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Helaine Zimmerman, 75; social worker helped youths

Helaine Zimmerman, (right), with her wife, Thalia Verros.

Helaine Zimmerman, (right), with her wife, Thalia Verros.

In 2006, Helaine Zimmerman and Thalia Verros invited friends to their home under the guise of a party celebrating Helaine’s birthday.

Once festivities were underway, they slipped upstairs and turned on a recording of the traditional wedding march, and descended the steps. They then were married by a justice of the peace in their living room.

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“Her motto was, ‘Live the life you love,’ ” Verros said. “And she always did.”

Ms. Zimmerman, a longtime social worker who also influenced Boston’s LGBT communities both personally and professionally, died of melanoma March 6 in her Mashpee home. She was 75.

She worked for a state agency before 1983, when she joined the staff of Communities for People, a private agency that focuses on residential programs, adoption services, foster care, and counseling troubled youth. She worked with adolescents and became the agency’s first director of training.

“She was so good at connecting with the kids,” said Elaine Biancardi, the agency’s director of administration. “Years after they were discharged from our program, many of those kids still called her, still kept in touch.”

Ms. Zimmerman, Biancardi said, was “very dynamic and passionate,” and particularly skilled at guiding less experienced social workers.

After Ms. Zimmerman retired last summer from Communities for People, the agency named after her the conference room where the teaching sessions she pioneered are held.

Ms. Zimmerman was born in Boston, and her parents owned Zimmie’s, a clothing store on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester.

She graduated from Newton High School and the University of Rhode Island, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in social work. She also graduated with a master’s in social work from Boston University.

“She always knew she wanted to be a social worker,” Verros said.

Ms. Zimmerman’s nephew, David Zimmerman, founding publisher of Boston Spirit magazine, said his aunt “was an out lesbian for her entire adult life. She was not one to hide in a closet.”

He said she introduced him to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities “at a very young age. I grew up spending time with my aunt and many of her friends.”

David was an advertising director for Metrocorp, which owns Boston Magazine, when it struck him that a similarly upscale magazine for the city’s gay community would be a success. He brought the idea to his aunt, who loved it.

“Aunt Helaine convened a group of her friends for an informal focus group,” he said. “Everyone encouraged me to move forward.”

In 2005 he published the first issue of Boston Spirit. The award-winning magazine reports on LGBT issues in Boston and New England, profiles leaders in the gay community, and promotes cultural events.

Ms. Zimmerman “was the magazine’s greatest champion . . . always calling me after every issue to discuss some of the articles,” said her nephew, who is straight. “Had it not been for her being so open and out about her life, I would not have been as comfortable with my decision to launch the magazine.”

Peter Accardi, a former editor at the Globe, credited Ms. Zimmerman with helping him come out as a gay man in the early 1970s. Their 40-year friendship began when Accardi moved into the building where Ms. Zimmerman lived.

“The minute I met her, I loved her,” he said, calling Ms. Zimmerman “energetic and wonderful.”

Accardi said he was a “shy kid” and that “Helaine made it so much easier for me to come out, because she was so out there and proud herself. She introduced me to so many people and just opened up that whole world to me.”

Ms. Zimmerman had lived in several Boston neighborhoods and also owned a condo in Provincetown. When she was 44, her three-room apartment in the South End was featured in a 1981 Globe article that brought together an architect and a psychologist to discuss how home decorating choices reflect people’s personalities.

George Eastman, the psychologist, described her home as “an oasis, soft, interesting, stimulating without being jarring,” and said its occupant appeared to be someone who “thought about herself and knew who she was.”

The reporter described Ms. Zimmerman’s home as filled with artwork, “some of it done by her friends,” and also noted her extensive record collection, a parakeet in a cage, and books and other artifacts about her Jewish heritage.

Eastman characterized the apartment as “slightly Bohemian . . . the apartment of a person who has worked through understandings.”

Verros and Ms. Zimmerman attended fund-raisers frequently. Friends said Ms. Zimmerman loved to dress up, often in a tuxedo, and was especially fond of dancing.

She and Verros also were enthusiastic entertainers who hosted an annual Greek picnic in their Mashpee backyard, where they roasted a 40-pound lamb on a spit.

A lifelong Red Sox fan and faithful theatergoer, Ms. Zimmerman often took to the stage at clubs to perform stand-up routines. Friends recalled her keen wit and love of comedy.

In addition to her wife, Ms. Zimmerman leaves a brother, Billy of Foxborough; three stepsons, Matthew Dulchinos and Gregory Dulchinos, both of Chelmsford, and Paul Dulchinos of Barrington, R.I.; and three step-grandchildren.

A funeral service has been held and a memorial gathering will be held later this spring.

With Verros, Ms. Zimmerman traveled to Greece, India, China, Australia, Bali, and Israel, and she had long hoped to visit Russia. Because Ms. Zimmerman was unable to travel after her cancer diagnosis, a group of friends created a virtual tour of St. Petersburg and watched it with her on a computer in her bed.

“She was a trouper right to the end, she never complained,” Verros said. “She said she had only one regret: that she wouldn’t live to see Hillary Clinton become president.”

Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@comcast.net.
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