Mr. Kierstead to the Globe in 1972, said that “Bob was a very principled, disciplined newsman who I think everyone was ready to welcome to the Globe.”

After starting his newspaper career as a reporter, Mr.
Kierstead found editing was a better fit. “I was a good reporter but a better editor,” he told a granddaughter in a 2010 e-mail.

At the Globe his jobs included assistant metropolitan editor, assistant managing editor for the Evening Globe, assistant managing editor for local news, and editorial personnel director.

He ranged nearly as widely in the jobs he sampled during the year and a half after graduating from Harvard University in 1949. “My dozen occupations ran the gamut from bartending to furniture moving,” he wrote for the sixth report of his class.

After Harvard, he wrote in the 25th class report, his principal concern “was finding a profession that wouldn’t lead to boredom.” Newspaper work didn’t bring “fame and riches, but most assuredly hasn’t been dull.”

He received a master’s in journalism from Boston University in 1953 and became a reporter at the Boston Traveler, where he covered City Hall, was the paper’s first picture editor, and an assistant city editor. When the Boston Herald and the Traveler merged, he was news features editor, city editor, and executive city editor.

“Bob was this calming influence,” Larkin recalled of their time at the Herald Traveler and Globe. “I think people thought he was sort of old school, which he was, but he was a very practiced editor. He’d read a piece of copy and say, ‘I don’t think this is going to work. You missed this. You should make a phone call about that.’ ”

When emotions ran high, “he was unflappable,” Larkin said. “He was a guy who cared about everyone in the newsroom.”

Robert Lane Kierstead was born and grew up in Rockland, the youngest of three children. His father, Ashton, who ran a leather business in Brockton and traveled widely to service shoemaking companies, died of a heart attack when Mr.
Kierstead was a teenager.

Mr. Kierstead’s mother, the former Ruth Smith, who took over running the family business, “had the most profound influence on my upbringing,” he wrote to his granddaughter.

A defining time was the several months in 1963 and ’64 when he traveled to 27 countries, among them Australia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Syria, Switzerland, Thailand, and Vietnam. “I highly recommend this type of movement for anyone trying to straighten out his life — seeking direction and perspective,” he wrote for his 25th Harvard class report.

Newspaper work and traveling paled in comparison to family life, however. He wrote to his granddaughter that marrying Margaret Hines in 1965 “was easily the highlight of my life,” followed closely by becoming a father.

“It was always family first,” said his son Tim of Needham. “That was always his priority. He was just always smiling around the grandkids, always in a good mood. He was one of these people who was always happy.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Kierstead leaves another son, Robert Jr. of Seattle; a sister, Jean Amaya of North Carolina; and seven grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday in Holy Name Church in West Roxbury. Burial will be in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Rockland.

Musing in 2009 about the decline in newspaper circulation during the Internet age, Mr. Kierstead wrote in his 60th Harvard class report that for him, reading a newspaper remained an experience that was as tactile as it was intellectual.

“As for me, I will always want a newspaper in my hands — not on a screen,” he wrote. “I want to feel it as well as read and digest it.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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