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A giant passes

Big Dave was what I always called him. And big David Nyhan was -- in stature, influence, ego, and, most of all, in heart.

My friend and mentor, Nyhan passed away yesterday while shoveling snow from the blizzard. Both the fact of the death and its cause came as a shock. A former Harvard linebacker, Dave had always seemed, if not immortal, at least indestructible -- a strong, tough guy.

Nyhan was such a Globe mainstay for three decades that it barely seems necessary to point out that he was one of the best of newspapermen. A political reporter, editor, and columnist over his long career, he had an unerring eye for a good story, and a memorably direct and forceful way with the telling of them.

Though he wrote about other things, Dave's journalism was all about politics, mostly national politics. His Rolodex was enviable, but that wasn't what made him great. His gift for cultivating relationships, and his grasp of how the personal often influenced the political -- those were the qualities, for me, that made him so exceptional.

He loved a good campaign, and a good fight. He probably had more friends than anyone I've ever known. On the basketball court, he could be a competitive terror. That ferocity he combined with a most tender heart, and a deep compassion for underdogs of every stripe.

Nyhan did not dabble in false modesty, and he was proud of his iron will. Once, when an editor attempted to force changes he disagreed with in a story on a State of the Union speech, Nyhan simply demanded that his name be taken off the story, knowing that any editor would be reluctant to run such an important piece without a byline. He loved telling that story. In fact, he loved all stories in which he emerged victorious, and he had an impressive collection of them.

But even more than winning, Nyhan loved helping people. He was famous by the time I got to know him, but couldn't do enough to help me. When I was assigned to cover the State House, he offered to take me to lunch with the Senate president and the speaker of the House. When I became a columnist, he took me to dinner to give me a couple of hours of good advice. And last summer, Dave called me in the middle of the Democratic National Convention: He had some coveted floor passes, and thought I might want one.

His generosity went far beyond the little stuff. Dave was a dear friend of Dr. Thomas Durant, the Massachusetts General Hospital physician and international philanthropist. After Durant died a few years ago, Nyhan was a major force in helping to establish the Durant Fellowship, which now sends young doctors and nurses into the world's trouble spots to carry on the kind of work that Durant lived for. The fellowship has been a huge success, thanks in part to a great deal of work by Nyhan, for which he neither sought nor accepted credit.

As his longtime fans know, Nyhan wore his liberalism on his sleeve, and he carried his great erudition as lightly as anyone I've ever met. His close friend Martin F. Nolan has joked for years that ''Dave went to Harvard, but it didn't take." By which he meant that Nyhan absorbed its lessons, but not its absurd pretensions or self-importance.

Like many ideologues, Nyhan had a long and proud history of backing losers, which just provided more column fodder. He was an early passenger on the Lamar Alexander bandwagon in 1996, touting the former Tennessee governor as a great hope for the GOP. It didn't work out for Alexander, of course, and Nyhan took the outcome with characteristic good humor.

''As I tell my pal, Dr. Tom Durant," he wrote after Alexander quit the race, ''you bury your mistakes; I have to put mine in print."

There weren't many of those. It's startling to think of that big voice and booming laugh now silenced. None of us cheats death, of course. But I thought I'd be laughing with Dave Nyhan forever.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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