When John Rowse founded the Boston Building Materials Cooperative 40 years ago, he had goals beyond launching a nonprofit.
“We’re all in it for the fun and working with people,” he told the Globe a few years into the initiative, which was launched in the South End and grew into something much more expansive — a way to help residents keep their homes and preserve their neighborhoods.
While previously working on government-funded projects to rehabilitate older homes for low- and moderate-income families, Mr. Rowse had realized he could help more people by creating a place where homeowners and would-be homebuyers could purchase quality building materials at low prices, and seek advice on how to improve their houses.
“The older and lower-income homeowners are in a real bind,” he told the Globe in 1986. “They want to stay here but are under pressure to leave. . . . The truth is they have virtually nowhere to go but don’t realize it at first. We are trying to convince them to fix their houses and stay in the city. I, for one, wouldn’t want to live in a city made up of only one economic class.”
Mr. Rowse’s zeal for teaching people how to build and repair everything from houses to boats took him into urban neighborhoods, the city’s schools, and onto Boston Harbor’s waves. He was 74 when he died of cancer March 29 in his Jamaica Plain home.
Trained in architecture and design, he brought his own passions into elementary school classrooms and wanted other teachers to do so, too.
Along with founding Boston Building Materials Cooperative, he cofounded the Reuse Center in 1993. The two now operate together under the name Boston Building Resources, which called Mr. Rowse “a genuine visionary” in an online tribute.
In 2007, he founded Community Boat Building, which gives pupils in the Boston Public Schools opportunities to work on boats and learn maritime history.
And at the end of his life, Mr. Rowse helped launch the Passion to Teach fellowship to help city schoolteachers bring their out-of-school talents into their classrooms.
“He had a genius for engaging, respecting, and empowering people, especially kids, wherever he went,” said his son Ben Naimark-Rowse during a celebration of Mr. Rowse’s life held on Boston’s waterfront in June.
“He also had a genius for building things, literally and figuratively,” Ben said, adding that his father “was a serial social entrepreneur, I think, before anyone used the term ‘social entrepreneur.’ ”
In an interview, Ben said his father “wasn’t particularly verbose or vocal. He didn’t speak about how he felt or how he was thinking, but he acted on what he felt and what he believed and what he thought would be good for us, and for the community, and for Boston, and for the world.”
Mr. Rowse did that at work, in other countries, and in the Jamaica Plain home he bought and restored with his wife, Susan Naimark, in 1977, two years before they married.
During the waterfront ceremony celebrating his life, she said that the “glue that held us together” for some four decades was “the values that we shared, and there are a lot of them.”
The two “welcomed people into our house from all walks of life,” she said.
The guests — some who stayed a few days, some much longer — included “a Salvadoran family fleeing death squads and death threats,” Ben recalled in interviews. Other longtime visitors were Boston Medical Center students from a minority recruitment program and friends of Mr. Rowse’s children.
Along with his work in Boston, Mr. Rowse “traveled to Nicaragua a half dozen times in the late 1970s and 1980s in solidarity with Nicaraguans resisting the Reagan administration’s policies toward their county and the rest of Latin America,” Ben said. “Dad built houses there on at least one housing brigade.”
John Richard Rowse grew up in Littleton, a son of James A. Rowse, who was an executive in the family’s Veryfine juice business, and the former Anna Barnes.
The third of five children, Mr. Rowse graduated from Lawrence Academy in Groton and went to Syracuse University, from which he received bachelor’s degrees in architecture and business.
Moving to Boston, he worked as an architect and developed affordable housing before founding the Boston Building Materials Cooperative.
“Our reason for being is not strictly for selling materials,” Mr. Rowse recalled in a 1994 Globe interview.
During his time developing affordable housing, “we found that many people had no down payments or money to maintain the homes,” he said. “I realized there were a lot of people out there who could become homeowners and could afford to maintain their homes if there was a place they could go and get the skills and materials they needed. The co-op was a way to create a resource for people who didn’t grow up in a homeowner situation.”
Mr. Rowse also did graduate work in education at Wheelock College, though he left before finishing a degree, and taught in Boston’s elementary schools.
“For him, it wasn’t about the degree,” Ben said. “He wanted to teach and would do anything he had to do. Once he could teach, he said, ‘I know what I need to know.’ ”
Teaching people what they needed to know about boatbuilding informed Mr. Rowse’s decision to create a program for families, and then the initiative for elementary school pupils that became Community Boat Building. The goal, he told the Globe in 2007, was to take those who have never been on a boat and “get them on the water.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Rowse leaves a daughter from an earlier marriage, Kristin of Portland, Maine; another son, Jesse Naimark-Rowse of Southsea, England; two brothers, James Jr. of Monroe, Ga., and Sam of New London, N.H.; a sister, Edith Fallon of Peterborough, N.H.; and a grandchild.
“His life just seemed to have been all about solving problems,” Jesse recalled at the celebration of Mr. Rowse’s life, which was held on what would have been his 75th birthday.
“He was always incredibly supportive and encouraging of people not just to succeed in life, but to succeed in the way that was right for them,” Jesse said, adding: “I try to remember him, as best I can, with nothing but gratitude for the life that he led and the influence that he had on me and all of us.”
Mr. Rowse, Ben said at the gathering, “had such an incredibly gentle way about him,” even though he had a “fierce commitment to social justice.”
And when it became clear that cancer would end his life, Mr. Rowse accepted the news “without so much as a shred of anger or bitterness,” Ben said.
Indeed, he offered guidance to his family about the waterfront gathering that would be held after he died. Speaking at the outset of the ceremony, as boats cruised past behind her, his wife smiled as she addressed the hundreds in attendance: “He said, ‘I don’t want a funeral, I want a party — I want ribs!’ So you’re getting exactly what he ordered.”