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Jerry D’Alfonso, the Globe’s first Living/Arts editor, dies at 90

Mr. D'Alfonso joined his wife, Joan, and family in 2014 at the annual Oldtime Baseball Game in Cambridge, a benefit for the ALS Therapy Development Institute and Pete Frates #3 Fund.Bill Brett for the Boston Globe

The first in his family to attend college, Jerry D’Alfonso had been interested in journalism while working on his high school newspaper and eagerly became a copy boy at a Boston newspaper as a student co-op during his years attending Northeastern University.

Working from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., “I learned a couple of tricks of the trade,” he told his grandson Michael Cronin for a 2011 school project. “They were very beneficial to my later work, and without them I wouldn’t have had a leg up on my competition.”

During a 35-year career at The Boston Globe, Mr. D’Alfonso rose to become the first editor of the Living/Arts section when the Living Pages and the Arts & Film departments merged in 1976.

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The section “was definitely path-breaking,” said former Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, who was among the Living/Arts reporters who explored the boundaries of the New Journalism movement. “He made that section must-reading in the city by encouraging a group of writers.”

Mr. D’Alfonso, who spent much of his last decade helping to support the efforts of his late grandson Pete Frates, a driving force behind the Ice Bucket Challenge that raised millions for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis research, died Sept. 20 in Brooksby Village in Peabody. He was 90 and previously had lived in Beverly for many years.

“Those were fun days back then, in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said Otile McManus, a former Globe feature writer and member of the editorial board who had worked for Mr. D’Alfonso on the Living/Arts section.

“He helped everybody do their best work and was a keen-eyed editor as well. He had good news judgment,” she said.

Mr. D’Alfonso was also “a man ahead of his time,” McManus added. “He supported his women writers in a way that some of the swaggering” male editors in the newsroom wouldn’t have in that era.

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“It was the beginning of the women’s movement,” she added, “and he supported stories about that.”

When Mr. D’Alfonso edited the Living/Arts section in the New Journalism era, “a lot of unusual work was being done there. He took pride in that, and at the same time was cautious,” Goodman said.

“He gave us a lot of room to be creative, and also kept us on the straight and narrow. He was the person who made you make that extra call,” she said. “He was a much more traditional guy than the rest of us were, but also really open-minded to the New Journalism.”

The son of Italian immigrants, Ulderico Gennaro D’Alfonso, who was known to all as Jerry, was born in Boston on July 11, 1932, and grew up in the Orient Heights section of East Boston.

His mother was Teresa Dario D’Alfonso and his father, Ulderico D’Alfonso, “was a magnificent tailor,” said Mr. D’Alfonso’s daughter Judith Cronin. “As the story goes, he made the tails of the conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.”

The youngest of five siblings who grew up with four older sisters, Mr. D’Alfonso was 5 when his father died. In his youth he “constantly worked to support his family,” said Judith, who lives in Beverly.

Attending school, meanwhile, meant Americanizing his Italian name.

“When his sister walked him to first grade, she said, ‘No one’s going to understand this name. You’re going to be called Gerald and that’s that,’ " Judith said.

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Less than a mile from the D’Alfonso family’s home lived Joan Picardi.

“I know she caught the eye of every young gentleman in East Boston,” their daughter Nancy Frates, who lives in Beverly, said in a eulogy at her father’s funeral Mass. “But true love was waiting for mom in dad.”

A couple since they were teenagers, “my dad madly loved our mother,” Nancy said in her eulogy.

By the time they married, he had graduated from Northeastern and had served in the Army in West Germany, where he installed telecommunications wires until he persuaded the battalion’s newspaper to take him on as a reporter and editor.

Returning home, he landed a job at the Boston Post, which folded soon after. He worked at newspapers in Gloucester, Salem, and Peabody, and some of that early experience overlapped with his initial Globe editing job on the night copy desk.

Eventually, Mr. D’Alfonso moved up and began working solely for the Globe, where along with being the first Living/Arts editor he served as the newspaper’s graphics coordinator before retiring in 1991.

In an era when the Globe had morning and afternoon editions, he would sit at the kitchen table with the morning newspaper spread out, using an orange grease pen to note mistakes, and calling in fixes to editors in the office before driving to Dorchester.

“Work was an amazing outlet for him because he was so creative in so many ways, but it never took the place of his family,” Judith said. “His capacity to love was boundless. It kept growing and growing because his family kept growing.”

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He was devoted to his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, “and boy did he love a good conversation,” Nancy said in her eulogy. “With authentic interest he would greet you, ‘Give me some news!’ "

Like the rest of the family, Mr. D’Alfonso was devastated by the ALS diagnosis of Nancy’s son Peter, but “he would rise to the occasion, stop his tears, put on a smile, and be by Pete’s side for every day of his journey,” she said.

Peter’s death in 2019 “was too much for him to bear,” Nancy said. “His enormous heart was wounded, for his fierce love was not enough to save Pete.”

Throughout his life as a parent, grandparent, and great-grandparent, Mr. Alfonso was an inspiration to his children, his son Chris, who lives in Beverly, said in his eulogy.

Mr. D’Alfonso “possessed other-worldly fatherly instincts,” Chris said, and those skills were all the more impressive because from the age of 5, Mr. D’Alfonso grew up without his own father.

“How did dad know what to do? How did he get so good at it? Well, he was just a natural,” Chris said.

A service has been held for Mr. D’Alfonso, who in addition to his wife, Joan, his children Nancy, Judith, and Chris, and his grandson Michael leaves a daughter, Dana of Boston; five other grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

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Mr. D’Alfonso “was very supportive, kind of a father figure,” McManus said of his years editing the Living/Arts section, where his writers became a workplace extended family.

“He loved us all,” Goodman said, “and he had a big heart.”


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