A tribute to Albany legend Gerald F. McLaughlin (1936-2020): newsman, counselor to state leaders, mentor to countless more
ALBANY, N.Y. – As a seasoned observer you have likely deduced from the headline that Jerry McLaughlin’s soul and body have decided to part company.
Those who had the joy of knowing Gerald F. McLaughlin – as a friend or as a reporter and later an adviser to governors, state senators and a host of fledgling ink-stained wretches – suspect he might have started his obituary just that way. Jerry liked it when he made people smile and could share some wisdom, even while telling them news they might not want to hear.
This time the news is that McLaughlin died on July 31, 2020, at the Albany Medical Center after a battle against diabetes, assorted other ailments and just getting old. While he had tested positive for the coronavirus in April, he remained symptom-free throughout. Jerry was 84.
Almost to the end, Jerry retained his sense of humor. Weeks after Shaker Place, the Albany County nursing home and rehabilitation center, where he had been living for since last fall, had closed its doors to all visitors, McLaughlin could laugh when asked about how life had changed there.
“Remember Albert Camus’ novel ‘The Plague?’ We’re living it out right here,” he reported to a friend via telephone.
McLaughlin, who became unresponsive at dinner on July 31 at Shaker Place, was taken to the medical center where he died a few hours later with his wife, Marty McLaughlin, by his side.
McLaughlin was born on June 6, 1936 (6-6-36 made it easy to remember) in Rutland, Vt., with printer’s ink in his blood. His mother, Helen Scanlon McLaughlin, was a star crime reporter and his father, Gerald Edward “Mac” McLaughlin, rose to be managing editor of the Rutland Herald newspaper. After a fight with the publisher, Mac packed up the family and moved to Springfield, Vt., where he and his wife took over four weekly newspapers serving the eastern part of the state.
After graduating from the College of the Holy Cross (1958) and Columbia University’s School of Journalism (1959), McLaughlin began his own career as a reporter at the Providence Journal and its sister publication, the Bulletin. He recently recalled his journalistic baptism at the Journal.
“Hey, Columbia, you couldn’t find a way to spell ‘accommodate’?” the old-school veteran editor bellowed. As McLaughlin reported: “The guys in the newsroom – a lot of Korean War vets – all applauded.”
Razzing aside, McLaughlin quickly established himself as an admired, street-smart news reporter, not an Ivy League J-school “journalist.” Hired away by The Associated Press in 1962, McLaughlin was sent to the Albany, N.Y., bureau where then-Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was on his way to winning a second four-year term.
But for McLaughlin and the other AP staffers, it wasn’t all glamour despite covering a charismatic billionaire governor and perennial presidential contender. There were late-night weekend shifts that included transmitting college basketball scores to member newspapers. It was then that a previously unknown upstate New York college began winning basketball games against other unfamiliar schools. The winning continued and eventually one sports editor suggested a story on the out-of-nowhere team might be in order.
McLaughlin was in a bind, as he’d impishly concocted the school as self-entertainment, and maybe a little gag on the higher ups. Wouldn’t you know it, the team suddenly started losing, McLaughlin recalled. The interest in a story and the team’s scores gradually faded. So did any mention on the AP wire of any such college, whose name has been lost to the ages. The future gubernatorial press aide had killed his first story.
In 1968, McLaughlin was lured away from the AP by Rockefeller. The veteran reporter was put in charge of the public information office at the newly created state Pure Waters Authority. Two years later, he was reassigned to the governor’s own press office, where his colleagues included the governor’s speechwriter, the late Joseph Persico. Persico, who would later become Rockefeller’s biographer and a best-selling author, and McLaughlin became life-long buddies.
When Rockefeller resigned in December 1973 to head the U.S. Commission on Critical Choices for America and prepare for a presidential run, McLaughlin became deputy press secretary for newly installed Gov. Malcolm Wilson who had been Rockefeller’s lieutenant governor.
Less than a year later, Wilson had lost the governorship to Democrat Hugh Carey. McLaughlin was pondering his own future when state Sen. John Marchi, a Republican from Staten Island, got in touch.
“Mr. McLaughlin, how would you like to take a $25,000 pay cut?” the senator inquired. Knowing the difference between something and nothing, McLaughlin embarked on the rest of his professional life.
In Marchi, McLaughlin found something of a kindred spirit – a scholarly figure who often likened the New York state Senate to ancient Rome’s own august body and who was fond of quoting Cicero and other classical orators during his own modern-day debates.
“Lots of people like to talk about ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ but Dad had actually read it,” recalled son Michael McLaughlin.
Like Marchi, McLaughlin could stitch sentences together that sent lesser-read people to their encyclopedias. But, unlike his boss, McLaughlin could also, when necessary, speak in simple declarative sentences. It was a skill much appreciated by those who followed McLaughlin at the AP and who had to cover the senator.
“His job often required him to unpack for reporters Marchi’s lengthy orations on ancient Romans like Cicero or references to Thomas Aquinas …even when the topic of the news conference was something as mundane as the world’s largest landfill (Fresh Kills on Staten Island), Staten Island’s possible secession from New York City or the preservation of wetlands,” said Robert Bellafiore, a former AP reporter who went on to serve as Republican Gov. George Pataki’s press secretary. “Then again, depending on the circumstances, he might just say: ‘I think the senator’s words speak for themselves.’”
During his time with Marchi, McLaughlin had also become a charter member the Legislative Correspondents Association’s elite softball team, making his mark as a sharp-fielding first baseman and clutch hitter. A Boston Red Sox baseball cap was never far from his side.
Marchi, after serving for many years as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, retired in 2006. He died three years later. McLaughlin retired from the state Senate on Jan. 1, 2007.
In retirement, McLaughlin kept up his love affair with words, writing articles for the Springfield (Vt.) Reporter – his parents’ old paper. “He enjoyed the writing, and got a free newspaper,” his wife Marty remembered.
McLaughlin’s personal life was not always easy. Like his father, he suffered from alcoholism, a disease which almost cost him his marriage. As a recovering alcoholic, however, he reached out to other sufferers with his trademark wit and wisdom. Then, his beloved first wife Sandy died in 1989.
But McLaughlin found love again. In October 2007, he and Martha (Marty) Ann Kennedy were married. They had lived in the same neighborhood for years and had known each other slightly. But as Jerry got older, he began swimming regularly at the Jewish Community Center in Albany where Marty was a regular in the pool.
“When my husband died, Jerry asked me out. I am certainly glad that I accepted,” Marty recalled. “We were so lucky to find each other, and to find love again.”
Among the couple’s wedding presents was a one-year membership to the community center.
In addition to his second wife, McLaughlin is survived by a son, Michael (Geralyn) McLaughlin and their twin sons, Zachary and Charles; and a daughter, Sarah (Jim Shuttleworth) McLaughlin. He is also survived by his stepchildren, Joseph Kennedy and his children, daughter Perry and son Brendan; and Carolyn Kennedy and her son, Thomas Delfield. Also surviving are numerous relatives in Vermont, New York, New Hampshire and California. The family said special thanks should go to McLaughlin’s cousin Frank Scanlon and his wife Joanne Smith of Latham, N.Y., and to the staff of Shaker Place.
The family requests that contributions be made in honor of Jerry to Covenant House or to the charity of one’s choice.
A funeral Mass will be Thursday, August 6, at 10 a.m. in the Parish of Mater Christi, 40 Hopewell Street, Albany.
Editor’s Note: Former AP writers Humbert, Stashenko and Bellafiore all had the honor of being mentored and befriended by Gerald F. McLaughlin.