Assigned to cover the hiring of John R. Silber as Boston University’s president in 1970, and the ensuing controversies that unfolded under his leadership, Nina McCain brought more to the task than her considerable skills as a writer and an education reporter.
Because she had been Silber’s student at the University of Texas in the late 1950s, and had been his teaching assistant in a philosophy of education course, her reporting was informed as much by personal experience as it was by professional acumen.
“A brilliant teacher in the Socratic manner, Silber led young Texans weaned on Southern Baptist fundamentalism into a strange, often threatening world populated by men like Immanuel Kant,” she wrote in a profile published in December 1970, the day after Silber was chosen to be BU’s new president.
“Most students had only a vague notion of what charisma was, but they were sure Silber had it,” she continued. “Silber not only talked about moral imperatives in the classroom, he acted on them.”
Ms. McCain, whose education reporting contributed to the Globe being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1975 for coverage of school desegregation, died of Alzheimer’s disease Nov. 19 in The Falls, a senior care home in Newton. She was 76 and lived for many years in Wellesley and Center Sandwich, N.H.
Writing for the Globe from 1968 until 2000, she focused on education and also covered civil rights and justice topics.
Silber emerged as a nuanced, three-dimensional figure in her reporting, much more so than he did in the hands of those content to portray only the polarizing aspects of BU’s president. The same was true with any assignment Ms. McCain took on.
In 1977, while writing about John J. Blodgett, a 26-year-old convicted of brutally slaying one man and viciously assaulting another, Ms. McCain was not content to suffice with the description of a prosecutor, who asked a judge to “protect the people of the Commonwealth from the mad dog he is.”
“Sitting across the table in a small interview room in Walpole State Prison, John J. Blodgett does not look like a mad dog. But then, it is hard to know what a mad dog is supposed to look like,” she wrote in October 1977.
“He is 6 feet, trim and muscular, with dark blond hair and a small blond mustache. He is wearing a blue T-shirt and snug, new-looking blue jeans. One eye is slightly cocked so that it is hard to look directly at him. He smokes Winstons, after first asking permission, and says ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, ma’am.’ He is articulate and forceful with a vocabulary that far outstrips his seventh-grade education.”
A mentor and inspiration in the Globe’s newsroom, Ms. McCain “didn’t just write about feminism; she lived it,” Eileen McNamara, a former Globe columnist who was awarded a Pulitzer for commentary in 1997, said in a written tribute prepared by Ms. McCain’s friends.
“Whether she was helping women advance in their careers or scrubbing pots at the Women’s Lunch Place downtown to help homeless women, Nina McCain practiced what she preached,” said McNamara, who now teaches at Brandeis University.
An only child, Nina June McCain was born in St. Louis on June 9, 1937. Her first name rhymed with the date of her birth, a detail she had to remind all who incorrectly presumed the more common pronunciation.
She graduated from Longview High School in an East Texas city that was closer geographically to the Louisiana border than it was to Dallas. The salutatorian of her class, she grew up target shooting with her father. She also developed a lifelong love of riding and caring for horses and she volunteered at North Andover-based Windrush Farm, which provides therapeutic equine activities for the disabled.
Returning to the University of Texas in 1979 for a reunion 20 years after she graduated evoked memories of the often rigid expectations young women faced in her student days.
“Not to have worn white socks and black loafers would have been a statement of such breathtaking heresy that few of us even contemplated it. Certainly I did not,” Ms. McCain wrote in the Globe in June 1979.
“So thousands of us marched through our college years at the University of Texas in Austin during the 1950s in black loafers and white socks and yard upon rustling yard of crinoline and nylon net that kept our full skirts billowing,” she wrote. “A limp skirt would have been as unthinkable as green loafers and red socks.”
Dubbed “the silent generation,” she and her classmates “read Kant and Kierkegaard and stewed, rather self-consciously, in our own intellectual juices,” wrote Ms. McCain, who was a member of Mortar Board, an honor society for university seniors chosen for their “good grades and good works.”
Before she was hired by the Globe, Ms. McCain worked at newspapers in New York City and studied at Stanford University in California as part of a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship.
“While Nina covered the big-headline stories on education politics and controversies, you could also count on her for thoughtful reports on what was happening inside classrooms,” Richard Knox, a former Globe colleague now at NPR, said in the tribute prepared by Ms. McCain’s friends.
Friends will gather to celebrate Ms. McCain’s life and career at 11 a.m. Dec. 11 in the Wellesley Friends Meeting House.
At the 1979 college reunion, Ms. McCain compared accomplishments with women who, like her, “had not only survived 20 years that shook the country to its foundations but managed to grow and change our own lives in ways that our backgrounds had hardly prepared us for.”
“As dusk fell outside the open French doors, the chimes from the tower clock that had measured out our lives on that campus announced that our time together was over,’’ she added. “We pledged to meet again. Perhaps we will. Perhaps not.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.