He could have worn a boxing robe. To thundering cheers he walked into the House chamber like he was walking into the ring for a hometown fight.
The Joe DeNucci Handshake starts with a grin, a left hand feint and then a right uppercut with the fist opening up at the last moment. It's a combination that worked for him as a middleweight — he had 27 knockouts — and it's worked for him as a politician.
"What an extraordinary thing to give 34 years of service to the public — and he gave it all," said Gov. Deval Patrick Friday at a ceremony honoring DeNucci. The state's longest serving auditor left office this week.
Patrick didn't call him a throwback. No one else did, either. But DeNucci is, from an era as faded as the days he was climbing the ranks of middleweights, looking for a shot at the title. And DeNucci was as at home in the State House as he was in the ring. He remembers starting at 16 after winning the notice of the speaker.
Better known as "the Iron Duke," John Thompson was speaker of the House in the 1950s and '60s. And he saw DeNucci fight in the Golden Gloves Tournament.
"He said, 'What are you doing this summer?'" DeNucci said. "I said, 'I'm going to be training Mr. Speaker.' He said, 'How would like you to be my page boy?' "
And suddenly the son of a janitor, the nephew of a window-washer, was close to center ring of the State House. Early on DeNucci learned how government could help people. Like when he was 17 and wanted to turn pro, but the law said you had to be 18 to get a license.
"He was a senator from Boston," DeNucci recalled, "and he came back with a birth certificate that was all punched out and said instead of being born Aug. 30, 1939, which I was, they put down Aug. 30, 1938."
He's a throwback to the days of patronage, proud of helping people out, as he did when he asked a former House speaker to find a job for onetime welterweight champion Tony DeMarco, of the North End.
"Clicks fingers, two minutes, boom, and he called him and said, 'You can come home if you want to come home.' " The speaker got DeMarco a job as a court officer at the State House.
"To help people who need help — that’s the best part of my business."Former Auditor Joe DeNucci
DeNucci apologizes for nothing.
"Now today, it's probably a crime to do what I did," DeNucci said, laughing. "But I didn't think it was a crime, and it wasn't then. And it shouldn't be now. To help people who need help — that's the best part of my business."
Elected a state representative in the '70s and '80s, he chaired the Human Services Committee. He was remembered Friday for championing children, families and the elderly, and for standing up against prejudice.
"He said, 'No that's wrong, we can do better than that,'" said new state Treasurer Steve Grossman. "And we did, because he told us what the right pathway was."
As you could see from his face, DeNucci followed his instincts, not the polls. Scar tissue over the eyes. A nose re-arranged. He took his knocks. Almost made it to the top, but never got a title shot.
"I believed in loyalty and you know, that's not there anymore," DeNucci said.
He was elected auditor for the first time in 1986. Times changed. DeNucci didn't.
"I hired my cousin," he said, speaking of a 72-year-old meat salesman and jazz musician. DeNucci gave him a job as a fraud examiner. A complaint by the state Ethics Commission is still pending.
"And it's not illegal," DeNucci said.
His departure is the end of an era, proclaimed one of the speakers. It was Joe's last round.
"Thank you for being in my corner," he said.
He went out the best way a boxer could go out. He was standing up, the crowd was roaring. He had a unanimous decision.
This program aired on January 21, 2011.