A Friendship with Joe Heaney

Joe Heaney never hesitated to share advice on how to work a source, write a lede paragraph or usher a story through the hostile terrain of a green copy desk.

He also didn’t hesitate to be a close friend and father figure. He reminded me much of my maternal grandfather, my namesake, Albert Foley. My friendship with Joe often made me wonder what sort of relationship I would have had with my pa had he not died when I was five.

My remarkable friendship with Joe lasted 15 years, before his death Nov. 9.

Renting a small cottage on his horse farm in Mont Vernon, N.H., I felt like an artist-in-residence at an idyllic journalism school.

I learned how Joe cultivated sources in the swamps of Louisiana, exposed government malfeasance in Lebanon, N.H., despite being removed from city hall with his typewriter under his arm, and drove the backroads of Vermont to record the humorous and bizarre tales of the state’s woodchucks, as he liked to call those country folk.

Equally compelling were the backstories of his award-winning clips at the Boston Herald, including his unveiling of the romance between a stripper and the most powerful politician in Washington, the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills.

Joe’s lessons went beyond newspaper reporting. He informed me about the heroes of the Civil War, the temperaments of appaloosas and the many characters that color Boston and New Hampshire. Never short on clever phrases — including the line about bad ice cubes, and not good drinks, influencing a hangover — a conversation with Joe started early and ended late. You never once minded the time.

Joe Heaney on assignment at the battleground of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Md. Photo courtesy of Mark Garfinkel.
Joe Heaney on assignment at the battleground of Antietam in Sharpsburg, Md.
Photo courtesy of Mark Garfinkel.

Joe never bragged about his ability to turn a blank page into a Dickensian tableau. Everyone who admired him already recognized his skill in relaying — with the proper balance of objectivity and sympathy — the tales of mob victims’ families and wronged workers.

No, what Joe took pride in was that he met those people, and had the fortune to take stock of their stations in life. His eyes danced as he described with wit and detail the sunken shoulders and battered gait of someone like Stevie the Broom, the penniless bar-hand who kept tables clean.

In Stevie and many others, Joe saw all that God had made. By writing their stories, Joe made the most of what God gave him.

Published Nov. 11, 2011

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