Before he died suddenly on a hiking trip last year, Bob Hohler of the Melville Trust and I often talked about creating a Change Practice. Our idea was to form a loose network of aspirational funders who want their vision of a more just and compassionate society to drive their philanthropy. With the Fireman Foundation and Strategic Grant Partners, we started to talk about how and whether we could work more closely together to deepen our impact and accelerate the pace of change. We realized that the wicked issues we were working on required a significant ramping up of allies, resources and knowledge.
This blog is, I hope, the beginning of a virtual community, a way to carry on some of the work Bob and I talked about. If you knew Bob, you know how much he liked to talk about big bold ideas. if you didn’t, here’s something I wrote about him:
So many people came home because of Bob Hohler. Could we count how many he helped so many get that fundamental thing, a roof over their head, lighted windows to come home to? Bringing people home was Bob’s final and most ferocious passion, the central work of his last twenty years. He came to it after a lifetime in which he was always, in his restless way, exploring the edges where justice needed to be made.
And the work was itself a homecoming for Bob, a circling back to his own past that fueled his formidable appetite for solutions. He brought to the work deep, particular and painful knowledge gained during a difficult childhood that few of his friends knew much about. Bob had already been head of the Melville Trust for ten years when the feds started talking about bringing back orphanages. His rage at this produced a beautiful op-ed piece for the Globe. Reading it, I learned for the first time that he had spent time in one, that sometimes as a child Bob did not know where he was going to sleep that night.
Bob knew first hand the difference between being a poor housed child roaming the South End, upheld by a close community, and the months he spent in an orphanage when his parents were unable to care for him. He understood the difference between not having money but belonging to a community, where you had a home and knew where it was, and the deprivation of being roofless or stuck in an institution.
Bob learned at an early age to use his powerful intelligence and natural people skills as a passport out of difficult life circumstances. The main breadwinner for the family at age 14, he hawked newspapers, and I like to think, honed the skills of relationship and selling that served him so well in so many different settings later in life. As a teenager, he found a second home at the Unitarian Universalist Arlington Street Church in Boston, where he fell in love with social justice and heard the call that eventually led him to a stint in the ministry.
While many of his friends, didn’t know much about his difficult early life, we could see he carried parts of it with him, the way a depression era hobo carried a few belongings in a bandana tied to a stick. Those included a certain mental toughness, fierce identification with alley cats and underdogs, pugilistic instincts that made him love a good fight, and deep skepticism about institutions that purported to help the poor – they need so very much good done to them he’d say with eyebrows lifted – all that was part of that bedroll. But so was the deeply generous, kind and curious spirit that led him to wander far and wide, wanting to be present for the major important events of our time.
Which took him to a bridge in Selma Alabama where he marched with his great friend Henry Hampton and spent time with the Rev James Reeb just before he was killed by segregationists. It carried him naturally to the next place Dr. King was going, to the anti-war movement during the late 60s and 70s, staging a sit-in and hunger strike at Unitarian Universalist headquarters in Boston to protest the church’s investment in companies with Defense Department contracts.
In the 1970s, his passion for global justice brought him to work in the developing world as Oxfam’s Director of development. There, he helped bring it back from the brink of financial disaster (he often told the story of the miraculous check that arrived at the very last minute) and to transition from being an aid organization to a powerful community development enterprise. He developed for Oxfam a powerful and distinct voice, what might today be called a brand, that enlisted many to repair the world by helping local communities do for themselves. That work foreshadowed later work in homelessness, where he tried always to shift systems from a focus on emergency response to long-term solutions.
And finally, Bob worked on the other side of the table, in philanthropy he pursued the work at Melville with gusto, ingenuity and great love. He put his whole self in, every day. He was lucky enough to have an extraordinary group of trustees who provided him with a spacious and welcoming home for his best work.
Bob realized that the great gift of a job in philanthropy was not to process grants, give other people’s money away, but to sign on to a big bold impossible enterprise. His was “finding and fighting the causes of homelssness,” the memorable tag line he composed for National Public Radio. And if any of you are lucky enough to be in Hartford Ct, I strongly suggest you go visit some of the fruits of his work. Melville has supported the construction of hundreds of housing units in Ct. In Hartford, Bob saw the gorgeous bones under the derelict Lyceum that was a boarded up disco. Today it is a beautiful light-filled headquarters for the state’s key housing development and homeless advocacy organizations. The red brick housing across the street has been rehabbed and a farm-to-table restaurant, the Firebox is a warm and hospitable beacon in the neighborhood. There’s a farmers market in the summer. Walking around the area, you marvel at how Bob built a community in the heart of blight, a place that embraces all its citizens, from the governor to the 14 year old kid in precarious circumstances – like Bob at 14. The whole area has become, in the words of a local agency director “Bob’s Place.”
