03/16/2014 06:52 pm ET Updated May 16, 2014

Richard Boone: A Tireless but Humble Advocate for the Poor

Richard Boone's death last month at the age of 86 came just a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. His loss will be felt greatly, but it's hard not to appreciate the symbolism of the timing. Mr. Boone was the very heart and soul of the federal government's work to lift up the poor.

Throughout his life, both in government and later as a nonprofit and foundation leader, he worked hard to make sure that poor people had a chance to influence conditions that marked their lives and to pass major safety-net efforts like food stamps.

Mr. Boone's vision, strategic direction, and integrity were perhaps the major force that drove the Office of Economic Opportunity and its efforts to successes that only recently have received some of the kudos they deserve.

Mr. Boone, who grew up in Appalachia and went to the University of Chicago, also worked as a captain in Chicago's police force dealing with juvenile delinquents. While he was there, he took seriously the advice of Saul Alinsky, the celebrated community organizer, who believed that disadvantaged and marginalized people should play an integral part in shaping community solutions.

He brought this philosophy to Robert F. Kennedy's Justice Department and then in 1963 to the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime, where he became director of special projects. During this period, he was instrumental in creating the Appalachian Volunteers, a group of college students who tackled poverty and corruption in the Appalachian area, which became the model for the national Vista program.

In 1964, Mr. Boone became director of community-action programs at the Office of Economic Opportunity. He, more than anybody else, championed and fought for the notion that community action should involve the "maximum feasible participation" of the nation's poor, those whom the programs were trying to help. Always the idealist, he nevertheless had a fine-tuned sense of pragmatism. For him, the ultimate test of any effort was "Did it actually work?"

At the Office of Economic Opportunity, he was a key player in launching Head Start and Upward Bound programs, community health centers, and legal services.

Not a bureaucrat by nature, he left the Office of Economic Opportunity in 1965 to establish the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty. Financed by the United Auto Workers, the organization served as a watchdog overseeing the performance of official anti-poverty programs. It also was a crucible for Mr. Boone's creative genius, permitting him and colleagues to start a citizen's board of inquiry into hunger and malnutrition in the United States. The board's report and Mr. Boone's persistence--he was appropriately nicknamed " the pit bull" by his associates--led directly to the creation of the food-stamp program.

He then turned his attention to filling the gaps in the country's organizational anti-poverty structure. He helped establish the Center for Community Change (an organization I led for 23 years) as a national group that could support and sustain local organizations that serve low-income people. From the center, he organized the Youth Project, the first national organization to promote and support progressive youth programs locally.

His creative urge didn't stop there. He went on to help develop the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, today's most influential progressive think tank on poverty issues, as well as the Communication Consortium Media Center, which provides assistance to nonprofit organizations about communications strategies.

After short stints as director of what is now called the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights a fellow at the Urban Policy Research Institute, and a co-director of the Citizens Policy Center, he was director of the Field Foundation for 12 years, a period of service that could easily be characterized as one of the most innovative and productive foundation tenures in philanthropic history.

With a small, sharp staff, he distributed money, assistance, and advice to a wide array of nonprofits involved in promoting civil rights, voting rights, and civic participation as well as supporting refugees and social-change work.

He continually brought together diverse groups of people to discuss the leading issues of the day, and he worked hard to persuade foundation colleagues to join in his efforts. He became a thoughtful, catalytic force in philanthropy, not only in New York but nationally as well. He was always receptive to new ideas and new people. His open-door policy made for long days; many of us wondered how he could maintain such a frenetic pace, but he did for 12 years. It was an astonishing display of energy and intellectual gymnastics.

The remaining years of his life were spent as a consultant and adviser to many groups and foundations. He spent many fruitful years as a board member of the Tides Foundation. He was always generous with his time and commitments.

For all of his accomplishments, Dick was remarkably humble, never a headline seeker or credit taker. As his old friend, Jim Browne, described him," Grace is a quality that is seldom found today and is possibly even rarer among advocates challenging convention and working to change society. Dick Boone was full of grace."

But above all, Dick was a fighter, somebody unafraid of taking risks when needed, unwilling to back down from a just cause. In the past few years, he lamented the lack of leadership and courage at all levels of our society. "If only I were younger," he said a few years ago.

So let us mourn Dick, not in sorrow, but for the vision, courage, and joy he provided us in the long trenches of combat to make the world a better place.

Pablo Eisenberg, a regular Chronicle contributor, is a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. His email address is