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March 11. 2013 8:57PM

Retired Union Leader editorial writer Jim Finnegan dies: 'He loved a good fight'


JIM FINNEGAN (UNION LEADER FILE)

Jim Finnegan, the editorial writer who marshalled facts and a firebrand wit to formulate the outspoken, conservative voice of the Manchester Union Leader for nearly four decades, died Saturday at the age of 82.
Then-publisher William Loeb hired Finnegan to write editorials for the state's largest newspaper in the mid-1950s, the heyday of the modern newspaper, before broadcast television and the Internet cut into the industry's hegemony.

He was the more measured, behind-the-scenes writer to Loeb, who would frequent the front pages with signed editorials that could be biting and personal.

"He was the punch behind the Union Leader," said Concord lawyer Chuck Douglas, a former congressman and Supreme Court justice who was a close Finnegan friend.

"He was, I'd say, probably more threatening than Mr. Loeb to those on the left," Douglas said. Finnegan would devise a sarcastic nickname for targets of his criticism, but he avoided the personal attacks of Loeb, Douglas said.

"When he put something in an editorial, whether you agreed or disagreed, it was based on facts. Rarely were they misinformed. It's a standard few editorial writers are able to match," said Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

James J. Finnegan died late Saturday night at the Ridgewood Rehabilitation Center in Bedford, where he had been living since shortly after Christmas, said his wife, Rita.

He had been in the nursing home for about a year but was discharged in November and came to his Merrimack home for Thanksgiving and Christmas. But he returned when his health took a turn for the worse, she said.

He suffered from cancer and was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Finnegan started his career when a common phrase valued a cup of coffee and an opinion at 25 cents. But for four decades, he made a respectable middle-class living voicing his opinions.

He started work as a radio station commentator in Harrisburg, Pa., then took a job with the Union Leader after a visit with Loeb and a weekend interview at the Massachusetts Loeb home in Prides Crossing, Rita said.

He started with the Union Leader on Jan. 2, 1957, and retired on Aug. 1, 1995, the day he turned 65.

"If William and Nackey Loeb were the heart of this place in their day, then Jim Finnegan was its soul," said Joseph W. McQuaid, president and publisher of the Union Leader Corp. "He loved a good fight and was an excellent fighter. He also loved a good laugh and a good book. His integrity was unassailable. His joy for life and his family was enviable. New Hampshire has lost a special man."

Finnegan forged lasting friendships with many, including Douglas, former five-term state Sen. Bobby Stephen and Patrick Buchanan. Finnegan was the honorary campaign chairman for Buchanan's 1996 Republican campaign for the presidential nomination. Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary, but the eventual nomination went to Bob Dole, who lost to Bill Clinton's re-election.

"Jim Finnegan was both a gifted writer and loyal friend whose leadership was indispensable to any success the Buchanan Brigades achieved in the Granite State. He was both counselor and courageous voice for our cause, and his death is an irreplaceable loss to his family and friends, to New Hampshire, and to this ex-editorial writer, like Jim, who will cherish his memory all of my days," Buchanan said in a statement.

Behind his solid research, Finnegan delivered wit. He devised nicknames for subjects of his editorials. Warren Rudman was Warren Wonderful, given his ego; Arnie Arnesen was Six Percent Arnie, given her advocacy for an income tax; Lou D'Allesandro, who portrayed himself as a working-class Democrat, was Liberal Lou.

He was not hyperpartisan. For example, he had a lasting friendship with Stephen, a conservative Manchester Democrat.

Stephen was 17 or 18 years old when he first met Finnegan. Stephen was a Golden Gloves boxer, and Finnegan encouraged Stephen throughout his 71-fight career. When Stephen lost a split decision in Lowell, Mass., in the early 1960s, Finnegan was so outraged that he talked Loeb into pulling Union Leader sponsorship of the Golden Gloves, Stephen said.

Their love of boxing kept them close. Stephen was a boxing commissioner in New Hampshire for years. Finnegan was a judge in the amateur, professional and Olympic-trial rings.

In 1978, when Stephen opened The Vault, his landmark restaurant in downtown Manchester, Finnegan urged readers to patronize the restaurant when an extended street closure of Elm Street threatened its survival, Stephen said.

Finnegan was senior adviser to the campaigns of Stephen's son, John Stephen, who ran for Congress and governor in the 2000s. Just three years ago, Finnegan was placing signs in Merrimack and marching in the town parade, John Stephen said.

Bobby Stephen, who spent the 1980s in the state Senate, said Finnegan's editorials were never personal, despite complaints from his critics.

"He (Finnegan) said 'Never protect me,'" Stephen recalled, "'I'm doing what I think is right for the state.'"

mhayward@unionleader.com


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