Long before boutiques and high-end restaurants dominated the landscape in the South End, Jeanette Boone-Smith helped push drug dealers and pimps out of the neighborhood.
In the 1980s, she fought for construction of mixed-income apartments, which gave longtime residents a chance to stay in their neighborhood amid rising real estate values, and she spent more than 15 years working on policy issues and constituent services for US Senator John Kerry.
“Jeanette was truly a visionary and a social revolutionary, someone who brought compassion, energy, and advocacy to a new level,” Kerry said.
Mrs. Boone-Smith died of cancer Oct. 23 in her South End home. She was 77.
Mourners packed the Roxbury Presbyterian Church Saturday for her memorial service, listening to Kerry and other speakers extol her devotion to others and her boundless energy for trying to improve lives.
Born in Englewood, N.J., where her parents died when she was young, Mrs. Boone-Smith honed her organizational and political skills while fighting for social justice in that city in the 1960s and ’70s.
She arrived in Boston in 1982 when she married Perry Smith, who was a widower when friends introduced them. Their home on Shawmut Avenue became the place where scores of young people found advice and encouragement, along with homemade macaroni and cheese on Sunday.
“She took me under her wings and treated me like I came out of her womb,” said Jetro da Silva, a music student from Brazil 20 years ago when an invitation for Sunday dinner began his close relationship with Mrs. Boone-Smith.
“She changed my life totally,” said da Silva, now a Berklee College of Music professor and ordained minister who spent more than a decade touring with singer Whitney Houston.
Mrs. Boone-Smith “molded me,” he said. “If I know anything about America, it is because of Jeanette.”
When Mrs. Boone-Smith moved to Boston, she quickly plunged into local politics, becoming leader of the Ward 9 Democratic Committee. “She ran for the chairmanship and won, which surprised a lot of people,” her husband said.
In 1987, she helped start the Four Corners Development Corp., which built Langham Court apartments, an 84-unit mixed income development. The building won architecture awards for blending into the historic neighborhood.
In 1982, Kerry hired her as his executive assistant when he was elected lieutenant governor. He took her with him when he was elected to the US Senate.
Mrs. Boone-Smith’s “warm, generous, open personality and remarkable compassion for people in need” helped his office aid tens of thousands who over the years called seeking assistance, Kerry said.
Mrs. Boone-Smith retired in 2000 and then volunteered to help at-risk youths in the city. She joined clergy from urban churches and Boston police officers as they knocked on doors of troubled youths every week and counseled them to change their lives.
Then, in September 2011, her grandson, Justin Albert, was surrounded by a group of young men outside a check-cashing business in Boston and stabbed to death. He was 22.
“What happened to her grandson was exactly the reflection of what she was fighting against,” da Silva said.
Ivy Jones-Turner of Dorchester, who considered Mrs. Boone-Smith a second mother, recalled hearing her talk about her grandson’s death to young men she feared were flirting with lives of crime.
“If this can happen to my grandson, and he was never involved with it,” Mrs. Smith told them, “if this could happen to him, what can happen to you?”
Grief threatened to rip all the joy from Mrs. Boone-Smith’s life, her friends said. She had helped raise her grandson, whose father, her only son Tracey Albert, had died recently from cancer.
She, too, was diagnosed with cancer that November and found solace in her faith, her family said. She was an ordained elder and deacon at Roxbury Presbyterian, where she served as church secretary and chaired the board of trustees. She also taught Sunday school for more than 20 years and sang in the choir. She was sought after to sing “Precious Lord” and “Even Me” at the funerals of church members, friends said.
Focused and detail-oriented, Mrs. Boone-Smith was known for bringing success to any endeavor she joined, they said.
“She was a strong woman, a religious woman,” said Perry Smith, to whom she was married for 30 years.
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Smith leaves three brothers, Livingston Boone Jr. of Browns Mills, N.J., Nathaniel Boone of Manchester, Vt., and David Boone of Cleveland; and two grandsons.
Burial will be in George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus, N.J.
“I’ve always been very proud of her,” said Nathaniel. “She was always bright and cheerful and would do anything for anyone.”
Their father, Livingston, and mother, the former Beatrice Scott, both died of tuberculosis, Nathaniel said. His sister was then raised by an aunt. She graduated from Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood in 1952 and attended Bergen Community College in New Jersey.
The loss of her own parents seemed to make Mrs. Boone-Smith determined to reach out to young people.
Bradley Turner of Dorchester credited her with helping him forge a career as a research scientist when he came to Boston from New Jersey to study at Harvard University, and began attending her church. He now works at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “Jeanette was amazing,” Turner said. “She cared deeply for everyone. She pushed every time I saw her. I could always count on her asking, ‘How are you? How’s it going? Haven’t you finished that yet?’ ”