A janitor’s son, Joe DeNucci grew up to be a ranked middleweight prizefighter and then the longest-serving state auditor in Massachusetts history, accumulating scars along the way in boxing and political arenas alike. “The ring is a tough business,” he once said. “Politics is a tough business in a different way.”
Mr. DeNucci, who was 78 when he died in his Newton home Friday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, won his first 16 professional fights, 11 by knockouts, and he fought in more Boston Garden bouts than any other boxer in history, with 23. In his auditor’s office, he kept a photo of a 1972 loss in a split decision to former world champion Emile Griffith, upon which he had scribbled: “I was robbed.”
His record was even more impressive on Election Day than it was in the boxing ring. Mr. DeNucci served as auditor for 24 years, after being elected five times as a state representative from Newton, his lifelong home. His only loss came in 1974, in his first campaign for the Legislature. “I won by seven votes when the machine tally was in,” he told the Globe a decade later. “I lost it by four votes when the absentee ballots were counted. It was like the Griffith fight all over again. Another split decision.”
Never in doubt, however, was the impact the Newton Democrat had on state politics and throughout the Commonwealth. In 1983, as House chairman of the Legislature’s joint Committee on Human Services and Elderly Affairs, he sponsored and shepherded landmark legislation that requires the state Department of Social Services to report serious child abuse cases to law enforcement officials. “We are beginning to finally admit to the fact that child abuse is a painful, serious problem,” Mr. DeNucci said in July 1983 when Governor Michael S. Dukakis signed the statute into law.
“Nothing against his boxing, but as a public servant, Joe DeNucci was one of the best I ever worked with — very knowledgeable, very committed,” Dukakis said on Friday. “He was one of my favorite people. He was a great legislative ally and — I can’t emphasize enough — a great committee chair. And he was a joy to work with.”
Mr. DeNucci also was years ahead of many others in state government in his public support of gay rights. Angered by the homophobic comments he heard in the Legislature, he sternly addressed lawmakers one day in 1983. “It was a bill to give homosexuals equal rights in housing, employment, and every other right there is. I thought it was a no-brainer,” he recalled in 2004. “I got up and started talking from my gut about being stereotyped all my life, as an Italian and an ex-fighter. I guess I made a pretty good speech.”
When he retired, state officials gathered in January 2011 to pay tribute to his work, and the example he set. “When he saw racism, bigotry, homophobia, ethnic stereotyping, he stood up and said, no, that’s wrong; we can do better than that,” Steve Grossman, who was then state treasurer, said that day. “And we did because he showed us what the right pathway was.”
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement that Mr. DeNucci “was a fighter early in his life and never stopped fighting for people. He was a caring public official who always did his best for the Commonwealth.”
On Friday, Suzanne M. Bump, who succeeded Mr. DeNucci as state auditor, extended condolences to his family on behalf of her entire staff.
“Joe DeNucci’s compassion for others and his dedication to public service were legendary, and he made significant contributions to the betterment of government and its public,” she said in a statement. “Having served in the House with him, I can personally attest to the many qualities that endeared him to his Newton constituents. Joe’s family deserves our thanks for sharing him with the Commonwealth for so many years.”
Though revered for his years of service, and for the changes he helped institute to protect many of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, Mr. DeNucci saw his reputation tarnished twice in the months after he left office in early 2011.
In May of that year, an independent review by the National State Auditors Association said that under his leadership, his office fell far short of its professional standards by improperly training and inadequately educating staff members who then failed to warn other state agencies about fraud risks. The findings addressed the final 18 months of Mr. DeNucci’s administration. The following year, the Globe reported that state auditors during his tenure had known by 2005 that former Chelsea Housing Authority chief Michael E. McLaughlin had concealed his true salary from state officials. The auditors did nothing about it.
In August 2011, Mr. DeNucci admitted violating state conflict-of-interest laws when he hired his 75-year-old cousin in 2008 to work in the auditor’s office, even though the cousin was a jazz musician who didn’t meet the job’s requirements. The state Ethics Commission fined Mr. DeNucci $2,000. “After a long career in public service, I’ve learned to take the bad with the good. I accept the small civil penalty and have entered into a disposition agreement with the Ethics Commission,” he said at the time in a statement.
The praise Mr. DeNucci drew when he retired spoke to the old-school political approach he had brought to 34 years in elective office. “We live in an environment that makes it very difficult, extremely difficult, if not impossible, for there to ever be another Joe DeNucci,” said Francis X. Bellotti, a longtime friend and former state attorney general who spoke at a State House tribute in January 2011.
Bellotti added: “This is not just the passing of an era. It’s the passing of one of the last of the good guys, one of the last of the giants.”
A son of Alexander DeNucci and the former Katherine Maiocca, Angelo Joseph DeNucci grew up in Newton. His father, who was known as Sandy, was a janitor and boxing instructor at the Newton YMCA.
As a boy he set up pins at a Newton bowling alley for 7 cents a string, and he was working another job, sweeping behind a Newton pharmacy counter, when in walked Ted Williams, with whom he shared a birthday, 21 years apart. He admired Williams, but was a Boston Braves fan. “I’d take a trolley in to Braves Field, pay 60 cents to get in, see a double-header with Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, all the greats,” he told the Globe in 2004.
Young Joey, as he often was known in the ring, also watched his father give lessons for $1.25 an hour to boys from affluent families, and resented their good fortune. “I knew then that I had to be somebody,” he told the Globe in 1972. “I didn’t want to be a janitor. It was then I made up my mind to be a fighter. I wanted recognition.”
In 1962, Mr. DeNucci married Barbara Cedrone. “He was a great husband and a great father, and his family meant everything to him,” said his wife, who added that she and their family were with Mr. DeNucci when he died. “And he loved serving the public.”
A memorial service will be announced for Mr. DeNucci, who in addition to his wife leaves three daughters, Deborah Asaley, Diane Busa, and Donna Busa, and two sons, Alex and Joe, all of Newton; a sister, Patricia Doherty of Wellesley; a brother, Anthony of Marlborough; and 14 grandchidlren.
Mr. DeNucci’s first State House job was as a page, after John F. Thompson, who would later become House speaker, saw him win a Golden Gloves bout in Lowell when Mr. DeNucci was 16. He turned professional a year later while still in high school, even though he hadn’t yet reached the age requirement of 18, which required tweaking the year on his birth certificate. “I got a senator to get a certificate that said instead of 1939, I was born in 1938,” he recalled. Later, he became a court officer before he was first elected to the House in 1976. Mr. DeNucci served as a state representative until he was elected auditor in 1986.
He always remembered what it was like to step into a fight with the odds against him, and first campaigned for auditor saying he would be the “watchdog for the underdog.” Mr. DeNucci also never forgot his good fortune. “God’s been good,” he told the Globe in December 2010.Bryan Marquard
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