Publicover details histories of AIDS and this newspaper
In 1968 Frank Privitera published the first issue of The Somerville Times, a local monthly dedicated to taking down one of his enemies: Mayor James Brennan.
Privitera formed an alliance with Joe Marino, a lawyer from Medford who was renting a house on Westwood Street so he could challenge Brennan for mayor, and the attacks soon followed. The Times mailed 31,000 copies of the paper to Somerville voters each month, with eye-catching, if sometimes misleading, headlines.
And the public bit. Brennan lost his reelection bid in the primary.
“People in Somerville had never had a yellow press type journalism before,” said Times writer and editor of its direct descendent, The Somerville News, Robert J.L. Publicover. “They used to knock Brennan with headlines. I remember one that blasted him for spending $50,000 on snow plowing. Well the year before it cost $60,000 but no one knew that so they thought $50,000 was outrageous.”
But Privitera's plan backfired, Publicover said, and the Times inadvertently contributed to a spirit of reform in the city that got S. Lester Ralph, a minister with no connections to the Somerville political establishment, elected mayor over Marino.
Publicover started writing for The Times in its first year, and took over as editor in 1975. In 1980 when Privitera stopped publishing for a year because he no longer needed the paper as a political tool, Publicover said he established The Somerville News.
Founded with credit from a printer and $103 a week in unemployment benefits, Publicover published the News for the next 22 years, until he sold it in 2002 to Donald Norton.
The tangled roots of The Somerville News were just one piece of history Publicover recalled at the paper's Aug. 1 contributors meeting.
Publicover's life offers a glimpse not only into the political world of a past era in Somerville, but also a first-hand account of the AIDS epidemic from its earliest days through its devastating peak as a “gay man's plague” until today.
Publicover said he is generally recognized as the nation's longest living AIDS survivor after first contracting the disease, unnamed and mysterious at the time, in the late 1970s - a time when “sex was like fast food, when you got hungry you went out and got some,” he said.
“There are a few people around who have had it as long, but everyone cedes the title to me because I make the most noise,” he said.
Publicover said the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic were between 1988 and 1993 when he was “going to a funeral every fourth day.”
“For five to eight years it was really like a war. I knew hundreds of people who died.” The disease hit Publicover's life - his partner died from complications in 1992 - but it also informed his writing. He wrote “My Unicorn Has Gone Away” about his partner's death and a children's book, “What's Wrong With Uncle Johnny” that dealt with how to tell children about AIDS-afflicted relatives.
In the last two years, Publicover's weight dropped as low as 82 pounds and simple tasks such as standing up to change the television station became exhausting. “I was pretty sick for a while there,” he said. “And you didn't see me around” at his favorite coffee shops La Contessa and Café Rossini.
But today he has his weight up, takes seven pills a day to stay fit and is working on a new book, “The Last Brontosaurus” that opens in the days when AIDS was known only as the gay man's cancer, he said. Publicover said his experience in those early days, as an openly gay man with AIDS in a more conservative Somerville than today was not as negative as some might assume.
“Everybody knew me here. So it was kind of hard to wake up one morning having been born in Somerville Hospital, having lived here all my life, to say to me, 'Gee, I don't like you anymore,” he said.
When his partner's disease reached advanced stages and he needed around the clock care, Publicover put a story in the Somerville News asking for help.
“Within three hours of the papers being out that first day, I had filled 75 time slots for the first week. Frank Stellato was head of the Chamber of Commerce, hated my guts and I hated his guts; he was the very first call that morning asking if he could help. He would come every morning at 4 a.m. and stay until 7 a.m. That was that Somerville attitude -- a big city that's really a small town.”