On a brisk November morning in 2001, Hubert “Hubie” Jones sat in a Chicago hotel lobby. He had an off day from the national City Year convention and wanted to go hear the Chicago Children’s Choir.
A week earlier Jones told some colleagues about his vision for a children’s chorus in Boston, which, like Chicago’s, would unite children of different ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic states. And after hearing Chicago’s chorus, there was no stopping him. Two years later, in October 2003, the Boston Children’s Chorus performed with 30 children, and today, with more than 400, it has sung its way across the United States, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe.
For his recent 80th birthday, Jones, whose life story is being recorded for an oral history project, was feted in the Wang Theater, where then-Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino spoke and President Obama sent a message apologizing for missing it.
Hubie Jones, it could be argued, has touched more lives around Greater Boston than any individual in the past half-century, from the worlds of mental health, social justice, underprivileged children, and, of course, choral music. But what makes his story particularly meaningful is that in a city with such a dark racial past, he has managed to serve as a longstanding bridge between haves and have-nots, and between blacks and whites.
“Mr. Jones is not a musician,” said David Howse, executive director of the Boston Children’s Chorus. “But he was able to found this chorus, serve as its president, and help it thrive, because musical or not, he understands the crossover value and benefit to bringing this sort of opportunity to children — children in need, ambitious children. Think about the significance of that in this city with such a high musical bar and great music pedigree, a man who had no connection to music education or performance pulled this together.”
Jones’s response to Howse’s praise? “Pshaw,” and a wave of the hand.
Jones, who stands straight as a ramrod, doesn’t look a day over 60, save for his gray, balding hair. With a clean shave, a favor for tweed sport coats, crisp-pressed earth-tone slacks, and mirror-shined brown leather uppers, he looks appropriately professorial.
Though he earned retirement long ago, he still rises early five days a week in the Newton Centre home he shares with Kathy, his wife of more than 50 years, and drives to the Back Bay, where he maintains an office and position as nonprofit entrepreneur in residence at City Year.
It was in that office that he recently paused from typing at his computer — working on a book about what he calls his “long, sometimes strained love affair with Boston.”
That affair started for Jones, a native of the South Bronx, in 1957, just a few months after he graduated from BU’s Graduate School of Social Work. He had returned home to think about his future when the Boston Children’s Service Association called with a job offer.
As he leaned back in his chair, he recalled that he and Kathy, then his fiancee, were sitting by a window in a New York City apartment when he popped what would be the second-most important question of their young lives. “I had interned there while in school,” he said of the children’s association. “So I asked Kathy how she felt about us starting our lives together in Boston. “She said, ‘Great!’ And here we were.”
Moving meant leaving behind the man who inspired him the most, his father, Hilma Jones — himself a good student who wanted to attend medical school but was prevented in part because of racial barriers. “He spent more than 40 years as a porter for Pullman,” Jones said. “He worked on trains in sleeper cars. And he was excellent at his job. But what he became most known for was as an advocate, through his union, for other employees.”
Jones said his father found a way to be a leader by advocating for employees in their disputes with management, even writing briefs for his peers. It was a lesson the younger Jones took with him to Boston.
“He takes himself out of comfortable situations because he knows the issues that plague the poor, the sick, the uneducated,” said Alan Khazei, cofounder of Boston-based City Year. “And he has a knack for timing. He is the living, breathing textbook for how to be active in the world of social work and not spin your wheels. Look at his efforts with the Task Force.”
Jones founded the Task Force on Children Out of School in 1968 after observing a pattern of children — mostly Latino and black — being illegally kept out of Boston Public Schools. “We’re talking thousands of kids in a given school year,” Jones said. “We were finding that in many cases, something as simple as the lack of a language translator or bilingual option prevented children from being able to attend classes.”
The Task Force, which lasted until 1985, led to a nationwide report called “Children Out of School in America” and produced a report called “The Way We Go to School: The Exclusion of Children in Boston.” It ultimately led to new laws being passed in Massachusetts and dozens of other states ensuring equal learning opportunities for all children in public school districts.
Mossick Hacobian, executive director of Higher Ground, a nonprofit Jones founded in 2010 as a loose clone of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides free health services and education for families in poverty, said Jones has succeeded with his ideas because he thinks like the people he’s trying to help.
That was certainly the case with Boston Children’s Chorus.
“The chorus has opened the world up to my children in a way that not many social or even musical programs could do,” said Shyana Harper, whose children Evelyn, 12, and Christopher, 16, are both members. “So it’s not just that there was a chorus founded. It was the type of chorus and how it was structured. It is more than a means to sing for the children who participate — it is something through which they grow and mature. Unbelievable.”
“I knew that a children’s choir would happen in Boston, because Hubie said it would,” Hacobian said. “The thing with Hubie is other people discuss making plans and talk about what it might require. When Hubie says something needs to happen, it always does because he leads the way.”
And while the chorus’s core mission is to provide an outlet for disadvantaged city kids — 45 percent come from households with incomes of $50,000 or less — its mission of inclusiveness and diversity also means that nearly a third of participants are from the suburbs. And they are a rainbow of ethnic and racial backgrounds, with 35 percent white, 43 percent black, 8 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Asian.
“The bottom line is he started or cofounded more than two dozen organizations himself, and they’re all still doing well,” said Betty J. Ruth, a Boston University social work professor who, along with her husband, Ken Schulman, has commissioned the oral history of Jones’s life.
Ruth and Schulman have no firm plans yet for Jones’s recordings, other than turning them into a written record of his life at some point.
“Hubie’s impact has been profound, both within social work and beyond, and while he’s gotten some recognition for his work,” Ruth said, “I’m not sure anyone has unpacked the specific ingredients that made his leadership so successful and transformative.”
There is a lot to unpack.
In six decades of work, Jones has bounced like a pinball through the halls of academia, government, and nonprofits. There was his time at Judge Baker Children’s Center in Newton, Simmons College, Brandeis University’s Heller School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare, BU’s School of Medicine, and Harvard’s Laboratory of Community Psychiatry, not to mention a long stint as dean of the BU School of Social Work. As if that were not enough, there were all the boards of directors, including the Boston Children’s Services Association, the Welfare Coalition, Mass. Advocates for Children, and the Children’s Defense Fund.
It’s an exhaustive list. But those who know Jones best say it’s less about how much he’s done and more about how he did it.
“You could spend an hour reading through Hubie’s resume,” Khazei said, “and you wouldn’t get at the heart of what he’s done for Boston and why his history needs to be recorded accurately.”James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.