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‘A newspaper lets everyone have their say’: Eileen McNamara on how her dad taught her about the news business

“What do you know and how do you know it?” my dad would ask. It is as good a question as any I ever heard posed in journalism school.

From the Northeastern University Archives

It was my first job. In exchange for a weekly allowance of 50 cents, I fetched The Boston Evening Globe off the front porch of our three-family house in North Cambridge and placed it beside my father’s supper plate.

I learned early how to fold the broadsheet so that his eye would fall first on the lead story in the upper right-hand corner, above the fold. The phrase “above the fold” is, of course, as much a relic of the pre-digital age as the Globe’s afternoon edition, which ceased publication in 1979.

But precision in newspaper folding mattered in our house in 1962. My father had only two hours between his early shift at the post office and his night job at a package store. Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., he slept. Between 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., he consumed the Globe with my mother’s signature beef stew or baked haddock.

So sacred was his time spent digesting Robert L. Healy’s dispatches from the Kennedy White House and Martin F. Nolan’s reports from Beacon Hill that no one at the table was permitted to speak. We four kids took our assigned seats in silence in the dining room that doubled as my brother’s bedroom. An errant word or a mischievous under-the-table kick would bring the ultimate rebuke: the gentle tap of our father’s fork against the side of his plate.

That sound restored quiet, but it also reinforced for us the significant role a newspaper plays in a responsible life. Informing yourself about public policy was a civic duty, no less serious than the religious obligation to attend Mass on Sunday. When Dan McNamara waited on Archibald Cox and Henry Kissinger at the Harvard Square Post Office or the Harvard Wine, he was well acquainted with their place in American jurisprudence and geopolitics. He had read all about them in the Globe.

Returning home from his second job in time to catch Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, my father had a Record American tucked under one arm, a photograph of the latest victim of a gangland gunman or the Boston Strangler invariably splayed across the front page. I read those tabloid stories about Joe “the Animal” Barboza and Albert DeSalvo wide-eyed before school. My first published work appeared there in the form of a spirited defense of John Lennon after he had compared the popularity of the Beatles to that of Jesus Christ. My father urged me to write that letter to the editor, misguided though he thought I was. “A newspaper lets everyone have their say,” he told me, “even when they’re wrong.”

On Sunday, the only day my dad did not rise before dawn, his newspaper reading was a more relaxed affair, spread out between the 11 o’clock Mass at St. John’s and The Ed Sullivan Show.

Parade would be set aside for later perusal, but the Focus section, with its mix of local and national political analysis, was read first, in its entirely, and discussed at the supper table, where he welcomed our thoughts.

By the time we had newspaper habits of our own — ones that leaned more to The Real Paper and The Phoenix — we also had opinions. He was wary of those, especially about Vietnam, where my brother was serving on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. “I don’t care what you think,” my dad would say. “What do you know and how do you know it?”

It is as good a question as any I ever heard posed at Columbia Journalism School.

More than one armchair-psychiatrist pal has suggested that I became a reporter to get my father’s attention. Maybe. But maybe I became a reporter because my father’s example taught me that reporting the news is a public service to hard-working people, carving out time in harried lives to attend to the responsibilities of citizenship in our fragile democracy.


Eileen McNamara teaches journalism at Brandeis University. She is a former columnist at The Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.