Keith W. Rawlins Jr., 86, social worker in Mass.

Mr. Rawlins helped to find welcoming families to host foster children and worked at the Public Welfare agency.
Mr. Rawlins helped to find welcoming families to host foster children and worked at the Public Welfare agency.

During his time as head of what was then the state’s Division of Family and Children’s Services, Keith W. Rawlins Jr. knew what kind of home would provide the best haven for a foster child.

“We like foster parents to be warm and accepting, with enough love to give,” he told the Globe in 1973.

The challenge, he said, was finding enough foster parents who fit such criteria, especially for African-American children.


“We have some black foster homes with 12 to 14 children in them,” he said in the same interview. “We need additional foster homes, particularly for black children and older children.”

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Mr. Rawlins, who liked to tell family and friends he was fondest of his first social work job directing the West Medford Community Center, died of congestive heart failure and kidney failure June 14 in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was 86 and lived in Oak Bluffs.

His family recalled that the advice Mr. Rawlins offered was so valued that youngsters he had worked with would go to great lengths to seek his counsel, even after they were grown.

Mr. Rawlins “heard what you said and what you didn’t say, so he was successful,” said his wife, Elizabeth.

Former clients often offered accolades, said his family and friends.


Sam Turner, a longtime friend, said there always were “some adults who would come up to him and say: ‘I’ll never forget how you showed me what an education could do.’ ”

“Keith was a very outgoing person and loved to bring groups together,” said Turner, who added that he and Mr. Rawlins “would work together in that regard, trying to break down racial barriers within the communities.”

Mr. Rawlins also was very involved in the civil rights movement and participated in the 1965 marches in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

“He was a great believer in equality for all, and that’s all it’s ever been about: treating people like you would like them to treat you,” said his son, Paul of Southborough.

Even in the face of adversity, Mr. Rawlins “was very even tempered,” his son said. “I give him a lot of credit for that.”


Born in Boston, Mr. Rawlins was the oldest of four children and grew up in Cambridge, graduating in 1945 from what then was Rindge Technical School.

He first encountered Elizabeth B. Miller, whom he married in 1954, when they sang in a Cambridge church choir together. His maternal grandmother went to the same church as her maternal grandmother, and they met through their grandmothers.

Mr. Rawlins graduated from Central State College in Wilberforce, Ohio, with a bachelor’s degree in social work. He took night classes at Boston University and completed a master’s in social work in 1954.

He also did doctoral work and attended Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge when he was considering pursuing the priesthood.

Mr. Rawlins began his career as director of the West Medford Community Center in 1951, just after graduating from Central State College.

He went on to serve as executive director of the Protestant Social Service Bureau in Quincy, the Cambridge Community Center, and the Church Home Society.

Shifting to the public sector, Mr. Rawlins worked for the state Department of Public Welfare. His other positions included working for the Roxbury Court Clinic and the state Department of Mental Health in Danvers, from which he retired in the mid-1980s.

He resigned from his job as head of the state Division of Family and Children’s Services in June 1973 and asked for a transfer to another state job. His departure came after Governor Francis W. Sargent’s administration issued a report criticizing how the state’s foster care programs were being administered by a department with a 30 percent vacancy rate among child social workers.

Mr. Rawlins also served as director of social work at the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in the South End. While there, he went to several friends, whom he had helped pull together for a supper club, and asked if they could cook a proper Thanksgiving meal for the patients.

“That was typical of the kind of thing that he would take leadership roles in,” Turner said, “and it really made a difference to the residents there.”

Mr. Rawlins also put his organizing and leadership abilities to work for several Episcopal churches in the region, including St. Bartholomew’s in Cambridge, where he became a lay Eucharistic minister. When his family moved to Hingham in the mid-1960s, he held the same title at St. John the Evangelist Church.

Well before he and his wife moved to Martha’s Vineyard permanently in 1993, he was a longtime trustee at Trinity Episcopal Church in Oak Bluffs and served for about five years as a warden of the church.

“He’s the one that did the work,” said the Rev. Jep Streit, one of the visiting priests at Trinity Episcopal Church. “He was always uncomplaining, without trying to seek glory. He did what he thought was necessary for the community.”

Mr. Rawlins blended his rich, low tenor voice seamlessly with others in church choirs. He was fond of bursting into song and often sang his favorites, including “My Way,” popularized by Frank Sinatra, and the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”

“You knew where he was in church when he sang,” said his longtime friend Roberta Jackson of Newton, who added that “he also really was very warm and welcoming to people.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Rawlins leaves a daughter, Pattie of Brockton, and two grandchildren.

Services have been held for Mr. Rawlins. Burial was in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

“When you’re doing work like social work or education, so much of the growth of individuals depends upon how you relate to them . . . and how you make them feel that they have the ability to do whatever they set their heart on,” his wife said.

Mr. Rawlins “was a very encouraging person,” she said. “He was always thinking about what kids need to help them develop and grow, and he worked all day and half the night.”

Emma Stickgold can be reached at