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JoAnn Blumsack, 71, fixture in Brookline political scene

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / September 24, 2011

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JoAnn Blumsack, a mother of three boys, was propelled into Brookline politics by her antiwar activism in the 1960s. She lobbied for creation of rent control and once helped draft a bill that would make it illegal for employers to discriminate against physically unattractive job candidates.

“What they promptly made jokes about was this beautiful woman who was here fighting for the ugly people,’’ said her oldest son Joel, a performance artist based in New York City. “She felt strongly there should be equality.’’

Ms. Blumsack, of Portsmouth, R.I., was a former Beacon Hill legislative aide whose activism in Brookline in the early 1970s helped launch the political career of US Representative Barney Frank. She died Monday at Newport Hospital less than a year after she was first diagnosed with lung cancer.

A lifelong smoker, she was 71 and had spent the last 12 years working full time as a guide to the mansions of Newport.

“JoAnn was one of the most beloved, interesting people here at the Preservation Society,’’ said Trudy Coxe, chief executive of the Preservation Society of Newport. “She had a great sense of humor. She was never dull, and she always left you laughing.’’

A tall, striking woman whose thick hair went white when she was young, Ms. Blumsack possessed what her husband Hilliard “Huggy’’ Huggins Jr. liked to call “fairy dust.’’

Her second career was as a paid tour guide for the Preservation Society, which allowed her to tap into her natural love of acting, her husband said.

“She had the stage bug in her,’’ he said. “She never really gave the same tour twice. She had a basic script, but she would add and delete things, spice it up. That was her fairy dust; she had a lot of fairy dust.’’

She was born JoAnn Farrell in the small town of Montague in Western Massachusetts. Her parents, Francis and Marion, ran an insurance agency. She grew up in Greenfield and eventually came to Boston to study at Northeastern University, according to her family.

Her first marriage, to Larry Blumsack, ended in divorce after more than 30 years. They ran the gourmet deli Blumsack’s in Coolidge Corner in the 1980s and were known among friends for the New Year’s Day party they held for many years. The party became a seasonal focal point of Democratic town politics, and guests often included US Representative Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest who served in Congress from 1971 to 1981 and fought to impeach President Nixon over the bombing of Cambodia.

Ms. Blumsack was an aide to state Representative John Businger in the 1970s and helped him draft what was later dubbed the Ugly Lib bill and was an early forerunner of laws against age and race discrimination. The bill died in committee.

“It’s hard for men to relate to this problem,’’ Ms. Blumsack told the Globe then. “They’ve never had to look through the ads and realize that while they have the skill necessary for some job, they don’t have the physical attributes. It isn’t just a bill for the ‘uglies,’ as some have said. It’s for masseuses and bunnies who wake up at age 28 to find out they’re through.’’

Ms. Blumsack also worked in the public affairs office of Secretary of State Michael J. Connolly, where she wrote papers on global warming and coordinated activities for black history month.

“She was gentle, yet she knew her mind on political issues,’’ said Businger. “She was extremely involved. She was a person no one could dislike.’’

Herbert Goodwin, a retired Brookline judge, recalled her help on his run for Brookline School Committee.

“She was influential, and she had organization skills, no question about that,’’ Goodwin said. “But what stands out for me was her humanness. She was just a nice, nice human being.’’

She also served on the board of trustees of the Brookline Public Library and the town’s Advisory Committee and was chairwoman of the Brookline Council for the Arts.

In 1995, she volunteered to help a friend, Gary D. Jones, campaign for Norfolk County treasurer. In doing so, she met Huggy, who is Jones’s cousin and whose first wife had died after 24 years of marriage. She and Huggy fell in love while driving around in his pickup truck putting up campaign signs. They eventually married in Newport in 2005.

“She picked me; I wasn’t looking,’’ said Huggy, who had vowed never to marry again and later learned that his future wife had inquired whether he had any hair under the ball cap he always wore on the campaign trail. He did.

“I finally took my hat off,’’ he said. “I think that sealed the deal.’’

Jones, who credits Ms. Blumsack with setting him up on a blind date that led to his marriage to his wife Marsha 31 years ago, said JoAnn and Huggy “found joy and happiness in each other’’ after enduring personal turmoil and loneliness.

“JoAnn was a gift,’’ he said. “She was a person who really loved the world. She had a joy in being alive. She was one of those persons who was a pleasure to be around.’’

In addition to her husband and oldest son, Ms. Blumsack leaves her other sons Paul of Marietta, Ga., and Michael of Watertown; her sister Linda Farrell of Greenfield, Mass.; and five grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held today at 11 a.m. at All Saints Episcopal Church in Brookline. Burial will be private.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at