For many Dorchester youths, Velma Haith was the basketball lady, coaching their teams and introducing them to life outside Boston while driving them to tournaments — cheering on their every score as she called out from the side of the court: “Who loves you, baby?”
More than just a coach, more than just the driver of the Lee School’s blue van, Mrs. Haith “gave us everything she had — emotionally, physically, and financially. It was perfectly clear throughout our journey together that Velma loved us, and we loved her,” Alonzo Fulgham wrote in a eulogy that Mrs. Haith’s daughter Carla read during a packed memorial service at Faith Christian Church in Boston.
“I frankly owe everything I am to Velma Haith,” wrote Fulgham, who formerly was acting administrator of the US Agency for International Development. “Simply put, she helped me to become the man she expected me to be, and that I came to realize I ought to be.”
Mrs. Haith, whose contributions also were praised in proclamations by city and state officials, died in her Dorchester home Oct. 14 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. She was 72.
“Velma will be remembered as a woman for whom no task was too small and no issue too big to tackle,” Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh wrote in a letter to her children. “At the Lee School Community Center, she opened up a world of opportunities to thousands of young people and their families.”
Her efforts continued day and night, he added, because “after work, she would continue her service to the community through often unseen acts of kindness, providing child care, feeding hungry neighbors, giving clothes to those without, and organizing educational and leadership opportunities for the neighborhood.”
In the early 1970s, Joseph Bethony, who is now president of Bay State Taxi, went to the community center to teach swimming. In a eulogy read at the service, he recalled that “Velma pulled me aside and said, ‘Joe, if you can change the life of one child, it’s worth doing!’ ”
Mrs. Haith, he added, “was always there pushing us to make the next year greater than the one before,” and her charges grew up to become “teachers, policemen, firefighters, college professors, diplomats, businessmen.”
That could make for a crowded household, figuratively speaking, as Mrs. Haith was also a mother and grandmother.
“One of the things that made my mom special is that she was definitely selfless,” said her daughter Carla, who lives in Dorchester. “I think that’s one of the things that, as a young child, I didn’t necessarily appreciate: ‘Why do I have to share my mom with all these people?’ ”
At the service, Carla listened as those whose lives her mother had touched shared memories. “Hearing the anecdotes, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s a good thing I was forced to share my mom.’ She was so selfless and she gave her all to everyone in the Dorchester community and beyond — really to the city of Boston.”
“She was a true champion,” Fulgham wrote in his eulogy. “In these pursuits, this truly gentle lady demonstrated an iron will and became a formidable advocate for inclusive, high-quality programming, especially for the most marginalized kids in our community.”
The oldest of four children, Mrs. Haith was born and spent her childhood in Edenton, a small town in northeast North Carolina. Her mother, Claries Copeland, was a single parent and a nanny who relocated to Boston with her mother, Sennie Jordan, and children when Mrs. Haith was about 12. They lived in Cambridge before settling in the Grove Hall section of Dorchester.
“I know that she was very popular and she also was a standout athlete, so much so that at Dorchester High she was voted best female athlete,” Carla said. “She picked up sports early on, and that was her outlet.”
Mrs. Haith graduated from Dorchester High School and received an associate’s degree from what was then Boston State College.
In 1963, she married Carlacy Haith III, who formerly worked for Prudential Insurance.
After starting her career at Boston’s Parks and Recreation Department, Mrs. Haith began working as a gym attendant at the Joseph Lee School’s community center, which is now the Anthony Perkins Community Center and is part of the Boston Centers for Youth & Families.
Her work and influence soon expanded into all parts of the lives of those she guided as a program supervisor. Mrs. Haith coordinated trips to Canada and Florida, to amusement parks and museums — outings that often were the children’s first trip outside Boston.
“Velma was a mother to the community at the Anthony Perkins Center,” said Nathan Thompson, who works for the Boston Housing Authority. “If you ever needed anything, she was going to make sure you had it, whether it be clothing, whether it be something to eat, whether it be a ride. She was always there for everybody. She was a tremendous woman.”
In all her roles, from helping youths land summer jobs, to steering them to anti-substance-abuse programs, to ferrying them to and from games, “she always had a joke, always could make you laugh, always was a positive influence,” Thompson said.
“She could recognize if you were having a bad day and knew just what to say and just what to do to turn your day around.”
Mrs. Haith “provided a safe and instructive place for people to come,” he added. “She’s one of the main reasons why, as an adult, I came back to that community. I’m a board member of the center. I felt obligated to come back and make sure other kids have those same experiences.”
The City Council paid tribute to Mrs. Haith at its meeting the week of her Oct. 26 service, and Governor Charlie Baker conferred a citation of recognition for her many contributions.
“Velma was one of the most widely recognized and deeply respected faces in her beloved Dorchester, and downtown in Boston City Hall,” Fulgham wrote in his eulogy. “Through her efforts, the Lee School’s resources increased exponentially for tutoring, sports, and after-school programs. She enabled more local children than any of us can count to participate in development programs at the school and improve their life chances.”
A service has been held for Mrs. Haith, who in addition to her husband, Carlacy; her mother, Claries; and her daughter Carla, leaves three other daughters, India Haith and Carlisa Haith-Holliday, both of Dorchester, and Lawana Haith of Georgia; two sisters, Maceva Copeland and Althena Copeland, both of Dorchester; and three grandchildren.
“Velma became my second mom, confidante, guidance counselor, and psychologist. I’ll never forget those famous Lee School blue van rides home each night, where everybody wanted to be the last to get dropped off,” Fulgham wrote in his eulogy.
“After being with her five hours,” he added, “we all needed that one additional piece of advice before embarking on some decision that was going to affect the rest of our lives.”
In his eulogy, Bethony offered thanks to “this beautiful woman who worked so hard for so long for so little. She is not gone. She will live in each and every one of us until we meet her again.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.