Studying social work in college was, in a way, sound preparation for what became much of Joan Rubin’s life work.
Though she donated time to serve on boards and agencies in Newton and on Beacon Hill, and helped find opportunities for other would-be volunteers, her principal calling was raising three sons, whom she gracefully guided through the never simple years of adolescence.
“When I was in high school, our house became the epicenter of a pretty extended group of friends, and I think it was because my mother had a way of making things so inviting,’’ said her youngest son, Roger, of New York City. “I think the reason it was welcoming was because of the force and the power of her personality, and how cared-for you felt when she was around.’’
Mrs. Rubin, who served for many years on Newton’s Human Rights Commission and volunteered with the state’s consumer affairs office, died of lung cancer Tuesday in her Newton home. She was 81.
“We will be forever grateful for all her contributions to our group,’’ said Brenda Krasnow, a commissioner on the Newton Human Rights Commission.
Even near the end, when illness curtailed trips from home, she continued to attend commission meetings, serving in recent years on its advisory board.
“She was a very fervent believer in human rights,’’ Krasnow said. “Joan contributed insightful comments on what she thought about the inequities of society. She was very compassionate, very intelligent, and very caring, and she always had words of wisdom.’’
Having also belonged to Chestnut Hill’s safety coalition, serving a stint on its steering committee, Mrs. Rubin stayed familiar with those elected to city government, and they knew her.
“Joan Rubin was just a very gracious lady,’’ said Lisle Baker, a longtime Newton alderman. “She was a gracious person and good company.’’
During years of after-school afternoons, her sons and their friends had the opportunity to see firsthand just what good company she could be.
“My mom engaged our friends in discussions about their lives, what they were doing, whether they were applying for college, who they were going out with,’’ said her son Peter of Newton, an associate justice for the Massachusetts Appeals Court. “She was always interested in them and always interested in other people.’’
Born Joan Barbara Aronson, she was the youngest of three children and grew up in Mattapan. Her mother had emigrated from just outside Kiev, her father from Russia. He manufactured and sold raincoats.
“I know that her father lost everything in the Depression,’’ Peter said. “He had been very successful, and he worked and rebuilt his business from nothing again.’’
Mrs. Rubin graduated from Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester and went to Smith College in Northampton, from which she graduated in 1951 with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
For several years she worked as a secretary at Harvard Law School until she encountered Gerald R. Rubin.
“They met at an election eve party in 1956,’’ said Peter, and they married the following year.
A certified public accountant, Mr. Rubin helped found the Boston firm Greene, Rubin, Miller & Pacino. He also lectured at Northeastern University for many years and was often a guest on radio talk shows, offering tax advice. Mr. Rubin died in 1999.
While her children were growing up, Mrs. Rubin became involved with community organizations, and in later years she worked briefly as a commercial real estate broker.
Looking for other ways to contribute, her sons said, she went one year to a Newton event sponsored by an organization that evolved into SOAR 55, or Service Opportunities After Reaching 55. The organization matches volunteers with agencies that need their specific skills. Mrs. Rubin, Peter wrote in an e-mail, volunteered “in her typical way for SOAR itself, helping other older people find volunteer opportunities.’’
And when she and her husband came across people in need, such as recent immigrants who had difficulties finding legal and medical assistance, they worked quietly to find assistance.
“Sometimes they got money to people or their families, and sometimes it meant finding sympathetic people who could get help to them,’’ said her son Marc of Marblehead, chief of surgery at North Shore Medical Center. “If anyone ever needed anything, the answer was always yes.’’
Mrs. Rubin “saw really good things in every person, and I think she connected with those parts of people,’’ said Roger, a sports reporter with the New York Daily News.
That trait was evident as illness made life more difficult.
“She was always smiling, and I have to say I was always struck by that,’’ Marc said. “Even at the end when she was clearly suffering, you would come into her home and say, ‘Mom, how are you doing,’ and with a big smile she would say, ‘I’m good, I’m fine, I’m doing great.’ She had a warmth and a positivity about her that I think really radiated.’’
In addition to her sons, Mrs. Rubin leaves a sister, Lois Stone of Falmouth, and three grandchildren.
A service will be held at 12:30 Friday in Temple Israel in Boston. Burial will follow at Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon.
“When I looked around her room the other day, there were no worldly possessions,’’ Marc said. “She was all about making people feel good and feel better, and she was a master at that. At the end, there were a number of us in the room with her, and that’s what it was all about with my mother. It was about relationships.’’