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Charles Claffey, at 79; Globe writer was versatile, eloquent

In 1963, Charles Claffey received a $500 check made out to Globe Santa from E. Ross Anderson of Analex Corp. and Anderson-Nichols Inc. In 1963, Charles Claffey received a $500 check made out to Globe Santa from E. Ross Anderson of Analex Corp. and Anderson-Nichols Inc. (File Photo by Edison Farrand/Globe Staff)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / October 4, 2011

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Deft of phrase, Charles Claffey composed sentences that could evoke changing times in one of Boston’s worst neighborhoods or celebrate the visual splendor of the man who ran the US Senate Watergate hearings.

Sam Ervin chaired the hearings “like a modern Solomon with a drawl - a Bible at his side, his dark bushy eyebrows rising and falling as if controlled by invisible wires, and his jowls jiggling in facial counterpoint as he pounded his Indian gavel to restore order,’’ Mr. Claffey recalled in a 1985 Globe story when Ervin died.

A year later, Mr. Claffey visited a part of Boston known for commerce far more illicit than the hat shop that was his destination.

“Tucked into a crevice on LaGrange Street in the Combat Zone, incongruous as a shrine in Sodom, is the shop of Hand the Hatter, the last place in the city that sells custom-made hats and cleans and blocks them, too,’’ he wrote.

Mr. Claffey, who wrote lead stories day after day during the Blizzard of 1978, covered the Watergate hearings, and penned insightful profiles of authors during his last years at the Globe, died of chronic heart failure Friday in the Courville at Nashua care center in New Hampshire. He was 79 and had lived in Weymouth, after residing for years in Hingham.

Many reporters find several homes in newsrooms if they stay long enough, but Mr. Claffey was the definition of versatility. He was an editor on the city desk and a reporter in the Washington bureau. He wrote editorials and was on the staff of the Focus and Living sections.

His range of collegial companionship was just as broad.

“I don’t think there was anybody in the building who disliked him,’’ said Mark Feeney, a Pulitzer Prize-winner in 2008 for arts criticism for the Globe. “Charlie bridged all the gaps. He was friendly with the Irish guys; he was friendly with the Harvard guys. He was friendly with the young people; he was friendly with the burnouts. He cut across the various newsroom classes.’’

Mr. Claffey also “knew everybody, and he knew everything,’’ Feeney added. “If you wanted to find out something that was going on, you didn’t go to the publisher, you didn’t go to the editor. You went to Charlie.’’

In return, editors went to him for whatever they needed. Early in his Globe career, a consecutive pair of bylines highlighted Mr. Claffey’s talent as a utility infielder on the city desk.

One day in 1959, he was sent to a Hilton hotel to cover a speech by Cuban leader Fidel Castro. “The 32-year-old revolutionist, his voice hoarse after a round of speeches in New York . . . spoke in understandable, but often halting, English,’’ Mr. Claffey wrote. “Only twice was he forced to call upon an interpreter’s services for an elusive word or phrase.’’

A few days later, Mr. Claffey was off to New Hampshire, where he wrote about a gambler from Hull whose body, “trussed and wrapped in a sleeping bag,’’ was discovered in the trunk of a bullet-riddled car abandoned in front of a poultry farm.

Mr. Claffey’s reportorial eye was as sharp inside the building as it was on the streets.

“The thing that I most remember is his wry sense of humor,’’ said Matthew V. Storin, former editor of the Globe. “In almost any situation, Charlie would sort of stand off to the side and make a humorous and usually accurate assessment of whatever was going on. He wasn’t a cynic. He had a wonderfully optimistic, but also realistic, view of life, and out came those comments.’’

Born in Malden, Charles E. Caffey Jr. grew up in Newton, graduating from Newton High School in 1949. After a year at Bentley College in Waltham, he went to Northeastern University.

The son of an accountant, he majored in accounting, a practical pursuit, but he also edited the university newspaper and was a student co-op at the Globe, serving as a copy boy.

He graduated from Northeastern in 1955 and began freelancing for the Globe while serving in the Army for two years.

“I met him when he was in his last year at Northeastern,’’ said his former wife, Patricia Croto Claffey of Hingham. “I was very impressed that he was the editor of a college newspaper. Journalism had that cachet, even in those days before Woodward and Bernstein.’’

A few months after Mr. Claffey was discharged from the Army in 1957, the Globe hired him as a reporter.

“He could do everything,’’ said Martin F. Nolan, former editorial page editor of the Globe. “He could write a poetic piece, and he could also go out and cover a fire or a murder.’’

Mr. Claffey also loved literature, which served him well in later years when he completed his tour of writing jobs around the paper by profiling authors across the spectrum, from Alice Hoffman and Joyce Carol Oates to E.L. Doctorow and Robert Fulghum.

“It’s hard to say that any one person could be the soul of a large institution, but to the extent that one person could be the soul of the Globe in the 1980s, it was Charlie Claffey,’’ Feeney said. “Charlie knew everybody in every department, and he was part of the whole paper.’’

In addition to his former wife, Mr. Claffey leaves a daughter, Diana of Quincy; two sons, Neil of Nashua and Daniel of Barrington, Ill.; and two grandchildren.

Family and friends will gather at 5 p.m. tomorrow in the Pyne Keohane Funeral Home in Hingham.

“He chose his words with precision always, until the end,’’ Neil said, “and ‘The Great Gatsby’ was a book he would pick up and read every year.’’

Those within earshot were wise not to disparage Mr. Claffey’s favorite book. Trim and athletic, he was a jogger years before it was popular for casual athletes, but he did not run from trouble.

“At a bar one night, a Hemingway fan was busily trashing F. Scott Fitzgerald,’’ Nolan recalled in an e-mail about an evening out in Washington, D.C. “Charlie had enough of it and said so, challenging the bloke, who was at least twice Charlie’s modest size. The ferocity displacing the twinkle in Charlie’s blue eyes persuaded this chap to make a hasty exit down Pennsylvania Avenue.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at