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Robert Publicover, 63; owned newspaper, pushed for AIDS help

Robert Publicover owned the Somerville News for 22 years.

1993 file/Barry chin/globe staff

Robert Publicover owned the Somerville News for 22 years.

Robert Publicover was born in Somerville Hospital, and the city was his lifelong home.

“He just loved Somerville, he always did,” said his sister Marilyn of Mesa, Ariz. “We grew up right off Davis Square, and he wouldn’t have wanted to live anywhere else.”

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An entrepreneur and activist, Mr. Publicover was the longtime former owner of The Somerville News and was well-known for his monthly column, Bluntly Speaking.

More than 30 years ago, he worked with politicians to bring the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s Red Line to Somerville and to reinvigorate Davis Square. He also used his column to celebrate his affection for Somerville.

“I lived in the same house . . . for most of the first 30 years of my life,” he wrote in his column in the 1990s. “When I moved away from home, I got all the way across the street and a couple of houses down.”

Mr. Publicover, who also advocated for helping people diagnosed with AIDS and raising awareness about the disease, died of an AIDS-related cancer Dec. 31 in his home. He was 63.

For decades he provided advice and comfort to those living with AIDS, and to their loved ones, even while enduring multiple surgeries and the ravages of the illness.

His husband, David Le Bahn, said many believe Mr. Publicover lived longer with AIDS than anyone in the country. Mr. Publicover was diagnosed in 1986, but a sample from a test taken 10 years earlier showed that he was HIV-positive in 1976.

When he was diagnosed, he told the Globe in 1993, doctors told him he had “a couple of years to live.”

“I’m a fluke,” he said. “But I don’t question it. I’m just going to keep on as long as I can and know each day how lucky I am.”

In 1992, Mr. Publicover revealed in his column that he was gay and living with AIDS. He did so, he told the Globe, because his partner of 11 years, John Carabineris, had recently died of complications from AIDS.

He said he wanted people to know that the disease can affect anyone.

“It’s not the fairy down the street,” he said. “It’s your cousin, brother, friend, or neighbor.”

After he came out, Mr. Publicover launched the Committee for a Response to AIDS and ran programs that provided meals to AIDS patients and raised awareness about the disease.

Gene Brune was mayor of Somerville when Mr. Publicover asked for his help with the committee.

“Those were awful times, there were so many people in Somerville with AIDS,” Brune said. “He encouraged people by saying, ‘Look, I have AIDS and I’m still living. There’s hope for all of us.’ ”

Born in 1949, Mr. Publicover graduated from Somerville High School and took classes at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. For a short time, he owned and operated a Somerville grocery store.

In 1976 he joined what was then called The Somerville Times as an editor, columnist, and advertising salesman.

He bought the paper in 1980, “gathering together all the money he could and even living in the office for a while,” his husband said.

In 2002, Donald Norton bought The Somerville News from Mr. Publicover, who continued writing for the paper occasionally.

“He loved Somerville and he loved local politics,” Norton said, adding that Mr. Publicover was a conservative who began leaning to the left in the 1990s.

“We both watched the city change,” Norton said. “He was probably the biggest force to change a lot of people’s minds about gay people and about AIDS.’’

Norton called Mr. Publicover “a very brave man.”

“A lot of people don’t know all he went through, and I can’t imagine how he endured all that he did,” he said.

After Carabineris died, Mr. Publicover self-published two books about living with AIDS and dealing with death.

Le Bahn, who at the time was a nursing student in Scranton, Penn., came across the books online and contacted Mr. Publicover. The two began dating and married at the Arlington Street Church in Somerville in June 2012.

“He was wonderful, he taught me so much,” Le Bahn said. “He helped turn me into a man, I don’t know any other way to put it.”

Mr. Publicover launched a scholarship fund at Somerville High School in 1990.

Mr. Publicover also ran for public office three times, but was not elected. “He liked politics, and he always wanted to be involved,” Brune said.

Le Bahn said Mr. Publicover loved traveling, theater, music, and dining out in and around Boston. Both men were active in King Solomon’s Lodge, a Masonic lodge in Somerville.

Mr. Publicover also served on former governor William Weld’s task force on AIDS.

One of Mr. Publicover’s greatest thrills, Le Bahn said, was attending Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday party in 1997, where he met such luminaries as Michael Jackson and Harry Connick Jr.

A service has been held for Mr. Publicover, who in addition to his husband and sister leaves a brother, Kenneth of Aurora, Colo.

“He was very nice, very charitable, very Somerville,” said Norton, who also praised his friend in a Somerville News column earlier this month.

“He has taught me and, hopefully, a lot of others that we have a lot to be thankful for in our lives and there is no obstacle that can’t be conquered if you put your mind to it,” Norton wrote. “When he was told he had only a few weeks to live back in September, we talked about him surviving to Christmas and, sure enough, his 99th life kicked in. Cats might have 9 lives, but Bob had 99.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at s@comcast.net.

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