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    Loretta McLaughlin, groundbreaking reporter and former Globe editorial page editor, dies at 90

    Loretta McLaughlin.
    globe photo/file
    Loretta McLaughlin.

    It was the fourth murder “that galvanized my attention,” Loretta McLaughlin would later recall while writing about Boston’s stifling summer of 1962. She sensed the deaths were connected and wanted to write more than a single newspaper story.

    “An editor disputed the worth of a series on the four dead women, noting that they were ‘nobodies,’ ” she wrote in the Globe 30 years later. “That was it exactly, I felt. Why should anyone murder four obscure women. That was what made them so interesting . . . sisters in anonymity, like all of us.”

    Her instincts were correct and with a colleague she co-wrote the first major series on what would become known as the Boston Strangler murders.

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    Ms. McLaughlin, who was 90 when she died Friday in her Milton home, went on to become an award-winning medical reporter and the second woman to serve as editor of the editorial pages at the Globe.

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    During her earlier work at the Boston Record American, she became fascinated by the psychological aspects of Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to the strangler killings. That case, along with the US surgeon general’s report linking smoking to cancer, prompted her to focus her reporting on medical matters.

    A few years after joining the Globe in 1976 as a medical news specialist, Ms. McLaughlin began calling attention to the burgeoning AIDS crisis and continued to do so when she moved to the editorial pages.

    “Public health was her passion, and she was a key voice in the fight against AIDS, often blasting the federal government for its failure to respond forcefully to the crisis,” said Marjorie Pritchard, deputy managing editor for the Globe’s editorial page. “Her continued calls for research and funding made her a hero in the battle, and there’s no doubt that her relentless commitment helped to save many lives.”

    Upon joining the editorial pages as an editor and writer, Ms. McLaughlin unsparingly criticized elected officials such as US Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, for politicizing the lethal virus.

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    “Helms is invincibly ignorant about AIDS, a complicated matter that is not suited to moralistic pandering,” she wrote for the Globe in 1995, adding that “he can’t even tell the difference between his blind prejudice and a slow but world-encompassing plague.”

    Ms. McLaughlin “had this early warning system about things most people didn’t know about,” said Martin F. Nolan, who was the Globe’s editorial page editor when he hired her as deputy editorial page editor, at the beginning of 1985.

    She was named editorial page editor in July 1992 and served until the end of the following year, when she reached the Globe’s then-mandatory retirement age of 65.

    “Loretta was a giant in many ways,” Nolan said.

    They had crossed paths in earlier years, when both covered breaking news. He recalled that when reporters from Boston’s then several newspapers got to the scene of a fire or murder, they often found that Ms. McLaughlin had arrived first.

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    And throughout her career, Nolan added, “her instinct was for the underdog.”

    That was informed in part by her childhood in a working-class family and also by her experience breaking into newspapers in the 1950s, when nearly all reporters and editors were white men.

    “When I first went to a newspaper, a suburban entry point, looking for a job, the editor snarled, ‘See that gate (to the newsroom). No skirt has ever passed that gate, and none ever will,’ ” she wrote in a 1991 op-ed piece, when the news was dominated by Anita Hill’s testimony during confirmation hearings for US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

    “At my first job, I was customarily referred to as ‘the girl.’ It was a Hearst paper, and each shift had one woman reporter,” Ms. McLaughlin recalled. “Despite the moniker, solo status had its advantages. Unless a story held a special reason for having a woman report it, assignments were handed out in unbiased rotation. The ‘girl’ got to cover every facet of news.”

    The men in the newsroom, meanwhile, reminded readers in a sexist manner that they let women cover important stories. When Ms. McLaughlin and Jean Cole wrote about those 1962 murders, one story was “entitled ‘Two Girl Reporters Analyze Strangler,’ ” Susan Kelly noted in her book “The Boston Stranglers.” Ms. McLaughlin and Cole were in their 30s at the time.

    The second of four children, Loretta McDermott was born in Woburn in 1928 and as a youth moved with her family to South Boston, where she graduated from South Boston High School.

    Her parents were John McDermott, who worked at a variety jobs during the Great Depression, and then at the Quincy shipyard, and Anna Ring, who was at home, raising the children.

    Through an academic scholarship, Ms. McLaughlin attended Boston University, where she studied journalism and graduated in 1949.

    While at BU she met James J. McLaughlin, a fellow student. They married and had three children, and later divorced. She subsequently married James P. Becker, who had been a teacher and then was a longtime part of Boston City Hospital’s administrative staff. He died in 2002.

    Ms. McLaughlin was raising three children at the time she wrote about the 1962 murders, and after putting them to bed each evening, she wrote “late at night at her typewriter on the dining room table under an old-fashioned Tiffany chandelier,” Gerold Frank wrote in his book “Boston Strangler.”

    In the years ahead, she would give “counsel and advice to those of us working mothers who were balancing and juggling our jobs and our families,” said Otile McManus, who formerly served on the Globe’s editorial board with Ms. McLaughlin, whom she called “a force, a pioneer, and a role model to younger women at the Globe.”

    In the newsroom, Ms. McLaughlin’s judgments “were crisp and direct, as was her disdain for shallow journalism wherever she found it,” said Thomas Mulvoy, a former Globe managing editor.

    He added that she also was “a bit of a godmother” to ambitious younger colleagues, and “I often had a sense that they didn’t know how much she cared about them and how zealously she promoted their prospects.”

    Ms. McLaughlin found a deep fulfillment in the intellectual arena of newsrooms, reporting, and writing, said son Mark of Milton, a former supervisory editor on the Globe’s copy desk.

    “I couldn’t really picture her doing anything else,” he said. “She needed to be around ideas, and writing, and arguing in the best sense of the word — that ‘What do you think?’ Journalism provided her with a mental satisfaction and engagement that she couldn’t find elsewhere.”

    In addition to her son Mark, Ms. McLaughlin leaves a daughter, Ruth Doyle of Jamaica Plain; another son, Neil of Scituate; and four grandchildren.

    A funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in St. Agatha Church in Milton.

    In the mid-1970s, Ms. McLaughlin stepped away from journalism, working as a science writer at Harvard University and as executive director of public relations at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. Then she worked at the Herald American before moving to the Globe.

    She wrote the 1982 book “The Pill, John Rock, and the Church: The Biography of a Revolution,” about the physician who played a major role in developing the birth control pill. And in later years, she was a fellow at the Radcliffe Public Policy Institute and at the Harvard AIDS Institute.

    For some 40 years, though, newspapers were her home.

    “Journalism was a natural thing for her,” Mark said. “She just loved getting up and going to work every day.”

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