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Robert Spangenberg, 83; founded Boston Legal Assistance Project

Robert Spangenberg photographed in China. He established the Boston Legal Assistance Project in 1976.
Robert Spangenberg photographed in China. He established the Boston Legal Assistance Project in 1976.Carol Robinson

A longtime advocate for the disadvantaged, Robert Spangenberg led a study showing that Boston’s poorest residents don’t get the legal help they need, even when it’s available for free. Fewer than half who qualified knew legal help was available to them at no cost. And the number of those who miss out skyrocketed among the homebound elderly and residents who didn’t speak English fluently.

Those findings might sound like they’re from a current news report, but Mr. Spangenberg conducted this particular study in 1976, fresh off his stint launching and establishing the Boston Legal Assistance Project.

“Many poor people are unaware of their legal rights. Even when poor people are aware of their legal rights, they are often reluctant to enforce them because they fear retaliation,” he told the Globe that December, adding that among the most vulnerable there is “a distrust of the legal system and a pervasive feeling that all efforts will be futile.”

As a lawyer, consultant, and leader in the field of providing legal assistance to the indigent, Mr. Spangenberg helped design and launch programs across the country, and his studies shaped the debate from state courts and legislatures to the US Supreme Court. “I think he can truly be called the father of the modern indigent defense reform movement,” said Steve Hanlon, general counsel for National Association for Public Defense.

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Mr. Spangenberg, who was diagnosed more than three years ago with Alzheimer’s disease, died June 22 in hospice care at Newton-Wellesley Hospital from an infection that was a complication of the illness. He was 83 and had lived in Brookline after many years in Newton.

When the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 was approved, Mr. Spangenberg was among more than a dozen lawyers summoned to Washington, D.C., to meet with Sargent Shriver, head of the newly formed Office of Economic Opportunity, to design and provide a free legal aid component to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.

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“Those were very exciting days and I was very excited for the opportunity,” Mr. Spangenberg said in a 1990 interview for the National Equal Justice Library oral history collection.

Lawyers from those meetings traveled the country to put together legal services programs. Mr. Spangenberg wrote grant applications for projects from New Hampshire to Minnesota. “The message for us was to get out there, get these applications written, get them funded, get the programs up and running,” he recalled.

He never really stopped, until Alzheimer’s slowly curtailed his work at The Spangenberg Group, a consulting firm he launched in 1985 and served as president. With his firm, he led or contributed to projects for the American Bar Association and a host of states including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.

“Janet Reno, when she was United States attorney general, publicly called him a national treasure,” Hanlon said of Mr. Spangenberg.

“His work was cited by the United States Supreme Court in several cases sand cited in many state Supreme Court decisions. He had a remarkable career,” Hanlon added. “Those of us who are doing this work now, we’re all standing on his shoulders.”

Mr. Spangenberg might never have had that kind of wide-ranging influence if his father had prevailed in pushing him into the world of finance and statistics. The older of two siblings, Robert L. Spangenberg grew up in Newton. His father, Leonard, worked for Babson’s Reports, a respected Wellesley publication for investment analysts. His mother, the former Dorothy Peavey, was a homemaker.

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“His father wanted him to be an accountant. And Bob could add a column of a hundred figures in his head some years ago and get the right answer,” said Mr. Spangenberg’s wife, Carol Robinson. Even into his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, she added, his recall of sports statistics and the birthdays and ages of stars was undiminished.

After graduating from Newton High School, Mr. Spangenberg received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Boston University. After a couple of years of military service, he graduated from Boston University School of Law, where in his final year he was editor-in-chief of the law review. According to BU, the law school dean told Mr. Spangenberg that this position would bring offers from Boston’s biggest firms, and asked him which he would choose. “None,” replied Mr. Spangenberg, who already was interested in helping the indigent.

In a hint of what lay ahead, while in law school he and other students began working in Roxbury District Court, providing representation in misdemeanor cases. After graduating, he spent about two years in a Boston firm working on civil cases, and then formed a private practice with a colleague for a few years.

During the next couple of decades, until founding his consulting firm, he was an assistant dean at BU’s School of Law and an administrator at the university, helping secure funding for the Roxbury Defenders Project. He also worked in Washington as a special assistant to the director of Office of Legal Services, which was part of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

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In 1967, he became executive director of the Boston Legal Assistance Project, which had a budget to hire about 42 lawyers and create a dozen neighborhood offices throughout Boston. He led the organization into the mid-1970s and subsequently worked for several years at ABT Associates, a research organization in Cambridge.

Mr. Spangenberg’s first marriage ended in divorce. In 1978, he married Carol Robinson, who is now a cabaret singer.

In February, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants presented Mr. Spangenberg with a lifetime achievement award. His extensive list of studies and legal articles touched on everything from civil matters to the death penalty, and because of his years running or helping launch legal assistance agencies, his legacy extends from Boston’s legal community across the nation.

“Many a judge or a partner in a law firm came up through the ranks under Bob’s tutelage,” his wife said. “Often when we would get into an elevator, someone would say, ‘Hi, Bob,’ and announce, ‘He gave me my first job.’ ”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Spangenberg leaves a daughter, Julie of Quincy; two sons, Peter of West Roxbury and Brian; three granddaughters; and a great-grandson

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 17 in Grace Episcopal Church in Newton.

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Under no illusions that his work would ever fully meet the legal needs of the poor, Mr. Spangenberg told the Globe in 1976 that his efforts were akin to a “finger in a dike,” preventing a more devastating flood.

In the oral history interview, he recalled that friends and colleagues often looked at the enormity of the challenges he faced and wondered how he persevered. “I say, no, it’s exciting because every place I go it’s a new situation. There are new faces, new politics, there is a new battle to fight, and I can’t think of doing anything else,” he said. “There is nothing else that I would want to do right now, anything more than what I’m going to do for as long as I can.”


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