Barbara McDonough, Globe operator was often first source for news, advice
From her station at the newsroom’s message center, Barbara McDonough was the voice of The Boston Globe for nearly three decades to countless callers sharing news tips, seeking arbitration in bar-room arguments and family feuds, looking for help with a child’s homework, or settling a complaint about the newspaper. Sometimes she just offered a sympathetic ear to a lonely heart.
She would answer calls ready to listen and give straight-from-the shoulder advice. Some of the few she could not help were channeled to Globe librarian Lisa Tuite.
“Barbara would call [down], ‘I got one for you,’ Tuite recalled. “She always went that extra mile to get people the help they were looking for. It didn’t matter whether you subscribed to the paper or not. To her, every caller was important to the Globe.’’
A sharp-minded South Boston native with a nose for news and a master of one-liners, she often learned about a good breaking story before the editors did. And she would point that out to them.
But her love for the paper and its newsroom was unabashed.
“Barbara was the mother hen of the newsroom,’’ said Karin Goff, the Globe’s chief telephone operator. “She knew who was single, who was married, how many children they had and what their names were. She had a gruff exterior that couldn’t quite hide her great, big heart.’’
Mrs. McDonough, who worked for some of her 29 years at the message center alongside her late sister, Rose Devine, died Tuesday of pulmonary embolism at her Quincy home. She had just returned from a trip to Atlantic City with her daughter, Paula, of Middleborough, to celebrate her 73d birthday on Aug. 24. She had shown no sign of illness, her daughter said.
Inside the newsroom and from across the country, warm memories of Mrs. McDonough poured in from present and former Globe staff.
“From her perch at the head of the newsroom, surrounded by all those phones, Barbara had a better handle on our readers and the city than any reporter, any editor, any marketing company, any pollster,’’ said Globe columnist Brian McGrory. “She handled calls all day every day from the outside world - calls for help, calls of complaint, sometimes just calls from people who needed to hear another voice at the other end of the line. And, she would expertly funnel their ideas, thoughts, and hopes to the people in the room. More than a few times, I’d walk through the double doors and she’d yell out, ‘Hey, honey, have I got a story for you.’ ’’
Mrs. McDonough “knew so much about the workings of the Globe that the Taylors [the Globe’s former owners] would check in with her on a regular basis,’’ said reporter John Ellement.
And she was never afraid to speak her mind, said Ellen Roche, an information technology manager for the Globe.
“Many mornings she would sit at the message center having coffee with [former Globe owner] Bill Taylor and would tell Mr. Taylor what she thought of today’s paper or things happening at the Globe,’’ she said. “Every reporter that had a story in the paper that day would hear Barbara’s thoughts, good or bad, about their article.’’
Former Globe editor Matthew Storin said she filled many roles in the newsroom.
“She, like her sister Rose, was mother superior, master sergeant, confessor, nurse, spokesperson, and staff psychologist.’’
Though she loved the Globe, she “did not often agree with the liberal slant of its editorial pages,’’ said Steve Kurkjian, a retired Globe reporter and editor. “Barbara loved the Globe’s straight reporting no matter who was in political office and its advocacy for the underdog.’’
And there was always the personal touch.
“When I was working at the [Globe’s] Washington bureau, Barbara was often on the phone to tell me what the latest gossip was in the newsroom and almost as frequently to ask me when I had last spoken to my parents, and didn’t they deserve a call that day,’’ said Kurkjian.
Mrs. McDonough’s daughter said that her mother loved people’s stories.
“She talked to everyone and always had a story to tell,’’ she said. “It was never simple and straightforward. It was always a saga of novel proportion. She could carry on two conversations and read lips across a room. You had to be careful not to get caught saying something you didn’t want her to hear. She was the type of person who drew stories out of you.’’
John C. Burke, a retired Globe assistant managing editor, described Mrs. McDonough as “a most compassionate person who was the ‘mother superior’ to many young reporters when they first came to work at the paper, helping them not only in finding their way around the Globe, but around Boston.’’
Retired Globe photographers Tom Landers and George Rizer echoed many others who called Mrs. McDonough a surrogate mother to everyone in the newsroom.
