Larry McMullen brought the city streets and neighborhoods in powerful, often heartbreaking, prose to the readers of the Philadelphia Daily News as a columnist for 23 years.
He had the knowledge, the sensitivity, and, yes, the love, to capture in simple yet compelling language the bustle and lore of the streets, the people, the smells, the clamor, and passion of the rowhouse ambience - because that's where he came from.
"If I had my choice, Larry would be writing a column for us until the last rowhouse in Philly fell down," former Daily News editor Zachary Stalberg wrote when Mr. McMullen took an early retirement in 1993 at the age of 59.
" 'Best of Philly' never picked him as the city's top columnist, and many journalists found his stuff irrelevant. He was always underestimated by the people who don't count."
Larry McMullen, who grew up in Grays Ferry, where the nuns of St. Gabriel's School tried to teach him how to live the good life; a loving father of five girls all trying to get into the one bathroom in the house where they grew up; and a man who pretty much taught himself how to write, died Tuesday, Dec. 6, after a battle with bladder cancer. He was 77 and lived in Bensalem.
"What made him our star was his empathy and his pure understated brilliance as a writer," Stalberg wrote.
"There is some sadness in his columns, but there's also plenty of human resiliency, and a great deal of love."
"I have never seen a better match of a newspaper and a columnist than the Daily News and Larry McMullen," said Pete Dexter, onetime Daily News columnist, novelist, and screenwriter. "When he was on, there was nobody greater. Nobody ever did that job better anywhere."
In June, Richard Aregood, onetime editor of the Daily News editorial page and a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote: "Larry McMullen was a columnist who never got the respect he deserved, a deeply sensitive neighborhood guy who wrote compellingly about real people."
A former colleague who shared an office with Mr. McMullen on the top floor of the newspaper's tower at Broad and Callowhill Streets described his work habits:
"Many late afternoons I'd see him stroll in, Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand, without a clue about what he would write for tomorrow's column.
"Then he would take some current event and run it through his bank of memories of growing up, and out the other side would come not the essay of a writer, but the rough-edged opinion of a street guy talking to another street guy."
"I often told Larry he reminded me of Jimmy Breslin, the New York writer who, like Larry, wrote about the wonderful characters that populate the neighborhoods of great cities," said retired TV news anchor Marc Howard.
"But there was a major difference. When Breslin needed a character to further a story, he invented one. Larry never invented his characters. He found them, real live people who made South Philadelphia what it was and still is today."
"Larry may have been the last columnist who was a true 'rowhouse voice,' perhaps because he grew up in one, went into the service, and became a journalist without any formal training," said Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky.
"I give him credit for a Hemingwayesque style - short words, short sentences, plain speaking with great impact. His words carried a depth that was not always apparent on a quick read."
Mr. McMullen had a legendary fondness for the racetrack and was pals with Daily News sports reporter Dick Jerardi, who writes about horse racing.
"I don't remember exactly when I met Larry, but it definitely would have been at a racetrack, Garden State or PhiladelphiaPark, probably not long after I started at the paper in February 1985.
"Larry loved the racetrack scene - the characters, the gamblers, the vibe, all of it. To me, Larry really represented the soul of Philly in his writing. He knew the people and the neighborhoods. And when you read him, you knew he knew."
Retired Daily News columnist Jill Porter recalled that Mr. McMullen was already a popular columnist when she started in the 1980s as the paper's first female columnist.
"He was always very nice to me," she said. "He was a wonderful man, laughing, pleasant. His columns were just so beautiful. He had a real gift."
John Praksta, retired Daily News assistant managing editor whose job for years was to put the paper together at night, said he could always rely on Mr. McMullen to get his column done.
"He would always come up with something interesting," Praksta said. "He was a corner guy, a neighborhood guy. I think he enhanced the image of the Daily News."
Mr. McMullen once described in a column what it was like growing up in Grays Ferry:
"In our time, outside was where you went to breathe. The streets were crowded all year around with people, kids playing and laughing and fighting, hucksters hawking goods, women scrubbing steps or hanging clothes to dry. The babble of voices was constant, a street song that still plays hauntingly in memory."
Mr. McMullen was educated at St. Gabriel's Parochial School and Southeast Catholic High School, now Neumann-Goretti.
He entered the Air Force before graduating and served from 1951 to 1955 as an airplane mechanic. He later earned his general equivalency diploma and entered Temple University.
He worked briefly as a utility lineman for AT&T. That was where he met Theresa Hackett, a telephone operator. They were married in 1962.
After a stint at the Camden Courier-Post, Mr. McMullen took a job as a reporter for the Trentonian in Trenton, a job that he quit after six years when he refused to write something that he was ordered to write but didn't want to write.
He then joined the Daily News, and the rest is journalism history.
Last month, Mr. McMullen's family celebrated his and Theresa's 50th wedding anniversary, with the "big cake" he had requested.
"He was the most generous, most kind, caring, and loving human being I ever met," said his daughter Coleen McMullen Stahl. "He was always there for us. He sometimes worked three jobs to take care of us."
Besides his wife and daughter, he is survived by daughters Theresa Paone, Denise Uphoff, Kelly Rossi, and Lauren Wirzberger; a brother; a sister; 13 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
A Funeral Mass was set for 11 a.m. Monday, Dec. 12, at St. Ephrem Roman Catholic Church, 5400 Hulmeville Rd., Bensalem. Friends may call at 9:30 a.m. Burial will be in Washington Crossing National Cemetery.