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Clif Garboden, editor, writer, mentor at Phoenix

Clif Garboden was a senior managing editor at the Phoenix. Clif Garboden was a senior managing editor at the Phoenix.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 30, 2011

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Emerging warily from a bespectacled and bullied childhood in Pittsburgh, Clif Garboden walked into the student newspaper office at Boston University in 1966 and found more than just the seeds of what grew into Boston’s alternative press.

“There I met the strangest and most wonderful cast of characters I’d encountered in all my 18 years,’’ he wrote in a 2006 article for the 40th anniversary of the Boston Phoenix. “Secular-humanist nerds on dope. Hyperventilating social activists. Blue-collar scholarship geniuses and eccentric millionaires’ children in mutually gratifying solidarity. Love at first sight.’’

Joining the cast and crew of the strange and wonderful, Mr. Garboden spent four decades in alternative journalism. Most of his career was at the Phoenix, punctuated by side stints that included writing for the Globe Sunday Magazine for several years. Elegant narrative reporting and the pithy perfection of his “Hot Dots’’ TV listings in the Phoenix sometimes took center stage, but Mr. Garboden had an even greater impact behind the scenes as an editor and mentor. Online tributes show that his influence reaches into nearly every nook of Boston journalism and far beyond its borders.

Mr. Garboden, who could do compassion and curmudgeon in a single sentence and write with equal eloquence about swan boats or the cancer that cut short his life, died Feb. 10 in Brigham and Women’s Hospital of pneumonia, a complication of treatment for cancer of the lower neck and head. He was 62 and lived in Framingham.

The journalism equivalent of a prized utility infielder, Mr. Garboden could report and write, shoot distinct photos and compose clever headlines, close a paper on deadline and sharpen a young reporter’s copy and sensibilities, sometimes by reading a draft and scrawling atop the first page: “Why do I care?’’

“He was so influential, and he never thought of himself that way,’’ said Ande Zellman, who shared a Phoenix office with Mr. Garboden before working as an editor at the Globe and becoming a media and branding consultant.

A past president of the national Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, Mr. Garboden held a long list of job titles at the Phoenix. In 2009, he was senior managing editor when the Phoenix laid him off as part of cost-cutting measures.

“He was ferociously honest, brilliantly funny, and a mentor to so many people that his going away party a couple of years back was a staggeringly multigenerational affair,’’ Charles P. Pierce, a Sunday Magazine writer at the Globe and former Phoenix colleague, wrote as part of a lengthy collection of online tributes at www.thephoenix.com. “He was old and young, all at once. People will spend years trying to figure out how he managed that. The answer is somewhere in the mystery of his towering humanity.’’

Vicki Hengen, a copy editor for the Globe’s zoned suburban editions who considered Mr. Garboden a mentor at the Phoenix, called him “cranky, but charismatic at the same time — goofy, yet cool.’’

That presence sprang from a childhood on the fringe. His father worked for the railroad; his mother was a school secretary. The grandson of immigrants, Mr. Garboden was of Dutch, Croatian, Irish, and Welsh descent. He also was skinny, wore glasses, and had a boyish face long into adulthood.

“I grew up the old-fashioned way. Insecure,’’ he wrote in 1993, in a final essay for the Globe Sunday Magazine. “Couldn’t do anything right. When I stepped to the plate, the infield yelled, ‘Easy out!’ Brutalized and bullied by sixth-grade maggots, I was cautioned by my first-grade teacher, “Don’t cry. Don’t be a sissy.’ ’’

Then his school system “segregated high achievers from the rabble through a merciless program of tracking. A gift — to some of us,’’ he wrote in his blog, “This Annoying World,’’ several days before he died.

“Of course the tracking system in reality broke us down by class, economic, and ethnic lines as well. But it was, for better or worse, a meritocracy of sorts, and a few of us from the wrong side of town snuck across the tracks and under the social barbed wire.’’

Traveling east during the Vietnam War era “to the draft-shelter of higher education,’’ Mr. Garboden went to Boston University. Along with polishing his newspaper skills, he majored in English and graduated in 1970, a few months after marrying Susannah Price, whom he met in college.

Aside from six years, beginning in 1986, when he wrote for the Globe and freelanced, Mr. Garboden was a fixture at the Phoenix. “Ask Clif,’’ people said when a problem couldn’t be solved. He also took quiet glee in plucking items from the flotsam that flows through a newspaper office and turning them into quirky thoughtful gifts.

On one occasion, he took possession of “a crate of little red plastic boots that were supposed to be for the Wonder Woman doll, which was about the size of a Barbie,’’ Hengen recalled. “Clif acquired them and used to give them out to his friends and employees, sort of like gold stars. I had some glued to my computer for years.’’

“He really did love it all,’’ said Mr. Garboden’s daughter, Molly, of London. “He never wanted to sit in an ivory tower and tell other journalists what to do. Even when he was high up at the Phoenix, he was still down there among everyone.’’

Though beloved for his guidance, and for mix tapes he made for friends, Mr. Garboden was a writer of extraordinary range. Before the age of abbreviated electronic exchanges, his “Hot Dots’’ TV notes spoke volumes in a few words. For the PBS “Frontline’’ documentary “Hunting bin Laden,’’ Mr. Garboden wrote: “A good terrorist is hard to find.’’

His essay about the reelection of President George W. Bush was a lesson on how to be profanely acerbic. Blogging about cancer, which he survived a few years ago before its encore appearance, he could be just as frank.

“There’s always e-mail and Facebook, which are nice ways for you all to offer encouragement and support without having to watch me aspirate my soup,’’ he wrote. “And, just like last time, all I ask is that people not shun me. Fortunately, you can’t catch this sort of thing (cancer comes straight from the Devil to the individual victim), and I’m not especially touchy about tasteless jokes and gallows humor.’’

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Garboden leaves a son, Philip of Baltimore.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on April 9 in Framingham Friends Meeting in Framingham.

“Every proper obit should begin with something long-winded and amusing,’’ Mr. Garboden wrote in an August 2009 obituary in the Phoenix for a friend and former colleague.

He offered no suggestions on how to end obits, but in his paean to Boston’s alternative press, he wrote that he tells “the youth of today who venture into our offices, we’re the good guys. We never got rich, but we are going to heaven.’’

Jacqueline Houton, the managing editor of Stuff magazine, who worked for Mr. Garboden as an intern out of college, wrote in the online tributes: “I hope there is a heaven. I hope because of people like Clif, who so eminently deserve one.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.