When Jeanette Boone moved to Shawmut Avenue in 1982, the South End was in transition, and not a particularly smooth one.
Gentrification was just one of the neighborhood’s concerns. The town house she and her husband moved into was across the street from a popular gathering place for prostitutes and drug users.
Boone quickly became part of a group of activists that fought a successful battle to turn the vacant lot into a housing development. But rather than running off the low-income residents who had populated that part of the South End, they ensured that Langham Court, as it would eventually be known, included rooms for low-income residents among its 81 units.
“There were those in the community who didn’t want to see this kind of housing done,” recalled her husband, Perry Smith. “But she and [Mayor] Ray Flynn were able to get it done the way she wanted it done.”
Boone, who died this week at 77, played many important roles in Boston, most of them out of the spotlight. She was a key aide to John Kerry. She was a mentor to countless younger activists and politicians. She spent much of her very active retirement right up in the faces of gang members she was determined to straighten out. She intimidated many, and changed some.
“The young thugs loved Jeanette because she was the mother figure many of them had never had, and she was tough,” said the Rev. Eugene Rivers III of the Ella J. Baker House. “She was a matriarch.”
She joined Kerry’s staff shortly after he took office as lieutenant governor in 1983, and was in charge of his constituent services after he became a US senator.
But Kerry would be the first to say that only hinted at her role in his office, where she functioned as gatekeeper, boss, and den mother.
“Her commitment, her strength, and her faith are what stay with me,” Kerry said this week. “She was a mainstay of our staff. . . . She took care of everybody.”
Besides her work with Kerry, Boone was active in everything from neighborhood politics — she was a mainstay of the Ward 9 Democratic Committee — to the battle against youth violence. She served on the board of Action for Boston Community Development. Well into her 70s, she made weekly visits with police officers and clergy to the homes of kids in trouble. She was named interim director of the Baker House during a troubled period a few years ago and ran the place, refusing a salary, for more than three years.
Rivers said yesterday that she was often the voice of reason among battling factions among the black clergy. Boone had no patience for self-importance or petty rivalries.
“She challenged the overwhelmingly black male clergy to be more accountable to the mission — which, to her, meant checking your ego at the door, and doing the work. She was this unbelievably courageous figure whose life was shaped by gospel values.”
Her cancer diagnosis had seemed particularly cruel, coming just days after Justin Gilbert, a grandson she had helped to raise, was killed at a Lower Roxbury check-cashing joint — struck down by just the kind of violence she had spent years trying to quell.
It was typical of her that her battle against the disease was fought quietly; many of her longtime associates never knew she was sick. She wasn’t big on calling attention to herself.
Her legacy was shaped by selflessness, as a huge throng of admirers will attest. “I think what really defined Jeanette was that she was all about rebuilding lives and rebuilding communities,” said political consultant Mary Anne Marsh, who worked with her on Kerry’s staff. “The value of the difference she made in people lives was enormous. That’s a well lived life.”