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Riverside’s Scott Bock leaves a powerful legacy

Scott Bock, founder of Riverside Community Care.

The legend of Scott Bock — human services executive extraordinaire — began with one little girl.

Bock was 18 when he got a job at a center for people with developmental disabilities. He was assigned to look after a 7-year-old girl named Gina, who was blind and couldn’t speak.

Though much about the conditions in his new workplace appalled him, he and Gina forged a connection. He could communicate with her, and she seemed to connect with him.

And, with that, an aspiring lawyer became a lifetime advocate for those who desperately needed his voice.

Bock, the founder and longtime CEO of Riverside Community Care, died Monday at 65 after a bout with cancer. He had stepped down from the helm of Riverside a few months ago after receiving his diagnosis.

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Riverside, which began with six employees and 40 clients 40 years ago, has grown into an institution that serves 40,000 developmentally disabled clients a year. Bock was a driving force in the movement to allow disabled people to live in their communities, rather than in the mental hospitals and institutions in which they had been hidden away for decades.

Governor Charlie Baker was a youthful health and human services secretary in the early 1990s when he first encountered Bock. He was a sharp contrast from the people Baker typically met with at the State House.

“The first time I met him, I remember it, because he had a beard and a ponytail,” Baker said in an interview last week. “He certainly wasn’t wearing a tie. But the thing I really remember about him, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone with such a clear vision for what community-based mental health should look like and how it should work.”

The once-controversial idea of community care is barely even debated now, and that is a tribute to Bock and his generation of advocates. They decisively won the battle for a more compassionate approach to health care.

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Incidentally, that passion runs in the family: His brother Barry Bock recently stepped down as the longtime head of Boston Health Care for the Homeless. They both devoted their careers to serving people who often go unseen.

“[Scott] and Barry both can claim lots of acolytes and proteges and people who grew up in their professions learning it from the two of them,” Baker said. “And they’re both really good at it.”

Anyone who knew Bock knew that he had one other huge passion, and that was for the blues. In his spare time — how did he have spare time? — he conducted countless interviews with musicians and wrote hundreds of profiles and other pieces for a host of blues publications. His archives of records and photographs are so extensive that they have been donated to research centers.

“My dad was a hippie in a suit who was as comfortable presenting in a boardroom as he was in the Mississippi Delta hanging around with blues musician friends such as Birdlegg Pittman and T-Bone Walker,” said his daughter Kimberly Herman, a former Globe reporter.

Marsha Medalie worked by Bock’s side for many years before succeeding him at the helm of Riverside. So close was their working relationship that Bock referred to their roles as “job-sharing.” So she saw firsthand how driven he was to provide the best care for Riverside’s clients.

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“He didn’t ask things of other people he wouldn’t do himself,” Medalie said. “When you worked with him, you were part of an important team, and he let you know it.”

Bock’s powerful legacy is an institution that has improved the quality of life for many thousands of people.

“Whether you live to be 100 or live to be 65, I think what we all want more than anything is to be able to go out believing we made a really big difference in a really positive way for people,” Baker said. “And the work that Scott’s done, and the way he’s done it, and the people he’s influenced will live on long after he’s gone.”


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.