After graduating from college, Rich Weintraub struggled for a while, working as a doorman in New York City and sleeping on the floor of his brother’s North End condo. Then he began volunteering at the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter, a step that led to his career improving the fragile lives of thousands of Boston’s poorest residents.
“Serendipity, right? All of a sudden, the next 30 years he’s working with the homeless,” said his brother, Robert, a former Brookline High School headmaster. “He fell into it, but it was who he was, that’s what was so interesting about it. He ended up doing work that was a real good match for his values. He became a fierce advocate for vulnerable people.”
Rising to become director of homeless services for the Boston Public Health Commission and director of the city’s Long Island shelter, Mr. Weintraub was instrumental in creating programs that provided job training for the homeless, transitional housing, and essential health services.
“He was a true public health pioneer and a champion for the homeless,” said Rita Nieves, deputy director of the health commission. “I cannot think of anyone else who would have done the work, and had the vision, that he had. He really was the architect of the services that we have right now that are serving homeless people. He deserves all the credit.”
Retiring in 2008, about 11 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Mr. Weintraub moved back to New York, where he had grown up. He was 63 when he died of complications from the illness July 4 in Weill Cornell Medical Center.
“Rich is simply one of the finest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet,” said Richard Ring, the president of FamilyAid Boston and a former Pine Street Inn executive director. “He was a gentle soul who had a love for life. He loved people and he had an incredible way of uniting people around him, whether in friendships or in the workplace.”
Those who championed Mr. Weintraub as he went about increasing opportunities for Boston’s most powerless included his peers and some of the city’s most powerful politicians.
“I really admired him – his commitment to the homeless and the poor,” said Raymond L. Flynn, who was Boston’s mayor when Mr. Weintraub began running Long Island shelter.
“Behind the scenes in a lot of situations, he was doing the actual grunt work of making things happen,” Jim Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in Cambridge, said of Mr. Weintraub’s efforts in the face of often thin funding.
“Richie Weintraub was trying to make sure the services were delivered in a way that made a difference in the lives of those who depended on them and respected their dignity and affirmed them in their efforts to reclaim their lives,” Stewart said. “I have nothing but respect and gratitude for what he tried to do to make services available. Everywhere he went homeless people were given opportunities to change their lives and were treated with respect.”
The middle of three siblings, Richard Weintraub grew up in New York’s Bayside, Queens, neighborhood. His father, Edward, worked for the US Labor Department. His mother, the former Judith Cohen, was a homemaker.
“My dad and mom were very public service people,” Robert, head of leadership and policy studies for the Boston University School of Education, recalled in an interview. He added that their parents passed along that commitment to service. The third of the siblings, Ellen, is a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission and has also chaired the FEC.
“Dad would often say in describing him that Rich was one of the most moral people he’d ever known,” Robert, who lives in Needham, said at a family graveside service. “Richie’s life work with the homeless was a huge 30-year expression of that morality, a massive canvas full of human stories which made his clients feel more recognized, understood, appreciated, loved, and cared for. This hard work over time was Richie Weintraub’s artistic masterpiece.”
Growing up in Queens, Mr. Weintraub was a tough basketball player who, with two friends, won an intramural three-player tournament. Once Phil Jackson, the future NBA coach who then played for the New York Knicks, stopped by the neighborhood for a pick-up game while rehabbing from an injury. “Richie stuffed him a couple of times,” his brother said with a laugh.
Mr. Weintraub graduated from the University of Vermont, where he met and dated Eva Posner. “We didn’t really get together until our senior year,” she said, and then they were in touch occasionally for three decades before marrying in 2010 and living on New York’s Upper East Side. “He was just a good guy. He was always fun.”
Ring, who was an assistant director of Pine Street Inn in the late 1970s, hired Mr. Weintraub as an entry level counselor and found he was a talented administrator.
Mr. Weintraub, meanwhile, couldn’t believe his good fortune, upon becoming a third-shift counselor in 1978. “I bought a convertible for $200,” he told the UVM publication Vermont Quarterly in 2002. “I remember driving down Memorial Drive along the Charles. I’d just landed this job. I was saying, ‘They’re paying me $9,000, I’m going to help people, and I’m driving a convertible.’ ”
“I was on top of the world,” he added with a laugh, but work was a constant reminder of the vast distance between his fund-raising responsibilities and the clients who depended on him for the basic necessities.
“I can be in these fancy meetings around town trying to raise money,” he told Vermont Quarterly, and then upon returning to Long Island shelter he would “get yelled at by some guy who’s missing a sheet. I say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’ll find your sheet.’ ”
A public service will be announced for Mr. Weintraub, who in addition to his wife, brother, and sister leaves his mother.
“I’m passionate about this job, because how could you not be? These people are living out on the streets,” Mr. Weintraub said for a tribute video in 2008 while standing outside the Long Island shelter, which closed in 2014 when the bridge to the mainland was deemed unsafe.
His many honors included the 2001 Shattuck Public Service Award. In 2009, Mayor Thomas M. Menino opened the Weintraub Day Center at the Woods-Mullen Shelter. Named for Mr. Weintraub, the day center offers numerous services under one roof — a tribute friends saw as fitting for someone whose many innovations included creating a farm on Long Island where homeless guests grew produce that was served in shelters throughout the city.
“You would see very, very proud homeless people who had started with dirt and seeds and had produced these beautiful vegetables. They had a sense of purpose,” said Dr. Jim O’Connell, president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless. “Rich was always pushing things like that. He always had an out-of-box idea.”