Metro

Henry Smith, 86; former director of ABCD SummerWorks

Mr. Smith devoted 26 years to Action for Boston Community Development.
Mr. Smith devoted 26 years to Action for Boston Community Development.

Summer was anything but a vacation for Henry Smith, who managed Action for Boston Community Development’s employment and training program, ensuring that at-risk youths had jobs during the months when school was out.

“Henry was the father figure to all those kids, and if you could ever put them all together they would tell you how important he was to their lives and their development,” said Charlie Titus, a University of Massachusetts Boston vice chancellor who participated in ABCD’s SummerWorks program while in college and later served on the agency’s staff.

During the 26 years Mr. Smith worked for ABCD, he helped recruit and find jobs for the tens of thousands of teenagers who participated in the agency’s programs, some for consecutive summers, and he placed them in the 300 to 400 work sites the agency used annually.

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“It really was an awful lot of organization to make this work for six to eight weeks during the summer, and sometimes we extended it to 10,” said John J. Drew, ABCD’s chief executive. “It was a huge managerial thing, to get up an operation, to get a payroll for 5,000 kids. And he knew that for a lot of the kids, the money they made during the summer went back into the household to help the families.”

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Mr. Smith, whose health had been failing, died Jan. 16 in Chelsea Jewish Nursing Home. He was 86 and had been living in East Boston.

“He had a fire in his belly for putting low-income kids to work and getting them started, and he did it very well,” said Jill Alexander of Marblehead, who worked at ABCD in the 1980s and remained friends with Mr. Smith thereafter. “He didn’t brook any nonsense. He didn’t understand, ‘I can’t do it.’ They were capable, they could do it, and they did.”

Recruiting youths from schools in Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, Mr. Smith would “grab them and say, ‘Come on, you need a job,’ ” said his wife, Theresa Brazil of East Boston, who met him while both worked at ABCD. “He believed in them when they didn’t believe in themselves and wanted so much for the kids to get chances he didn’t get himself as a kid. My husband was really a hero to so many people.”

As he coordinated the logistics of placing thousands of youths in job sites, Mr. Smith “was a no-nonsense guy,” Drew said. “The kids knew this wasn’t going to be a ‘saunter through the summer and then collect a paycheck.’ ”

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Drew added that “the kids looked up to him. He was a guy who would hold them to a certain level of accountability, but he would come through for them. I can’t say enough about how much I liked working with him.”

The second of five siblings, Henry J. Smith grew up in Roxbury.

“His childhood was hard,” his wife said. “His mother had to work and he was raised mostly by his grandmother. His father wasn’t around. It was hard, but he was somebody who had a lot of spirit and he made things happen for himself.”

Mr. Smith’s mother, who was from Bermuda, worked as household help for a doctor and sometimes was away from home days and nights during the week. In later years, Mr. Smith ensured that his family’s branches in Bermuda and the United States gathered for reunions.

After high school, Mr. Smith worked for the Donnelly advertising firm in Boston, putting up new ads on billboards. “He got tired of waiting to advance, so he just left, and ABCD found him,” his wife said.

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He began working at ABCD in March 1969 and stayed until retiring in summer 1995, working with the employment and training initiatives and directing the SummerWorks program.

“Henry Smith meant so much to so many young people negotiating the world of work and life throughout the ’70s. He was a true friend and a great mentor with an uncanny ability to speak thought-provoking truths,” Titus wrote in a tribute, adding: “I am forever grateful for having the blessing of Henry Smith when I needed him the most.”

Mr. Smith’s first marriage, to Dolores Kersey, ended in divorce. They had nine children.

Along with working at ABCD, Mr. Smith “was a well-read man, very quick-witted,” Titus recalled in an interview. “He could engage in conversation on any topic, and he was a challenger. He always challenged you to be at your best, to do your best. He was committed to service and helping other people who were less fortunate.”

Mr. Smith was known for being “very passionate and very tireless, and that’s the way he was about his whole life,” Alexander said. “He was very honest, very direct, and he had little tolerance for political and bureaucratic game-playing.”

After retiring, Mr. Smith served on ABCD’s board.

“Someone would inevitably come up to him and say, ‘Mr. Smith, do you remember me? You got me my first job, you put me into motion,’ ” Alexander said. “I witnessed this repeatedly. He was beloved and remembered by so many.”

Mr. Smith and Brazil were a couple for 33 years and married in 1995. “We had a happy marriage,” she said, “and I miss him terribly.”

In addition to Brazil, Mr. Smith leaves four daughters, Sheila Carmichael of Medford, Jeannine Pope and Stirling Whitcomb, both of Arlington, and Meagan Graham of Whitman; five sons, Vincent of Rohnert Park, Calif., Walter of Fitchburg, Russell of Berkeley, Calif., and Bruce and Brooke, both of Rockland; two stepchildren, Jennifer Jayme of San Jose, Calif., and Eric Shelnutt of Folsom, Calif.; 14 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

A service has been held.

At the end of each summer, when the jobs program ended, Mr. Smith went to Bermuda to be with his extended family. “That’s where he would go to chill out, as he put it,” his wife said. “He’d go for a couple of weeks and always wanted to be alone so he could rest.”

Drew recalled that by summer’s end “we were all wiped out, but I would say Henry’s intensity was 24/7. One of the things I recollect about Henry is you’d never see him relax.”

When Mr. Smith’s respite was over, he plunged back in, Drew said: “Henry would take his vacation right after summer and then come right back and start recruiting kids from schools.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.