Social and Political Commentary

Dave Nyhan: He preferred the action

... Globe columnist remembered by longtime colleague

Jack Driscoll

The last lengthy amount of time I spent with Dave Nyhan before he died was at a meeting with the SilverStringers at the Milano Center in Melrose last year.

He was totally bored.

Donít get me wrong:  Nyhan loved the SilverStringers. But he hated meetings. Any meeting.

This one was particularly outside his sphere of interest. It had to do with software -- specifically, how a UMass-Boston/Harvard partnership could use the Melrose Mirror software for a special publication produced by students and others and aimed at the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Columnist Nyhan

Photo by Ted Gartland, Boston Globe
Reprinted with Permission, Copyright 2005,

Why was Nyhan there? First, he was Mr. Convention. No one knew more about how to cover a convention than Nyhan, take it from me. He was always willing to share his expertise. Second, Nyhan was a loyal supporter of his friends.
In this case the friend was Ellen Hume, who had been recruited by UMass-Boston to start a Media Center and was spearheading this project. She had been a top-notch reporter at the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times and later ran the Shorenstein Center at Harvardís Kennedy School where Nyhan was a fellow.
(Ultimately the Boston Globe decided to publish a daily special section using the Hume team).
I still remember Nyhan's body language as he sat at the conference table. At one point he stretched his long right arm across the table and silently drummed his fingers, head down.  
In nearly three decades of working with him at the Globe, I had seen this routine many times. Meetings were not his thing. Nyhan was a man of action.

He was the prototypical Macho Man on the one hand but a Gentle Giant on the other.

His finest hours, in my opinion, were his days as a reporter, although most of his thousands of fans remember him as a political columnist.
I will mostly remember him as the lead story writer at national political conventions. As the expression goes, he could really crank it out.

On a few occasions I sat next to him, concentrating on my own role as reporter or editor, but in awe of his ability to absorb the daylong welter of activities, write the bottom of his story (often called B copy) at around 7 p.m., then digest the night's events writing the top of the story on deadline as the news unfolded. He had to revise his story for the second, third and sometimes fourth editions to update developments each night.

It's one thing to be able to type fast. It's another to be able to synthesize whatís important and churn out clear, compelling stories.

Equally amazing to me was his sense of timing. Two or three times during the night's proceedings, Nyhan would stand up, stretch his 6 ft. 4 in. frame and disappear from the press gallery, usually located in a balcony region.  

He would grab a floor pass and hustle onto the floor, rapidly seeking out key leaders or delegates to interview. Other Globe reporters were feeding him quotes, but Nyhan relied on his own reporting and liked to capture the atmosphere as he experienced it.
His training as an Associated Press reporter prior to joining the Globe stood him in good stead when it came to covering conventions, but he was equally good at writing an analysis when that was his assignment. Some of his closest readers were other political reporters from around the country. He had that kind of respect.

In 30 years at the Globe, Nyhan handled a number of assignments from covering the State House, to being Labor Editor, to running the local news operation as City Editor, to covering a variety of major beats at the Washington Bureau before becoming a political columnist.

Quite a legacy that ended abruptly when he died at age 64 after shoveling at his Brookline home on January 23.

Frequent appearances on television, particularly CNN and Channel 2, enhanced his popularity among readers and viewers.
Still, there was another side of Dave Nyhan that the public knew little about.  To borrow an insight from longtime Melrosian Brian Mooney, Nyhan "had 100 best friends." Mooney, a talented Globe political writer, surely was one of them.

Many were political types, because politics coursed through Nyhanís veins, but there were so many others. He reached out to copy boys and girls, interns, newsroom telephone operators and the list goes on.

His friendship was hardly perfunctory. Heíd go the extra mile.

Ask Ly Y, a Cambodian refugee who survived the Khmer Rouge massacres along with his wife, lost a child during a forced march and made his way to the U.S., where he started as a maintenance worker at the Globe and later was promoted to the postal department. No one spent more time with Ly than Nyhan.

Outside the Globe he cultivated numerous "best friends", not because he was in need of companionship, but because he made friends so easily. Even politicians liked him, maybe because he treated them the same as everyone else. Senator Ted Kennedy spoke with fervor at Nyhan's funeral and revealed that Dave called him by several names. One was Theodore (Kennedyís real first name is Edward); the other was "Old Ironsides".

In the late 50's I actually covered a football game that Nyhan played in for Brookline High against Arlington. My memory could be wrong, but I believe he was an end on offense and a linebacker on defense.  I do recall that he was a dominant player.

Later he was a center for Harvard and recovered a key fumble in the end zone for a touchdown against Yale.

He continued to be active in athletics as an adult and even drew me into some after-work "intramural" basketball about 20-plus years ago at the UMass-Boston gym.

Nyhan's macho side endeared him to some but also got him in trouble with others on the staff because of his penchant for using sports phrases in his political columns. He got the message and put an end to the practice.

Mostly Nyhan was a man of action, speaking or being MC at retirement parties, putting together dinners that mixed journalists and politicians, organizing funerals (he's especially remembered for being in the forefront of the planning for a memorable service when former Editor Tom Winship died) and spending a lot of time in an array of cultural and recreational activities with his wife, Olivia, and family.

He wrung the most a person could out of life.

There's no doubt Dave Nyhan was easily bored, but he was never boring.

February 4, 2005

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