In John Drew’s estimation, Bob Coard’s friends and admirers never got to say a proper goodbye.
For decades before his death in 2009, Coard was the guiding force behind Action for Boston Community Development, the mammoth social service agency he had guided for most of its existence. He died the weekend after he retired, following a lengthy illness. Some 1,500 people, including the governor, attended Coard’s retirement dinner, but Coard himself was not there; he was too ill by then.
As ABCD struggled to deal with the loss of the only leader most of its employees had ever known, its public commemoration of Coard's legacy was delayed. That will be rectified Thursday morning, when ABCD’s Tremont Street headquarters will be dedicated in Coard’s honor in a ceremony across the street on Boston Common. The dedication is appropriate, partly because the building came to symbolize the stability Coard brought to the agency.
“That building is where we sunk our roots in the city,” Drew, Coard’s longtime deputy, said last week.
Bob Coard was a singular Boston personality. A native of Grenada, he was working on a doctorate at MIT when he decided to work for ABCD — then a start-up — in 1964. He fought the war on poverty before it really had a name. Through force of will and vision, he created an organization that serves poor people across the city in a wide variety of ways, from Head Start to job training to health care. Education was a mission especially close to Coard; he saw it as the only permanent path out of poverty.
By Drew’s reckoning, a turning point in ABCD’s history was buying its own building in 1972, after years of bouncing around among rental properties. It was owned by the Kuwaiti government, which inexplicably held several properties around the old Combat Zone.
Though the building wasn’t on the market, the Kuwaitis were willing sellers. They unloaded a property now worth many millions for a mere $475,000.
It provided a base of operations for Coard’s long-running campaign to persuade the powerful to pay more than lip service to the needy. He was celebrated for his political skills, and he relished his battles with Beacon Hill and Washington. Even now, Drew can recount every budget cut that was reversed, every politician who failed to stand behind promises to the people served by ABCD. The agency’s combination of empathy and political savvy made it a model for community service organizations.
But one part of Coard’s legacy that clearly is not faring well is the Urban College of Boston. The two-year school founded by ABCD to educate child-care providers and educators has stumbled financially and is on the brink of collapse. While the college has been independent since 1993, ABCD has continued to help with fund-raising and other services.
“It’s been a struggle to keep it going,” Drew admitted. “If we can get people to step up to the plate and make sure Urban College of Boston keeps going, that would be a huge testament to Bob Coard and his legacy.”
The celebration on the Common will occur in a neighborhood Coard lived to see largely transformed. The Combat Zone has dwindled to two discreet strip clubs, and a Ritz-Carlton dominates the corner where Coard once held his protests. Without moving an inch, ABCD has gone from the inner city to uptown, an irony Coard would have appreciated.
The ceremony Thursday will feature the standard array of politicians and dignitaries, as well as generations of those whose lives were touched by Coard’s work. Among Coard’s greatest gifts was his ability to link those two worlds.
“He was such a private guy that he would dismiss this,” said Drew. “But he lived a life in this city, and he never really got credit for everything he did.”