Naysayers don’t get far when Dr. Bill Loesch is on the case

Rev. Dr. Bill Loesch has been a civic powerhouse in Dorchester for five decades. Photo courtesy Loesch family

He already has decades of community activism under his belt, but longtime Dorchester community leader Dr. Rev. Bill Loesch is focused on his next project. “Our goal is to convince the mayor to make an executive decision that all stores in Boston will no longer sell tobacco products,” he says matter-of-factly during a recent sit-down interview in his Dorchester home.

Rev. Loesch, 76, has lived on Brent Street for more than three decades now, across from the park that was named after him in 2012 to honor his many years of civic work. For his latest effort, he has gathered a small crew of teenage volunteers to help him pursue his bold goal.

“Mayor Walsh keeps saying ‘I want to make this the healthiest city in the country,’” Loesch continues. “And our contention is, what better way than to get the tobacco out of the stores? Because tobacco is still killing more people than all these other products.” And where would local smokers buy their cigarettes if he were to succeed? “They can buy them in Quincy or Braintree,” he quips with a smile.

A commitment to the public good and penchant for bold action is nothing new for Dr. Loesch. For the many locals who know him, the gusto with which he pushes for social change is a part of his trademark.

“I’ve always been an activist,” he says when asked to reflect on his lessons from a lifetime of public work. “Some people can’t leave their jobs -- that was my job, to be a troublemaker. To be helping the bigger picture.”

In his youth in New Jersey, Rev. Loesch started down that path when, as a teenager, he served as co-chair for social action for the Mid-Atlantic region of his church group. It was an early indicator of his passion for engaging others in creating change – and a foretelling of his consistent efforts to get Dorchester teenagers more civically involved.

As an adult, he moved to Massachusetts, where he had spent his early childhood years, to attend Andover Newton Theological School in Newton.

In 1965, Dr. Loesch moved with some fellow seminary students into the Grove Hall neighborhood. They were already involved in activism, but he says living in Roxbury was an entirely new experience. “Unbeknownst to us, that was the center of the civil rights movement in Boston,” he recalls.

“Bam! Right smack in the middle of where Dr. King came to visit the Patrick Campbell School.” The reference is to the civil rights leader’s visit to Boston in April 1965. Loesch recalls that Dr. King was not allowed inside the school to speak – “ the school department back then was very racist” – so the national civil rights icon spoke from the steps with a bullhorn instead. “This was like maybe six houses from where we lived,” Dr. Loesch says.

But this porch-front view was far from his first exposure to the civil rights movement. Just a month earlier, in March 1965, he had driven with civil rights leader Dr. Virgil Wood from Boston to Alabama to join the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, which were marked by brutal – and sometimes deadly – violence against protesters by police officers and white civilian mobs alike. He spent his time there with the ministers organizing the efforts, including Dr. King.

Dr. Loesch was part of a crowd of protesters who were arrested in Selma during the march. A photograph taken by a reporter at the scene shows the arrestees being crowded into a parking lot surrounded by police cars as they await processing.

“A lot of seminarians, that wasn’t for them,” he says of his activism in the South. “But for me, it was like, ‘Well, let me do this, not to make history, but because, ‘Wow, I can learn more about how to help people, how to get rid of some racism.’”

Three years later, Dr. Loesch graduated from Andover Newton with a master of divinity degree. He soon moved to Dorchester’s Columbia Point neighborhood to serve in ministry. While there, he became deeply involved with the Geiger Gibson Health Center - “the first health center in the United States,” he notes, explaining the history of a pair of Tufts doctors who chose Columbia Point (and a rural section of Mississippi) to introduce the community health center model.

From there, he served as a chaplain at Boston City Hospital, where he notes that many of the patients were his former neighbors from Columbia Point. He was also nationally certified to teach clinical pastoral education there and taught scores of students who passed through the nation’s third oldest training program for ministers.

“The main thing I learned is that you got to live where your ministry is,” he says. “If it’s all together, you’re more relevant.”

He notes that while that might not be an option for everyone, that principle has been a driving factor in his life. Indeed, after he left Boston City Hospital, he bought his first house on Brent Street — and has stayed ever since. His daughter Cynthia, also a well-known community leader, shares this commitment and lives in the house next to him.

Rev. Loesch became active in Codman Square’s Second Church. Also during this time, Codman Square Health Center founder Bill Walczak hired him to develop a program that would improve partnerships between medical and nursing students - “back in the day, the doctors thought they were better than the nurses” — and get them more involved in the community.

Dr. Loesch thus became one of the originators of Center for Community Health Education Research and Service, Inc., a partnership between local medical and nursing schools, the city of Boston, and several community health centers around the city. He continued this work for eight years.
Like many other achievements in his life, Dr. Loesch describes it as a result of providence.

“Again it was just by luck, it just happened,” he says. “A lot of these things were like, ‘Take me, I’ll do it!’ And somewhere, the opportunity just happened to fall at my feet.”

Over time, he became more involved with Greenwood Memorial United Methodist Church in nearby Four Corners. It was from his work with the youth group there that he started turning to anti-Big Tobacco activism in the early 1990s. By the year 2000, his teenage daughter Cynthia had joined in the fight as a young leader of the activism group BOLD (Breath of Life Dorchester) Teens.

“The biggest roadblock I faced, particularly as I was working with youth, was [people saying], ‘That’s not gonna happen, you can’t do it,’” Dr. Loesch says. “And then we would do it. I’m a behind-the-scene advisor. I would advise [the youth] based upon what I had learned from the civil rights movement.”

He fondly remembers one of BOLD Teen’s biggest wins: when they successfully persuaded the Boston Globe to stop selling full-page tobacco ads for Parliament Cigarettes. This was initially seen as an impossible task. When the Globe declined to meet with them about it, the group announced a press conference. The day before it was scheduled to happen, the Globe agreed to stop running the advertisement.

Dr. Loesch pauses in his retelling of the story and pivots back to his current fight to ban tobacco sales citywide. “That’s why I know what I’m asking from the mayor is doable,” he says.

But his quest to advance public health is just one of many that he has his eye on as he looks forward. There are other challenges ahead for his beloved community.

“You got all these developers who want to make money, and Walsh who wants to get more housing,” he says. “Things are happening so fast across the city, especially in Dorchester. We can’t get ahead because everybody’s moving so fast. And sometimes it will be the case that the BRA [now the BPDA] is trying to go around the community. … And some communities get railroaded, because they’re out-talked and don’t have a chance to get organized.”

He says the Codman Square Neighborhood Council, of which he is a core member, is organized and ready. “But we’re all volunteers,” he says. “We don’t have a staff person. So it’s going to be tough to figure out which developers to fight.”

But still, a fight has never scared him off. And for the next generation of local leaders, he has some words of advice: “Get involved in your community. Spend less time worrying about everything outside your family and outside the community.” (He gives a special negative nod to Facebook, which he worries is slowly killing face-to-face interaction). “And discover your passion early. Don’t let it get kicked out of you because somebody said you can’t do it — and 40 years later, you discover that was your passion, but a teacher or a parent or some uncle said, “You can’t do that.’”

Words to consider from someone who has learned how to ignore the naysayers.