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David Pickman, 89; journalist was EPA official, aide to GOP candidates in '60s

DAVID PICKMAN DAVID PICKMAN
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 12, 2010

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David Pickman’s writing life ranged from poetry to press releases, from news stories he churned out as a journalist to diaries he kept on a bus trip across North America.

Twenty years out of college, he was a reporter and editor for the United Press International wire service and the father of six when he took a few moments in 1962 to update his former Harvard classmates about how life was unfurling. Glancing at his six-sentence summation of what had transpired in five years since the last class report, he added: “It’s hard to be eloquent or amusing about oneself — best not to try.’’

And yet he was articulate about his life and frequently funny, whether describing his affection for baseball, his decision to leave the Republican Party, or the love for his wife that he expressed in sheaves of sentimental poems written during 61 years of marriage.

Mr. Pickman, whose occupations included several years as spokesman for the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Boston office, died last Sunday in Carleton-Willard Village continuing care center in Bedford, a town he called home nearly all his life. He was 89 and his health had failed due to dementia and a bout with pneumonia.

The Fourth of July, the day of his death, was Mr. Pickman’s favorite holiday, celebrated midway through the season of a sport he admired because “you can follow a baseball game while half asleep at home, socializing with other consumers of Fenway Franks at the ballpark, or partying in front of your TV,’’ he wrote in a 1994 letter to the editor of the Globe. “The players sit in dugouts half the time. Outfielders are about as busy as bartenders at a Southern Baptist convention. . . . Tension is the national affliction. And baseball, thank goodness, is our soothing national pastime.’’

Less soothing for Mr. Pickman was what, in his view, happened to the Republican Party for which he labored in campaigns during the 1960s, including those for John A. Volpe, who was elected Massachusetts governor, and Elliot L. Richardson, who became the state’s attorney general.

In October 1988, on the cusp of George H.W. Bush’s election as president, Mr. Pickman announced in a letter to the editor that he had switched his registration to Democrat.

“The Republicans have practiced international bullying, skulduggery and military and political sabotage, allied the United States with thugs,’’ he wrote, and “would drag us back to the shameful era of McCarthyism, with its slurs and innuendoes against the defenders of civil liberties.’’

The anger was uncharacteristic. Though he carved out solitary time to think deeply and write, Mr. Pickman was “totally charming,’’ said his son Timothy of Archer, Fla., who recalled that his father could stand up in any gathering and recite poetry. Mr. Pickman played piano and “was wonderful with the clarinet,’’ his son said. “Basically, he wanted to be Benny Goodman.’’

“He was someone who enjoyed the adventure of life, each and every day,’’ said Mr. Pickman’s son-in-law, Ted Monahan of Milton. “Socially he was very engaging; he truly liked meeting other people. He was a serene and knowledgeable man who left a marked impression on people who met him.’’

Born in Bedford, Mr. Pickman was the fourth of six children. His father taught history at Harvard and his mother was a patron of the arts who put on dinners for 40 people.

“Dad was brought up in a very elite kind of environment, with poets and painters and playwrights and historians,’’ his son said.

A bright student, Mr. Pickman graduated from Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island at 16, then spent a year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire rather than enter Harvard so young.

He studied English at Harvard and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1942, but injured a knee so badly as an undergraduate that he couldn’t serve in the military. Instead, he worked for a chemical company in New York City, where he met Elizabeth Van Ausdel at a Catholic church social gathering.

“I’m telling you I think lightning hit them both,’’ said their daughter Susan Sargent of Boston.

The electricity never dimmed for the Pickmans, who married in 1946 and whose relationship remained primary. Anyone who thought otherwise need only witness the kiss they shared every night when he returned from work.

Their daughter Stephanie Monahan of Milton remembered, as a child, “spying on them to see if this kiss each night was a put-on. It was not. They had a very romantic, beautiful connection.’’

“When he came home, he would put his arms around her and they had a kiss that, as my sister said, we had to look away from,’’ Sargent said. “As my brother said, I don’t think her feet were on the floor.’’

Mr. Pickman worked for UPI, then independently in public relations, then for the EPA. Having seen Bedford transform from a farming town to a suburban bedroom community, he delved into local politics, gaining expertise in planning matters.

He wrote poems — some serious, some funny — for birthdays and any occasion that provided an excuse to write. When one of his sons was working in British Columbia, he took a bus tour through the United States to New Orleans and up into Canada to visit.

“I think his whole life he was surrounded by academia and the high art world and Harvard and all that stuff, and he loved getting out and riding a Greyhound bus with the real people,’’ his son said.

“He looked like this Brahaminy Yankee, but he was really much broader than that,’’ Sargent said.

Still, his heritage provided entree into groups such as the Tavern Club in Boston, the private social club formed in the late 1800s. Club members turned to him for plays or lyrics to songs, for which he indulged his penchant for puns.

A funeral Mass was said Saturday for Mr. Pickman, who in addition to his two daughters, son, and son-in-law, leaves two other sons, David of Bethlehem N.H., and Edward of Meppel, Netherlands; another daughter, Elizabeth Flanagan of Wellesley; a brother, Anthony of Lincoln; a sister, Martha Baltzell of Haverford, Pa.; and 16 grandchildren.

Mr. Pickman said a rosary each night with his wife, who died in 2007.

After retiring from the EPA in 1986, he took up freelance writing, contributing articles to the Globe during the year he turned 70, before settling into a life that still sounded quite busy.

“Retirement is bliss,’’ he wrote in 1992. “I make a little music, read poetry, write haphazardly, fight nature, watch birds, raise a little money, play three-cushion billiards with an eminent historian, and, too infrequently, thank God.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com