As the longtime director of the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center in Roxbury, Samantha Sadd initiated programs that let generations of children participate in cultural, educational, and recreational activities, including learning to swim, ski, and play tennis.
“She was really driven to ensure that all the kids in the community had a variety of experiences so they could grow into well-rounded people,” said Danielle Sommer of Dorchester, who has worked on the center’s staff. “She was always asking herself and everyone on the team, ‘How do we get them to the place they need to be?’ ”
One place Ms. Sadd did not want to be was in the spotlight. She was camera-shy, always wore a hat, and preferred to talk about the center, rather than herself. In 1992, Rosie’s Place, the nation’s first shelter for homeless women, honored Ms. Sadd with one of its first Unsung Heroine Awards.
“I think I’ve been sung,” Ms. Sadd said when the Globe tried to interview her before the ceremony, shifting the topic to the center’s programs and the children’s accomplishments.
Ms. Sadd, who lived in the Highland Park section of Roxbury for more than 40 years, died Feb. 4 in Boston Medical Center of complications from pulmonary disease. She was 74.
Famous among the community center’s staff, parents, and children for remembering everyone’s birthday, Ms. Sadd never revealed her own to colleagues. “She used to just laugh and say that every day was her birthday,” Sommer said.
As a child, Sommer frequented the center, where she met Ms. Sadd. “She just embodied this place,” Sommer said. “She was like our battery.”
Sommer recalled that she and scores of other children participated in apple-picking and “making tacos around a campfire” through the many programs Ms. Sadd led.
Ms. Sadd, Sommer added, “did the work of five people.”
Born Sara Lee Soloway, she unofficially changed her name to Samantha Sadd around the time she arrived in Roxbury in the early 1970s and never explained why to friends and colleagues, who knew her as Sam.
“She was a complex person,” said her sister Ellen Soloway of New Orleans, who described Ms. Sadd as adventuresome, persistent, and “very brilliant.”
Soloway said that at a gathering in Roxbury after her sister died, several men “who were very emotional” approached to say that if it had not been for Ms. Sadd, they would have ended up in prison, addicted to drugs, or dead. One man “drove so far, from God knows where, just to tell me how she turned his life around,” Soloway said. “And he kept saying, ‘She got me to ski.’ ”
Ms. Sadd was not fond of titles, but the staff said she was the organization’s leader for more than 40 years. She researched grants, raised funds, and collaborated with city departments to create educational opportunities for children and teenagers.
Wendy Ellertson of Roxbury, artist in residence and a volunteer at the center, said that on the day trucks filled with gravel arrived to start the project, Ms. Sadd “opened the backdoor and started jumping up and down like a 6-year-old kid.”
The Hawthorne Youth and Community Center was created in the late-1960s to provide a safe place for children.
After arriving in Boston, Ms. Sadd was at the center “pretty much every night,” Ellertson said, and nearly always was “wearing her wonderful denim hat with the sunflower on it.”
As part of the center’s programs, Ms. Sadd took groups on outings to campsites, water parks, and throughout Boston via the MBTA. “She taught them about the city and beyond,” said Ellertson, who added that her friend might take children shopping for food, then bring them back and show them how to make a salad.
In Roxbury’s Marcella Park, once the domain of drug dealers, Ms. Sadd organized an annual Christmas tree lighting along with hip-hop and jump-roping programs, outdoor concerts, and movie screenings. “When the park was being renovated the first time, in the ’80s, there really was a lot of drug activity,” Ms. Sadd told the Globe in 2004. “Just by being there, we moved the drug dealers to another corner.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was the oldest of three sisters and was 10 when her family moved to Monticello, N.Y. She attended the State University of New York in Cortland and worked as a waitress at the Monticello Raceway, where “she was a whiz at handicapping racehorses,” her sister said.
Ms. Sadd graduated with a bachelor’s degree in recreational education and went to the University of Kentucky, where she completed her doctoral dissertation in English in 1971. She wrote her dissertation on the novels of British mystery writer Dorothy Sayers. “We have a family history of loving mysteries,” said her sister.
When she left Kentucky, Ms. Sadd joined VISTA, the Volunteers in Service to America, which brought her to Roxbury and the Hawthorne Youth and Community Center. She ended up staying and “this place became her life,” Ellertson said.
The expanded center will open in June. When it does, a celebration of Ms. Sadd’s life will be held, and the new center will be dedicated to her.
Staff and children at the center found it significant that she died on the day that concrete was poured for the foundation. Ellertson recalled a third-grade boy who said: “Sam did her job. Now the ball’s in our court.”
“We’re all so sad that she didn’t live to see the finished center, but she was the one who brought us to this point,” Ellertson said. “She was so incredible for the outpouring of energy she gave the kids and the community.”
Kathleen McKenna of Hingham can be reached at email@example.com.