THE EVER-PRESENT Stetson was an affectation, as was his incendiary attitude, sometimes.

Journalist, provocateur, civil-rights leader, publisher J. Whyatt Mondesire, a son of Harlem, a man of Philadelphia, was a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces were shaped by a sense of justice, piercing intelligence and theatrics.

Driven by a desire to see the powerless, particularly minorities, treated right, Mondesire understood that selling that to a sometimes indifferent America required showmanship.

That may explain the Stetson, and also the ego.

My nickname for the dapper Mondesire was Mondo, which roughly means striking, big, extreme. He liked it.

When he died Sunday night at 65, Philadelphia lost a man of charm and venom and humor, both champion and rogue.

I last saw him more than a year ago. I interviewed him over lunch in Center City's Happy Rooster, where he gave me his side of the civil war roiling the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, which he had led since 1996.

He was talking to me exclusively, he said, because he trusted me to be fair. That's what I hope to do here.

The bitter war within the local NAACP - I have been a member for decades - has been reported and won't be rehashed here. I will rehash an earlier battle, between Mondo and the late Irv Homer, the irascible WWDB host, that I got in the middle of. Another Philadelphia original, the gravel-voiced Homer in 1998 doubted Mondesire's claims that the NAACP had more than 10,000 members and bet $500 that Mondo couldn't prove it.

After some jiving, Mondo invited me to check his membership computer disk. I showed up with Daily News computer-research wizard Bob Warner.

Long story short: Warner caught some duplications and started to launch a program to eliminate them when Mondo called off the exercise. The F-bomb was dropped at some point, and we left.

The national NAACP later told me that it could verify 3,000 members here. Even if it were the 12,000 Mondo claimed, that's a disgrace for a majority-black Philadelphia. Mondo talked, always, as if he represented all black Philadelphians.

When I had to report, a few years later, that PECO was cutting the lights in the NAACP headquarters because of unpaid bills, Mondo warned me not to call the NAACP a "deadbeat" organization. Every group that works with the poor "from time to time will owe vendors," he said.

I mention this because, whatever the alleged financial irregularities, there wasn't much to steal.

Because he had been a journalist, Mondo knew how to "sell" a story and how to try to intimidate. He organized a boycott of the Daily News and Inquirer because of something "racist," when he knew we weren't actually racist.

It was a tactic.

Mondo favored some reporters and feuded with others. He would scowl and scream and curse, sometimes to intimidate, sometimes to "work the ref."

Before Mondo went to work for then-Rep. Bill Gray, he was a reporter and editor for the Inquirer, and the Baltimore Sun before that. He worked for white newspapers rather than black for two good reasons: White papers paid more, and they would benefit from integration (or diversity, as it's called today).

I disagreed with some of Mondo's assertions about race, most of which were sincere, but understood that his role was to push, push, push for change. He wasn't in the room to make white people feel comfortable.

Periodically, he would be critical of his "own."

In a 2005 column in his own Philadelphia Sun, Mondo blasted Donovan McNabb for not running the football enough and suggested that McNabb had connected his performance to race.

In 2000, Mondo joined black leaders in scolding Allen Iverson for offensive lyrics in his in-the-works gangsta-rap CD. "A lost soul," Mondo called AI.

In an interview with me, he condemned the "stupidity" of the "no-snitch" culture, even among the NAACP's Youth Council. "It's very depressing," he said.

A colorful leader, he gave the NAACP a prominence it wouldn't have had without him, to the benefit of blacks and other minorities.

To them, he was the guy in the white hat.

Email: stubyko@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

Columns: ph.ly/StuBykofsky