“It was always good to hear Barbara on the other end of the phone,’’ said Charles Sennott, executive editor and cofounder of the GlobalPost in Boston, and the Globe’s Middle East correspondent for 10 years. “She’d fearlessly pull editors out of meetings or track them down to take the call, but before she’d transfer the call, she’d always ask if I had checked in with my wife and our boys.’’
Globe columnist Kevin Cullen said he learned a lot from her.
“She knew the city well and had an encyclopedic knowledge about South Boston. She knew who the wiseguys were but more importantly she knew who the good guys were. She had great sympathy for those down on their luck and absolutely no patience for phonies. I think because she spent so many years talking to people she had a finely tuned baloney meter.’’
Former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle said, “Even though her job was answering the phone and taking messages in an age before tweeting and texting, Barbara was as good a reporter as anyone who ever had a byline in the paper. She knew the streets of different neighborhoods, the names of her co-worker’s kids, and the birthdays of half the editors as well as the staff.’’
The Globe newsroom “hasn’t been the same since Barbara and Rose left,’’ said reporter Brian Mooney.
“You can’t talk about one without the other,’’ he said. “They knew what was happening in every nook and corner of the building and they had informed opinions about everyone and everything going on at the paper.’’
Jerry Ackerman, retired business reporter, summed up the sisters this way: “Barbara and Rose embodied everything that the workaday Globe was about for a full generation.’’
The daughter of Irish immigrant parents, Barbara (Keady) McDonough was born and raised in South Boston. After graduating from Gate of Heaven High School, she worked as operator for the New England Telephone Co. She was introduced to another South Boston native, a young computer programmer named Paul McDonough, by her sister Rose and they married in 1959. They had seven children in 10 years. Paul died in 2005, and Rose died in March 2010.
Mrs. McDonough started working for the Globe part time in 1970 and worked full time from 1972 to 2001. When she was interviewed for the job, her family said, she claimed to have only four children for fear she would not get it if she admitted she had seven.
Many recalled instances that demonstrated Mrs. McDonough’s generosity.
Her niece Karen Mussari of Bridgewater said that last fall while on the way to a job she was working at the Hynes Convention Center, Mrs. McDonough passed a homeless woman with no coat. The woman said she wanted a job but did not have the proper clothes for an interview.
“Barbie dropped off a bag full of new clothes, a coat, and purse,’’ she said. “A few weeks later, the woman got a job at a doughnut shop.’’
Another niece, Maureen Callahan of Bridgewater, said when her mother was being treated for lung cancer at Dana Farber, “Barbara was the first one on ‘Team Rosie’ and would spend hours with her.’’
Teresa Hanafin, an administrator for Boston.com, recalled when she placed an ad in the Globe seeking someone to care for her ill mother and how Mrs. McDonough lightened her spirit.
“Barbara and Rose grilled candidates, who called the Globe. After each call, Barbara would shout over her opinion of each one to me: ‘Not enough experience,’ ‘Lives too far away,’ and in one case, ‘Too dumb.’ Her commentary was hilarious.’’
Retired Globe managing editor Tom Mulvoy said the message center “under Barbara and Rose was the ‘go-to Central Station’ at the Globe.’’
“For reporters and editors, whose days were spent coming and going, their phone headquarters just inside the backdoor was always the last stop on the way out and the first stop on the way back in.’’
And Mrs. McDonough’s magnanimous spirit did not mind occasionally bending the rules to help someone.
Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy recalled a time in the 1990s when his daughter was hospitalized at Children’s Hospital.
“Barbara arranged a system where I could call her and she’d patch through calls to anywhere in the world,’’ he said. “Probably a rules violation, but Barbara always knew the right thing to do.’’
In addition to her daughter Paula, Mrs. McDonough leaves three other daughters, Brenda Hamacher of Sumter, S.C.; Kelly Lent and Joyce Carvell of Dover, N.H.; three sons, Stephen, John, and Daniel, all of Dover, N.H.; a sister, Agnes Rexroad of Somersworth, N.H., and six grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. today at Gate of Heaven Church in South Boston. Burial will be at Pine Hill Cemetery in Dover, N.H.