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David Kantor, innovative psychologist of group dynamics and halfway houses, dies at 93

Dr. Kantor taught at several schools, including Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine.
Dr. Kantor taught at several schools, including Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine.

Though David Kantor’s most lasting legacy was his pioneering work with his structural dynamics theory of communications, he was particularly proud of Wellmet, a halfway house for psychiatric patients he launched in Cambridge in 1960.

At Wellmet, which grew into a series of residences, he combined student volunteers with patients who were finding their way back into society after psychiatric hospital stays.

In an era when the societal approach to psychiatric care was evolving, he realized that students were often more open than many professionals to working in halfway houses – a then-new approach he thought was essential.

“In my view, we are now at the point where we recognize that it is not so simple as we once thought. It is not enough to ask the patient alone to change,” he told the Globe in 1968. “Unless the society has within it mechanisms flexible enough to respond to the changing needs of its individual members it will reach an impasse.”

Dr. Kantor, who founded multiple mental health and counseling organizations, died March 28 in his Cambridge home of complications from a stroke. He was 93 and had kept working on books after suffering a stroke three years ago.

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In a video interview posted on the website of the Kantor Institute, launched in 2014, he described structural dynamics as “a theory of face-to-face communication. It applies anytime there are two or more people in the room conversing. And if they have a history, they will develop dynamics.”

The theory’s foundation is “the four-player model. Its claim is that there are four and only four kinds of structural vocal acts – structural acts – that people use in all communication,” Dr. Kantor said.

“They can move: ‘Let’s go to the movies.’ That’s a move. They can follow. They can say, ‘That’s a good idea, I’d like to go to a movie.’ They can oppose. They can say, ‘First of all, I don’t want to go to the movies again. We’ve done that three times in the past month.’ The fourth and the most important vocal act is the bystander. The bystander executes what is the most important function in all communication – the ability to add perspective to what’s going on, and to bridge differences between people.”

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Dr. Kantor’s theories and models were “seminal,” said Dr. Barry Dym, a psychologist and longtime friend who was a cofounder the Family Institute of Cambridge.

Dym added that the lasting impact of Dr. Kantor’s ideas was due in part to memorable one-on-one encounters he had with those in the field – colleagues, patients, and students.

“David was an unbelievably compelling person in an intimate setting,” said Dym, who in 2006 started the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, based in Boston, which trains nonprofit managers and leaders.

Simply calling Dr. Kantor a psychotherapist didn’t capture all he meant to friends and patients, said Laurence Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University professor and professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School.

“He was basically a Socratic philosopher. I don’t think any professional category does justice to his career and what he was able to do,” said Tribe, who formerly was a patient of Dr. Kantor’s. They became friends after their professional relationship ended.

“He was a compassionate, creative teacher, and all of that came through in every personal interaction and everything he wrote,” Tribe said. “He was incredibly warm and a wonderful listener. He would make you want to share your deepest feelings.”

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Born in New York City on Dec. 17, 1927, David Kantor was the fourth of five siblings, and grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, a son of Lena and Louis Kantor.

“He grew up in Brooklyn very poor,” said his wife, Meredith Winter Kantor, who had a family and individual therapy practice for 40 years.

“David worked from the age of 11,” she added, laboring at jobs such as carrying mattresses.

Dr. Kantor graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and then went to Brooklyn College, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s – in 1950 and 1952 – while studying psychology and sociology. He received a doctorate from Brandeis University in 1963.

In 1956, he began working as a lecturer at Harvard University’s social relations department. Just as important, he spent considerable time working with patients in locked wards of psychiatric hospitals.

“I hated what I saw when I first went to those hospitals,” he told the Globe in 1986.

In the late 1950s, he began teaching a Harvard course that focused on the nature and treatment of mental illness, and his hospital experiences provided some of the inspiration to launch the first Wellmet halfway house at a time when such residences were in their relative infancy in the United States. Dr. Kantor drew his volunteer staff from his Harvard and Radcliffe College students.

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Creating a family atmosphere at Wellmet with what he called “an untypical composition” of the chronically mentally ill “and fresh students,” Dr. Kantor and his staff “attempted to use transitional status in as systematic a way as possible. People who are in transition are more open to change than people who are more stably located in an institution, [and] students who are in transition are just remarkable for what they’ll tolerate.”

During his career, Dr. Kantor also taught at Harvard Medical School, Tufts University School of Medicine, Northeastern University, and the Boston Family Institute, and he formerly was chief psychologist at Boston State Hospital.

He helped found the Boston Family Institute 1967, the Family Institute of Cambridge in 1974, and the Kantor Family Institute in 1980. His clinical research led to books such as “Inside the Family,” written with William Lehr and published in 1975.

Expanding his systems theory work to the business world, he engaged in management consulting. His other books included 2012′s “Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders.”

Dr. Kantor’s first marriage to Sharon Gordon, with whom he had five children, ended in divorce. She died earlier this year.

In 1971, he and Meredith Winter married.

“I was very much in love with David,” she said, adding that their adventures included owning a farm in New Hampshire and traveling.

Years ago, they also for a time had a cart – laden with what they and their friends had deemed the 100 best books – which traveled through Cambridge.

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“That was pulled by a donkey named Jenny. Sometimes I pulled this cart behind my Ford Falcon,” Meredith recalled. The experience, she added, “was just wonderful.”

In addition to his wife, Dr. Kantor leaves three daughters, Marcia Johnson of Michigan, Jessica of Richmond, Va., and Pamela of Watertown; two sons, Matthew of Santa Fe, N.M., and Richard of Watertown; a stepdaughter, Melissa Otis of Cambridge; a stepson, Samuel Otis of Pennsylvania; 16 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

A gathering to celebrate Dr. Kantor’s life and work will be announced.

Although he struggled after his stroke, Dr. Kantor still kept at his writing, trying to finish books.

During one visit, Dym wondered if Dr. Kantor, now facing such a health challenge, had turned his thoughts to impending mortality and an assessment of his life’s accomplishments.

“I said, ‘What are you thinking about,’ " Dym recalled. “He said, ‘Chapter 14.’ He was still trying to get that last book out.”


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