The Day veteran John Foley remembered as consummate newsman, character

A hard newsman and gifted writer, he was fun-loving, quirky and private. He threw an office Christmas tree off a fourth-floor roof and fashioned a paper airplane out of a reporter’s raw copy. He juggled breaking news with aplomb and, after retiring, kept working part time, writing well-read obituaries that sang.

John J. Foley
John J. Foley

John J. Foley, character, died Saturday at his home in Waterford. He was 86.

His passing prompted an outpouring of memories Tuesday from those who worked with him during his decadeslong career at The Day, where he advanced from reporter to city editor to managing editor.

“He was a great city editor, best I ever saw,” said Stan DeCoster, a Day retiree who recalled Foley’s ability to direct traffic. “There could be two or three pieces of news breaking at one time and he’d say, ‘You do this, and you do that and you stay here.’ He knew how to function under stress and make the right decisions.”

In DeCoster’s view, Foley was less well suited to the demands of managing editor, a job that involved more meetings and greater distance from reporters.

“On deadline, he’d always come up behind you,” DeCoster said. “‘Hmmm, tap, tap ... tap, tap,’ he’d say.”

DeCoster recalled the Christmas tree incident and the time Foley turned a military reporter’s story about a General Dynamics contract into a paper airplane.

“In the old days, they would have said he was eccentric,” Dave Carlson, another Day retiree, said of Foley, who arrived at The Day in 1956, shortly before Carlson.

“One thing about him, he had a gift for writing,” Carlson said. “Not a wasted word. He brought that to his editing, too.”

Carlson remembered an instance in which a reporter approached Foley’s desk near deadline with three or four pages of typed copy glued end to end. Foley reached into a drawer, pulled out a pair of scissors and cut the offering in half.

“‘Dickens you’re not,’ he told him,” Carlson said. “It was funny as hell.”

Lance Johnson, a former executive editor of The Day, said Foley was “a real hard newsman” who “liked to play things straight.”

“He was a very private person,” Johnson said. “I never thought I knew him as a person. ... I know he loved to have a good time. ... You have to respect somebody who can head a newsroom and then, when he retires, writes obituaries. That says a lot about him.”

Both DeCoster and Johnson credited Foley for hiring women and placing them in top reporting and editing positions at a time when that was not the industry norm.

“He really opened up the newsroom,” Johnson said. “The people he hired were top people who could have worked anywhere.”

Ann Baldelli, one of the first women Foley hired, was sent home her first day.

“It was the Blizzard of ’78, and he told me to leave,” she said. “There was way too much going on and he didn’t have time to train me or find me a desk. I understood perfectly.”

She described Foley as “quirky,” his mannerisms and inflections inviting countless impersonations.

“We all appreciated him,” Baldelli said. “He wasn’t really approachable, but you could talk to him about newsroom stuff. I think today bosses have to be more warm and fuzzy. ... He had no qualms about calling you in the middle of the night to cover a fire.”

Thomas Farragher, a columnist for The Boston Globe, wrote in an email that he was grateful to Foley for hiring him at The Day in 1980, when he was a rookie reporter “who really didn’t know what I was doing.”

“He gave me the chance to find my way,” Farragher wrote. “He encouraged me, and he promoted me in a newsroom full of talented reporters. ... (B)ecause of him, I was lucky enough to be part of a great local newspaper that always punched above its weight. I am in his debt and my prayers are with his family this week.”

Foley is survived by his wife, the former Judith Hildebrand, three children and three grandchildren.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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