By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Bob Publicover was a genuine local hero. When the publisher emeritus of The Somerville News and a onetime city employee died last week at the age of 63, Somerville lost one of its best-known and best-loved public citizens.
Bob was uncompromising in his desire to promote a just community, and unmatched in his ability to bring people together for the greater good. In his time in Somerville, he touched many lives – including mine – through his selfless devotion to his hometown.
I first met Bob two decades ago during his charity work for the Committee for a Response to AIDS, an organization he founded in 1985. As an activist, Bob was always civil, courteous and, often, warmly amusing, because he knew that in the end, those tactics would be more effective than bluster and grandstanding.
But his calm demeanor never obscured his deep passion for the community he loved, and Bob focused throughout his life on making Somerville a better, stronger city. He worked alongside Mayor Brune to get the Red Line to Davis Square. He founded The Somerville News with $2,000 and the simple but powerful idea that immersive local coverage was a necessary precondition to informed policy discussion and decision-making. He helped generate over $1 million for the Somerville High School scholarship fund. And that’s just the beginning of what this admirable man did for our community.
If Bob saw something that he thought harmed his neighborhood, he’d go after it. If he saw something that needed to be done, he took it upon himself to raise awareness about it, or just get the job done himself if he could. Everyone who worked with him has a tale to share of his resourcefulness and his determination.
He was, above all, someone who believed that the heart of any successful community and the base of any progress rests on personal responsibility. It was his desire, no matter the obstacle, to see people engage the better angels of their nature in their efforts to effect positive change in their community. I think this was a sign of the great respect that he had for others. He refused to lose his faith in people, even when he wasn’t always treated kindly.
And that happened far more often than it should have: Throughout his life, and despite his many admirers, Bob still had to deal with the worst in people. That’s what he got for being a force for change. He knew he would face violence from bigots, but he came out as openly gay in 1988 anyway. Despite numerous death threats, he refused to lower his profile and he turned down police protection. He was not afraid of cowards and thugs, and if anything, his visibility skyrocketed. Those were the days where you could see him in the coffee shops, at the bars, and on the street, engaging other members of the community.
He saw activism as a duty, not a right. Maybe that’s why he won so many accolades for journalism and community engagement. He’d often say that a good story is one that doesn’t make the paper, usually having just solved another problem somebody had.
Bob saw a lot of change in his life. He was one of the world’s earliest AIDS victims – and, at the time of his death, its longest-running survivor – but in the 30 years that he lived with the disease, he never once let it break his spirit. In 1992, Bob beat out Barney Frank to be named the Face of Gay Pride in Massachusetts by Bay Windows newspaper. And in 2011, he was finally allowed to marry as he wished, and wed David Le Bahn.
Bob lived his life by the principle that one man really can make a difference, that the prize is worth the struggle, and that – to borrow a phrase from Governor Patrick – we all need to put down our cynicism if we want to move forward. Those principles now become his enduring legacy.
Thank you, Bob Publicover. You will be missed.