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With graceful editorials and essays, Donald MacGillis illuminated the news and the wilderness

Mr. MacGillis in his Globe office in 2009.Dan Wasserman/Globe staff/file

Donald MacGillis wrote about the wilderness with such reverence that his prose edged toward poetry as he led readers across rugged terrain.

“A walk in an old-growth forest is really a clamber,” he said of a Vermont hike in one of his editorial notebooks — brief essays that he elevated into an art form during his years as an editor at the Globe.

Into the wilderness he often walked, and it was atop Mount Katahdin in Maine, a place he loved and liked to revisit, that an accidental 50-foot fall led to his death on Wednesday, at 74. A careful hiker, Mr. MacGillis left only footsteps — and crisp, graceful writing as bracing as mountain air.

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“Clambering,” he wrote of a 2002 hike, is necessary to traverse Vermont’s old-growth woods “because uprooted trees create pits and mounds when they keel over. The roots and soil dislodged from the earth leave holes and become humps, wordless headstones that remain centuries after the fallen tree itself has become an indistinguishable part of the forest floor.”

Topics always offered themselves. Painting his Pittsfield house inspired a melancholy reflection on the passage of time, and the Berkshires were both a source of solace and a constant invitation.

“Hiking in the Berkshires can mean days-long backpacking on the Appalachian Trail or it can mean an hour’s walk up and down one of the area’s smaller peaks — or anything in between,” he wrote in 1996.

Across the state, traveling the wilderness of Boston’s streets, he could be as observant as he was in the woods. “Spending half a night with the Pine Street Inn van making the rounds of homeless hangouts teaches you a new way to look at your city,” he wrote in 2003.

Rather than scouting out inviting restaurants or pristine parking spaces, “you learn to see Boston the way the homeless do, looking for safe and sheltered nooks for outdoor sleeping that aren’t too far a walk from neighborhoods where you can collect empty refundables.”

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“He wrote beautifully, and as the daughter of a Catholic school teacher, that’s something you come to admire,” said Jane Swift, a former acting Massachusetts governor who long respected Mr. MacGillis’s talent and intellect, even though politically they often didn’t agree.

His talent for conversation equaled his precision on the page.

“He had an extraordinary gift for friendship and always was a deeply, deeply admirable person,” said Daniel Benjamin, who worked for Mr. MacGillis writing editorials before going on to write speeches for then-president Bill Clinton.

“I don’t know anyone in my life who had less pretense than Don MacGillis. He was completely straightforward, honest, sincere, and right-minded,” added Benjamin, who also formerly was the US State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

Mr. MacGillis’s resume was as compact as his essays. He was briefly a reporter for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut before a stint in the Army. Afterward, he joined the Berkshire Eagle and rose to become the top editor and the editorial page editor before he and the newspaper parted ways in 1995 when it was sold to MediaNews Group.

Hired by the Globe, Mr. MacGillis wrote editorials, was on the editorial board, and was an editor on the national desk until retiring in 2012.

At every step he left a lasting impression, such as when he worked in the Eagle’s Great Barrington bureau and Helen Donovan was his editor in the Pittsfield offices.

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“I first knew MacGillis, as everyone called him, entirely over the phone. So when I finally met him, I was astounded that this wise, wry, understated person was only 25! (I was 24),” Donovan, a former Globe executive editor, wrote in an e-mail.

“He seemed adult, and timeless,” she added. “Happily, he also knew everything about German beer and American baseball, so he was exceptional company as well.”

Among those Mr. MacGillis hired at the Eagle was Tad Ames, who later was president of the Berkshire Natural Resources Council.

“The man had a steel-trap mind. He read everything,” Ames said. “Every day he read the entire Berkshire Eagle. He would retain it. He would remember it eight weeks later and connect dots. It was so impressive to see his mind work.”

Tack Burbank, a lawyer who was Mr. MacGillis’s closest friend, recalled that “we have joked for many years now that he has been rendered obsolete by the Internet. Donald was the Internet. He knew a lot about a lot.”

The fourth of six siblings, Donald MacGillis was born on the South Side of Chicago in 1946.

His mother, Dorothea Imrie, was a nurse. His father, Hugh MacGillis, was a regional manager for the Veterans Administration whose work took the family to Whitefish Bay, Wis., and then to West Hartford.

Only 11 when his father died, Mr. MacGillis became academically accomplished and was one of the first Presidential Scholars.

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He attended Yale University, fell in love with journalism, and edited the student paper. Drafted into the Army after graduating in 1968, he was stationed in Germany and learned the language.

One day he led an outreach event and Ingrid Scheitweiler, who lived in Germany, was in the audience. They married in 1974 and settled in Pittsfield, buying a house at the edge of the community.

Ingrid taught high school English and German for many years. The couple’s daughter, Lucy MacGillis, is an artist in the Umbria region of Italy. Their son, Alec MacGillis, is an award-winning writer for ProPublica who was drawn to journalism by his father’s example at the Eagle.

“He had this incredible civic-mindedness,” Alec said. “Everything was about the common good, the public good. That’s what he believed in, and the local newspaper was at the very heart of that.”

Mr. MacGillis was the first reader and last editing eyes on “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America,” his son’s book about regional inequality and Amazon, which will be published in March.

“He was an amazing editor,” Alec said. “Just Monday he was my last reader of my whole draft and found a bunch of things I had missed. With characteristic candor, he said, ‘It’s good. I liked it a lot better this time.’ ”

A memorial gathering will be announced for Mr. MacGillis, who in addition to his wife, son, and daughter leaves three sisters, Christine MacGillis, Ann MacGillis, and Jane Kimball, all of West Hartford; and three grandsons.

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Family — including his grandsons, John, Harry, and Vito — was a topic to which Mr. MacGillis often returned as a writer and in conversation. On the page or on the trail, family was a subject he warmed to even more fervently than politics or sports.

“As animated as he’d get about baseball or the election, nothing matched his pleasure when talking about his grandkids,” Mike Bailey, a Globe assistant night editor, recalled of their snowshoeing trips in the Berkshires. “Don sometimes carried a sheepish or mischievous smile, but when he talked about those kids, the smile could melt the snow.”

At the beginning of the year, Mr. MacGillis visited his brother Hugh, a retired social worker who was dying of Parkinson’s disease. A few weeks before his final hike, Mr. MacGillis delivered a eulogy in which he recalled a January conversation with Hugh:

I remember one morning when I asked him how he had slept. “The sleep of the dead,” he said. “Don’t say that,” I said, “Say ‘the sleep of the just,’ or ‘the sleep of the innocent.’ ”

“Innocent?” he said, “I wouldn’t go THAT far.”

That was the Hugh that Parkinson’s never extinguished.

Mr. MacGillis closed the eulogy with an epitaph of sorts that friends now might well use for him:

So, sleep now, Hugh. Not the sleep of the innocent, but the sleep of the good, the kind, the fighter against injustice.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.