Joe DeNucci, Contender for the People by Marjorie Arons-Barron

AP Photo

Joe DeNucci won most of his fights in the ring and in politics. In a long series of majority decisions, he won his fight for the hearts of the people. But on Friday, at the age of 78, the state’s longest-serving auditor and before that five-term State Representative, lost his fight with Alzheimer’s disease.  He made his mark on many lives.

A two-time world middleweight contender, the Newton native won all but a dozen of his 84 professional fights but had to surmount the problems that come with success at too young an age. Heady victories meant lots of money, and nightmare addictions to gambling and weight control medication. With the help of his high school sweetheart, wife Barbara, he showed true grit and rebuilt his life. And what a life it was!

The late House Speaker John “Iron Duke” Thompson, a boxing fan, gave DeNucci a job as a page in the State House, where he could work between fights.  He took on an additional job doing maintenance to pay off his gambling debts.

He hadn’t wanted to be a janitor like his father, and boxing gave him his sense of self. But he wanted to go further. He learned how government works from inside the Speaker’s office. From there, he ran for State Representative, a post he lost the first time by four votes. He fought back two years later and won, starting a decade-long tenure as State Rep.  There, he fought the bureaucracy for his constituents, helping them get unemployment checks, beds in nursing homes and Medicaid assistance. His own personal experience made him particularly sensitive to others struggling with financial problems and addiction.

When, in 1983, he became chairman of the Human Services Committee, he broadened his fight for those who had no voice or power.  He fought for money for detox facilities, public school alcohol abuse education, property tax abatement for poor elderly, landmark protection for abused children, welfare and other public assistance. He passed a bill to increase the amount disabled retirees could earn over and above their small pensions.

When he was starting out, some Newton liberals were dismissive of DeNucci because of his deeply held conservative views on family issues. But they quickly learned that not being reflexively ideological could be a good thing. (And, in some ways, he was more progressive than they.)

As former Congressman Barney Frank told me about DeNucci many years ago, Joe’s “honest. I disagree with him on some issues, but I feel he’s motivated by basic decency. He likes people, and his instincts are good.”

DeNucci was one of the first in state government to support gay rights because he himself had suffered from stereotyping, as a prizefighter, as an Italian.  Over his desk in the House hung a sketch of a prizefighter, his arms taut, his gloved fists poised for combat. The face, a photograph of Joe superimposed on the drawing, would become familiar across the Massachusetts. The caption read, “Rep. A. Joseph DeNucci, the Contender for the People.”

While DeNucci never achieved his early ambition of becoming Speaker, he did run successfully for statewide office, serving as Auditor for 24 years, a state record.

DeNucci was an old style pol, in the traditional personal way.  If someone was in trouble, he’d help out. If a guy was desperate for a job, DeNucci would do his best to get him one. He did not apologize for it.  As he told WBUR reporter David Boeri in a 2011 interview, “Now today, it’s probably a crime to do what I did. But I didn’t think it was a crime, and it wasn’t then. And it shouldn’t be now. To help people who need help — that’s the best part of my business.”

I believe Joe instinctively acted out of the goodness of his heart. As DeNucci told me in 1978, “a man is the total of his experiences.” Public service, to him, was about much more than litmus tests and absolutes.

I had my own experience with his human touch. When my younger son was in elementary school, he was small for his age and was getting bullied.  As a Newton Times reporter, after interviewing DeNucci in his State House office, I mentioned how awful I felt that my small child was subject to such intimidation. What, I wondered, could I do as a parent to help support him.  Joe listened sympathetically, and the next thing I knew, he sent to my home one of his professional leather punching bags, which we affixed to a beam in our basement to build the boy’s confidence. This morning, that same little boy, now tall, a successful architect and outstanding parent himself,  sent me a wistful text message noting Joe’s passing.

Newtonians and others across Massachusetts will agree: Joe DeNucci had the touch. He will be missed.