The downtown office building at 178 Tremont Street across from Boston Common that is home to Action for Boston Community Development will be dedicated today in the memory of Robert M. Coard, the longtime leader of ABCD, Boston’s official antipoverty agency. Reporter publisher Ed Forry was a member of Mr. Coard’s staff during the early years of the “War on Poverty,” and he wrote a reminiscence of the man on the occasion of his retirement shortly before his death in 2009.
Following is a minimally updated version of Forry’s warm and loving tribute to Robert Coard:
A man full of passion for the poor among us
I always considered Bob Coard “The Master of the Metaphor.”
For five years in the ‘70’s, I called him “boss.” It was my job to hear his thoughts, write them down, put a period here, a paragraph return there, and get it out to the press and the public.
For the war on poverty, he would say, there was never enough ammunition. “A popgun war,” he called it. For those who didn’t see the value of the anti-poverty programs, he had little patience. Their actions were not just unreasonable or outrageous: to Bob, they were “unconscionable.”
When he retired as head of ABCD in the autumn of 2009, he was the longest-serving community action official in the country. His tenure as a warrior in the war on poverty reached back to the early 1960s, when the federal government pledged to improve economic opportunities for the nation’s poor.
Coard was a bridge builder back in the day. Even as the busing controversies roiled and divided our city, he stood in South Boston with Governor Frank Sargent, Senator Bill Bulger, and a gaggle of folks from every part of the city as the governor signed into law a bill to provide funding for anti-poverty programs across the state.
I came and went in that job, now three decades ago and more, and others easily took my place. But a piece of ABCD remains in my soul. When I moved on, I borrowed a tradition that retiring presidents are said to maintain: Back sometime in 1975, as he dictated to me a statement he wanted to be made public, I wrote down his words, then stored a copy in the top drawer of a desk for those who followed me in the public information office. And I told them, those are Bob’s words, in his own voice; you cannot possibly write anything better. Whenever he asks for a new statement on some new calamity that hurts the poor, quietly retreat to the office, pull the draft out of the desk, re-type it on fresh letterhead, delay awhile, maybe over a cup of coffee to make it appear you’re laboring long and hard, then bring it up and put it on his desk.
And even though they are all his own words, I told them, make sure to give him a red pencil – because he is certain to make changes! No one could create and articulate the rhetoric of the war on poverty better than the inimitable Bob Coard.
When the Office of Economic Opportunity was first formed in Washington in 1965, the federal government said it would wage war on poverty; but alas, it became little more than a series of flawed, ill-conceived skirmishes. An army was raised, to be sure, but the full ammunition was never made available to win any lasting victory. But there remain some committed soldiers on the ground, and the cause endures.
To borrow a few military metaphors, Bob Coard spent his lifetime on the front lines of the war on poverty. For him, it was always an uphill battle, and he routinely was under attack over those many years, often from the flank, but sometimes from friendly fire. For him there was never a ceasefire, nary a truce.
He simply fought the good fight.Now that he joins the ranks of the retired, this veteran of many wars deserves our commendations.
But somehow, I think, a simple “thank you” will be enough.