By 1963, Thomas J. Brown had already climbed the ranks of Boston business. Tall and handsome, he was an account executive at Marvin and Leonard Advertising and looked like Harry Belafonte. He could have played a lot more golf, but he decided to help other African-Americans find careers instead.
He opened a small nonprofit in downtown Boston called Jobs Clearing House. Employment listings were neatly written on index cards and classified ads were clipped and stored in three-ring binders. The phone was always ringing.
“I’m in this because somebody has to do it,” Mr. Brown told the Globe in 1964. “I don’t call this a problem. It’s a situation. It’s a matter of semantics. A problem can be solved. A situation can only change — get better or worse. Take any problem and a computer can solve it for you. This situation is not going to be solved in our lifetime.”
Mr. Brown, who according to his agency’s records connected more than 10,000 Boston area residents to jobs during the office’s 30-year history, died of cancer June 24 in Milton Hospital. He was 88 and lived in Canton.
Job seekers never paid a fee and Mr. Brown took no salary. Grants from the Ford Foundation, Harvard University, and Boston business leaders paid the rent.
“He wasn’t the type of guy who sat behind the desk and talked down to people or made them feel uncomfortable,” said Leon Rock, who was a high school dropout in 1969 when he first walked into the office. “He came around the desk and said, ‘Come here, young man. What’s going on with you?’ ”
Mr. Brown shepherded Rock into studying drafting at the Boston Architectural Center and later recommended him for a job at Raytheon.
“He was just a marvelous guy, so down to earth,” said Rock, who now is a consultant in Washington, D.C.
Rock added that Mr. Brown “was the one who coached me” to go to Raytheon.
“He was a door-opener more than anything else,’’ said Rock. “He talked with them about me and said this is a great young man who is trying to get his life in order.”
Mr. Brown left advertising in 1965 and became special assistant to Edwin H. Land, founder of Polaroid Corp., where he managed to turn his post into a “bully pulpit” for social change, according to his family.
“A call from Land’s office to other Greater Boston CEOs would make it difficult for them to refuse to consider hiring racial minorities,” his family wrote in a tribute.
Mr. Brown’s longtime friend Melvin B. Miller, founder and publisher of the Bay State Banner, said Mr. Brown’s contributions to Boston’s black community are immeasurable.
“We have a number of black heroes who have done extraordinary things,” Miller said. “Their legacy is written on the souls of the people in a way they don’t even know it’s there.”
Miller said he and Mr. Brown worked to deliver minority candidates for jobs Mr. Brown unearthed in conversations with executives who said they could not find qualified minorities. Miller ran ads in the Bay State Banner for the positions and sent the candidates to Jobs Clearing House.
“I understood the game and said, ‘OK Tom, here’s the deal, any time these guys try to set you up . . . we’ll run ads in the Banner.’ That was one of the ways the Banner became a major employment source for blacks together with Jobs Clearing House,” Miller said.
Laughing as he recalled Mr. Brown’s audacity, Miller said that “it’s impossible for the younger generation to understand the chutzpah of him being a special assistant to Land and then using that office to call up the CEOs of companies and say, ‘I was down at your office the other day and didn’t see one black face. What’s going on?’ ”
Born in Fall River, Mr. Brown was one of five children whose father worked as a master mechanic. At Durfee High School, Mr. Brown was voted the boy with the best personality in his 1942 graduating class.
In 1987, when the school gave him an award for outstanding graduate, he told The Herald News of Fall River that he did not suffer discrimination during his school days.
“I really never even thought of it,” Mr. Brown told the newspaper. “I heard of it, of course, but personally it never touched me. I was carefree and I was young. Everyone at Durfee High was wonderful to me. I had loads of friends.”
Mr. Brown told stories about dancing to big band swing music and singing in the glee club, and said he was the first African-American student in the region accepted into DeMolay International, a young men’s leadership society begun in 1919.
He joined the Army and served three years before returning to Fall River. Friends told him about the GI Bill and he applied to Brown University. He spent his college years taking part in the Junior Chamber of Commerce and graduated in 1950 with a degree in English.
He served as a trustee at Brown and received a John S. Hope Award in 1997 for extraordinary commitment to volunteer public service.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Brown worked at Raytheon as a project coordinator before going into advertising.
His wife, Inez, who is known as Bev, said their mothers were friends and introduced them. They were married 60 years ago.
“He always kept you laughing,” she said. “You better be sharp, too. He kept you on your feet. We had a wonderful life together.”
A registered nurse, she often worked alongside him at Jobs Clearing House. The nonprofit closed in the 1990s when they could no longer work long hours and had no one to replace them, she said.
“He never took one penny in compensation,” she said. “That’s the kind of guy he is. You never know what he did for people because he wasn’t a person who talked about it.”
Once retired, they spent evenings playing Scrabble. In winter, they went to West Palm Beach, Fla., where they enjoyed playing golf.
“I had the hole-in-one,” she quipped. “I taught him everything he knows.”
A service was held in Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury for Mr. Brown, who in addition to his wife leaves nieces and nephews. Burial will be private.
The Bay State Banner heralded Mr. Brown’s devotion to diversity in employment in its 40th anniversary edition.
“I was pleased to be able to cite him as one of the people who did more for the welfare of black people than everybody will ever know,” Miller said.