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Peter Looney, at 69; longtime civic activist in Charlestown

Peter Looney, the public face of numerous civic organizations, was eager to welcome outsiders to his neighborhood. Peter Looney, the public face of numerous civic organizations, was eager to welcome outsiders to his neighborhood. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/File 2010)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 15, 2011

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About two decades ago, Peter Looney joined with neighborhood activists to organize the first Charlestown Community Appreciation Awards banquet for a simple reason.

“A lot of people do a lot of things in the Town and never get any credit for it,’’ he told the Globe in 1994, before the fourth annual gathering.

While Mr. Looney didn’t want the achievements of others to go unnoticed, entire banquets could have been devoted solely to appreciating his contributions to a neighborhood often better known for its bad than its good.

He spent years as chairman of Charlestown Against Drugs and the Charlestown Neighborhood Council, and he either helped found, run, or became the preferred public face of a long list of other civic organizations.

Mr. Looney, who worked for many years in the sheet metal trade, died of lung cancer Thursday in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 69.

In June, a few weeks after a park on Union Street was renamed Peter Looney Park, he wrote a long thank-you letter to his family, his neighborhood, and many others that was published in the Charlestown Patch online at charlestown.patch.com.

“I am so proud to be from Charlestown,’’ he wrote, “ ‘the town I love so well.’ ’’

“If anybody ever called and said, ‘We’re putting a committee together’ for whatever it would be, he would say, ‘OK, what time, I’ll be there,’ ’’ said his daughter, Michelle O’Leary of Marshfield.

Mr. Looney’s sense of duty to Charlestown may have sprung from his childhood, when the neighborhood became his adoptive home.

Peter Patrick Looney was born in Medford, the youngest of seven children. His mother died when he was young and he went to live in Charlestown with an aunt and uncle, whom he considered surrogate parents.

He graduated from Charlestown High School and a few years later married his high school sweetheart, Mary Ellen Sullivan, who is known as Mae.

The rest of his life was all about family and Charlestown, as Mr. Looney got involved in organizations that showcased what made the neighborhood good and led groups that addressed the ills that gave the Town a bad name elsewhere in Boston.

Mr. Looney didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that crime sometimes seemed to steal the youth of Charlestown from what could have been promising lives.

“It’s just getting worse. We’re losing,’’ Mr. Looney told the Globe in 2004, after a 17-year-old hockey star overdosed on drugs and died. “What’s happening over here is the good kids are starting to experiment with some lethal drugs, and they’re getting younger. Every time it happens, it breaks my heart.’’

But he also knew that Charlestown’s image was often worse than reality. For years, the so-called code of silence prevented many who witnessed murders from coming forward. The steps community groups took to address such problems, however, often received much less attention in news reports than the crimes.

“The media has its own code of silence when it comes to Charlestown,’’ Mr. Looney told the Globe in 1995.

For about 27 years he was a sheet metal worker and belonged to Local 17 of the Sheet Metal Workers Union. He also spent about a decade inspecting job sites as a clerk of works for the city of Boston.

“The John Hancock, the Prudential - pretty much any building you see in Boston, he worked on it,’’ said his son, Peter Jr. of Marshfield. “He worked in the Charlestown Navy Yard and was all over the place. If we were driving through the city with the kids, he’d be pointing out buildings he worked on and it was pretty much half of Boston.’’

He seemed to be part of all of Charlestown’s organizations. He was a member of the Majestic Knights Drum & Bugle Corps, the Old Charlestown Schoolboys Association, and the neighborhood historical society. He was on the committee for the Bunker Hill Day Parade and helped host coverage on local access TV. He organized efforts to collect coats and hats for children at the Christmas holidays. The list went on and on.

In times of particular need, such as after a fire, those who were destitute knew his was the number to call.

“People would call and say they didn’t have food, and he’d have food delivered to their house,’’ his daughter said. “If they didn’t have clothes, he’d have clothes delivered to their house.’’

In a section of the city that was known as tightknit and insular, Mr. Looney made a point of welcoming outsiders.

“I don’t care who the new people are,’’ he told the Globe in 2002. “If they come into the town and want to be part of it, we luck out because we want it to be a better town.’’

“That was the great thing about him,’’ Mr. Looney’s son said. “He was friends with people who lived there for 50 years, and he was friends with people who had lived there for five months.’’

That’s not to say Mr. Looney always agreed with everyone.

“He was very opinionated at meetings,’’ his daughter said. “He’d have an argument across the table with someone, but they’d be going out for coffee the next morning at Dunkin’ Donuts. He wasn’t someone to hold a grudge. That’s how he always was. He always saw the good in people and never saw bad in anyone.’’

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. Looney leaves three brothers, Robert of New York City, William of Harwich, and Lawrence of Haverhill; and five grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. today in St. Mary’s Church in Charlestown. Burial will be in Holy Cross Cemetery in Malden.

Mr. Looney could see symbolism in issues ranging from how the growing number of restaurants in Charlestown mirrored the increased diversity of its residents to the importance of reopening a tiny police substation in the area.

The presence of a two-room police office, staffed by an officer and a cadet, “means we exist,’’ he told the Globe in 1995. “It brings back the feeling that we matter - that we are a part of Boston.’’

For him, though, the best part of Boston would always be Charlestown, and he never considered moving, even when his children relocated to Marshfield.

“He loved coming down for a couple of days and doing things,’’ his daughter said. “I’d say, ‘Couldn’t you get used to it down here?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I couldn’t get used to it,’ and then he’d say, ‘I have to get back to my own home. I have to get back to Charlestown.’ ’’

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