Bob understood that making connections between rich and poor was crucial to social change. Bob was a great fundraiser and a great grantmaker because he believed that if the work was important, asking for resources to support it was the right thing to do. In the 80s I taught a course on nonprofit management, and each year in the unit on fundraising, I would invite Bob to come and critique the pitches that students were assigned to prepare for an organization or cause. He always listened intently, head tilted and then speaking with urgency and purpose, he skillfully extracted the core message – what about the work they proposed was powerful and could capture the imagination of others. Then he showed them, enacted, how they might talk about in a way that would sweep people in to the cause. These demonstrations taught my students about the power of words, of message in a way that affected them profoundly.
Bob had such a way with words. I think of that op ed about orphanages, and also about a report he sent from New Orleans six months post Katrina to his trustees and colleagues. Using that deservedly reviled tool, the powerpoint, Bob used simple words and pictures to take us with him on what he called the “misery tour,” the places where in his words “vast stretches where once houses stood were now monuments of debris, abandoned cars and fallen trees. And other than the distant sound of highway traffic on this stormy day, there was an almost eerie quiet.” Reading that, we are walking in Bob’s footprints, sharing the intensity of his gaze on this piece of American wreckage.
Bob was not always a glass half full guy. There was something heroic about his commitment, his persistence in the face of his clear eyed view of just how screwed up things are, his efforts to bend the world to a better form.
For if Bob believed in the words of Dr. King in Selma that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice, he thought it needed help in the bending. Sometimes I imagine him, standing on the end of the arc, urging others up beside him, jumping up and down, using every fiber of his body to show it the right way to go, to yield to justice. Making that arc into a bridge to cross, like the one in Selma.
That was his work. He was also a great and true friend. I first met him when he was raising funds for Henry Hampton’s Eyes on the Prize the great documentary series on the Civil Rights Movement, and years later, I watched him see Henry through a long illness and work diligently to keep his legacy alive. The Eyes Archive at Washington University – a precious and unique source of documentation of that remarkable era – exists because of those efforts. Later I watched the tenderness and ferocity with which he supported our great friend Joe Breiteneicher - who brought Bob to Melville, through a long and terrible illness.
In our long conversations, Bob was often certain, never tentative but -and this is a rare combination, endlessly curious . He was the first person who ever said to me “life is not a dress rehearsal” and he lived that way. He was truly, remarkably present for every moment of his life. I can never remember him being bored. In our long talks about homelessness or the change practice we wanted to create, his rebuttals, even his strategic silences often helped me discover what was wrong with the point I was making, called me to think more deeply, go further, do more. And the ample reward of his occasional “interesting,” – perhaps his greatest accolade, told me I was on the right track.
A conversation with Bob ranged all over the place, because he did. The past time we had tea together, the week before he left for England, we discussed mysteries, his pride in his son Rob’s work and life, the disgrace that music education has become in the Boston Public Schools, the importance of farmers markets and strategies that allow poor people more choice and control over their destinies. As always, his face lit up when I asked about his wife Karen – we shared the great good luck of happy marriages. He was particularly looking forward to their trip to England, and as he sketched the itinerary in his usual simple vivid words, he made me want to walk Hadrian’s wall, to follow in his footsteps. The conversation ended with his frequent closer: “to be continued.”
Thinking about that quality of Bob’s, his urgent invitation to follow him on whatever thought path he was taking, makes me think about what Eknath Easwaren, a follower of Gandhi said about leaders:
They are like a relative who has disappeared for years and then returns to tell us of a fabulous land. They give us maps, fill our ears with tips about which roads are safe…tell us stories, show us their slides: anything to convince us that this country they have discovered is our real home and that, until we can find our way there, as Augustine says, nothing else can fill the homesickness in our hearts.
For me, for so many of us, Bob was that traveler. He pointed us towards our real work, our real home. He believed, I think, that finding one’s true work, especially if it helped bend that arc towards justice, would help us fill the longing, the homesickness in our hearts, as he had filled his.
I never believed that mighty heart would give out. Despite his age and his medical history I expected Bob to be what he always was – what he is – a fierce presence, a kind friend, a companion in arms. I thought we’d have many more conversations.
But, looking at a picture of him, an hour before he died, sitting on Hadrian’s wall in a sunhat smiling, happy to be with Karen and family, to have had a good walk, I thought how right it was for him to be working, thinking, doing the work he loved right up to the very end. Because, as I’ve said, Bob was both student and actor in the great social movements of the 20th century. The lessons of India’s struggle for independence, the civil rights movement, the end of apartheid – the proudest moments of the past century – seem terribly distant at times from our present leadership, our stance in the world. For Bob - like Bob - they were ever present. He always wanted to bring them home. He did for so many of us, right up to our last conversations with him. That, his great present to us, like his presence, remains., might light our way home, help us, in the words of the shaker hymn, to turn and to turn until we come round right. Thank you, Bob, for seeing what your many friends are capable of, for seeing to and through us, and for seeing so very many of us home.