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In a time of crisis, Chris Hoeh’s generosity comes full circle

For Chris Hoeh, paralyzed in a skiing accident, physical therapy is a regular part of life. Therapist Mellissa Agriman-akis treated him at a recent Spaulding Hospital session.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

If you parse the meticulously crafted pages of his resume, the image of Chris Hoeh that slips into sharp focus is that of a good deed-doer whose generosity is part of the lore of Jamaica Plain.

He’s a second-grade teacher whose passion for social justice has won him national education awards. But the truer measure of the man is taken outside his classroom of tiny grammar school desks.

It’s measured by elderly neighbors, who recall the smiling wiry guy next door, shoveling their snow in January and cutting their grass in August, acts of kindness he delivered without being asked.

It’s recalled in the emotion-choked words of a single mother, an immigrant from Haiti, who remains in tearful gratitude for the man who for days kept a bedside vigil for her young son, shot on the streets of Mattapan, so she could care for her smaller children.


And it’s found in the words of his 17-year-old son, Isaac, who was skiing with his dad at a sprawling Vermont ski resort two months ago when his father gleefully whizzed by him on the slopes of Killington under a brilliant winter sun.

“I’m so ridiculously proud of my dad and inspired by my dad,’’ Isaac Hoeh said. “That day, I saw his legs go and I saw him just fall over and slide into a tree. I was thinking: He’ll get up. He always gets up.’’

Chris Hoeh did not get up. The ski patrol was called. An ambulance was summoned. And a life — actually many lives — were rearranged in an instant.

Something profound has happened to Chris Hoeh that has nothing to do with a medical prognosis that suggests that he’ll never walk again.

The 53-year-old community organizer, the liberal firebrand, the beloved coach now needs something that he has been supplying for much of his adult life: Love. Support. Help.


All of that is arriving daily. Meal after meal. Dollar after dollar. Get-well note after poignant get-well note — the tidings of a community rushing to return a lifetime of favors.

“I feel like what we’re doing for Chris right now is what Chris has taught other people to do for so long,’’ said Mary Limerick, whose son and daughter once sat at one of those small desks at Cambridge Friends School. “This is what a community does. Sometimes it comes full circle.’’

That circle for Chris Hoeh was shaped early in perfect geometric figures.

The oldest of five children, his mother, Sandra, once served as an alderman in Milwaukee. His father, David, graduated from Newton High School in 1956, and later received his PhD in political science from UMass Amherst, the platform for a life of political activism that his son soon would echo.

David Hoeh managed the New Hampshire primary campaign for Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose historic antiwar presidential bid in 1968 is still the stuff of liberalism’s canon. He went on to chair New Hampshire’s delegation to the volcanic Democratic National Convention in Chicago that summer, where he was arrested and jailed for protesting the convention’s bogus floor access system.

All of that may explain why you could find Chris Hoeh protesting nuclear submarine launches in Groton, Conn. Or knocking on doors for the campaigns of President Obama and US Senator Elizabeth Warren. It’s part of the reason you’ll find posters in his JP home emblazoned with the clarion call for social justice. It triggered his activism against bringing the Olympics to Boston, a plan he said would have helped the rich and done little for the least among us.


“As teachers, we need to live the values we’re teaching our kids about how you solve problems,’’ he told me the other day after a session with an occupational therapist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown. “We need to teach about who you work with to build community. About how you help and shape history. About how it’s rewarding. About how being selfish is not a good way to live.’’

If you’re thinking that’s heady stuff for second-graders, think again.

Hoeh says little kids have an innate sense of justice, a pure sense of fairness that he loves and loves to nurture.

It’s the work of an unusually gifted educator, work that has won him awards from the National Council for Social Studies, which named him its elementary social studies teacher of the year in 2015. A year before that, the Southern Poverty Law Center conferred its teaching tolerance award on him for his efforts to combat prejudice and encourage equity.

He took that educational philosophy with him to the soccer field as a founding director of the Jamaica Plain Youth Soccer Academy, a development program for kids in grades 1 to 4, spreading a sportsmanship gospel that many kids — and even more parents — cannot grasp: If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.


“Most youth programs are about kids playing games where there’s only winning and losing,’’ he said. “It doesn’t help kids become better soccer players. It’s not kid-like. It’s not fun.’’

That sportsmanship credo helps explains why he was with his son atop the ski slopes of Killington on Feb. 10.

His father, David Hoeh, was 79 when he died after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer on Feb. 8 at his Vermont home. Skiing had been a father-son tradition for as long as Chris Hoeh could remember and now, two days after his dad’s death, a trip back to the mountain seemed both an appropriate salve and a tribute.

Chris and Isaac skied all morning, ate squished homemade ham sandwiches at a mountaintop lodge, and then headed for new snow on the other side of Killington. “I skied down ahead of my dad and my dad skied past me and made some kind of happy noise like, ‘Weeeeee,’ ’’ Isaac recalled.

Chris cut to the right. Lots of soft snow there, he thought. But it wasn’t powder. It was ice.

“I don’t remember falling, but I remember seeing the sky and not feeling my legs,’’ Chris told me after a morning of therapy at Spaulding the other day. “My face was in the snow. I flipped backward and hit the back of my head. I knew it was really bad, and I remember the first thoughts were that I just felt horrible for my family.’’


What followed were three surgeries on his shattered spine and a series of hospital transfers that have led to Spaulding, where the other day Lauren Cotter, his occupational therapist, was guiding him through a regimen designed to strengthen his upper body and improve his balance. “I don’t expect to be out of a wheelchair,’’ Hoeh said.

“But you never stop trying,’’ Cotter told him.

She can be sure of that. Quitting is not what Chris Hoeh does. He and his wife, Laurie Bozzi, are making plans to move to a handicapped accessible apartment in Forest Hills. Later, they intend to move from the second floor of their home on Adelaide Street in JP to the first floor, swapping places with a tenant.

But that’s costly, and hardly a done deal.

Samuel Johnson, a physical therapy student at Spaulding Hospital and therapist Mellissa Agrimanakis worked with Chris Hoeh during a recent therapy session. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

“We really want to stay in our home, but it’s tricky because you have to get up eight feet and these old homes have little rooms and little doors,’’ he said. “At this point, the cost of renovation is more than we expected.’’

The people he’s helped along the way are lining up now to form a critical support network.

“He’s the best,’’ said Hilbert Nickerson, a World War II veteran who moved to Adelaide Street in 1953. “He’s very soft-spoken. He’s a gentleman. He’d really try to help you with anything you needed.’’

Margela Olivier-Galette first met Hoeh after her young son told Hoeh his family didn’t have the money to join the soccer league. His response? Don’t worry about it.

“He’s got the biggest heart I’ve ever seen’’ she said of the man who once slept next to her child after those shots rang out in Mattapan. “He lifted so much weight from my shoulders. Coach is an angel that God sent to me.’’

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. David Hoeh would say that about his son Chris, who would say it about his son Isaac.

Isaac, a high school senior, is now on a school trip, studying the Holocaust, with visits to Poland and Germany. He’s headed to UMass Amherst in the fall.

He’ll always remember the panic he heard in his father’s voice on the side of that mountain in February. And he’ll never forget the courage he’s witnessed since.

“My dad will go from being the coolest guy at a protest to the coolest guy in a wheelchair at a protest,’’ Chris Hoeh’s son said. “He’s just done amazing stuff. And whether he’s in a wheelchair or not, he’s going to keep doing that stuff.’’

Those are the words of a son, a student who has been paying attention to the lessons and to the example of a father.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at