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Ray Ross, 66, political activist worked with disabled

Though he disliked crowds, Ray Ross marched and protested for peace in Boston, Providence, and Washington. Though he disliked crowds, Ray Ross marched and protested for peace in Boston, Providence, and Washington.
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 9, 2009

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Here are a few things Ray Ross decided he could do without: credit cards, a bank account, a car.

“I have never known anyone less materialistic, less concerned with things,’’ said his niece Jackie Gately of Glendale, Ariz.

“What he cared about was poetry, classical music, philosophy, political activism, people - the things people say move the soul, that’s what he cared about,’’ she said.

Add to that list social justice. An activist at work, at home, at any hour of the day, Mr. Ross devoted his life to helping the least powerful. For the past 14 years, he was a staff member at shelters housing the homeless in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, and previously worked with emotionally disturbed children, the autistic, and the developmentally disabled.

Curmudgeonly one moment, sweet and funny the next, he could quote the poetry of T.S. Eliot and political writings of Howard Zinn with equal fervor, then lose himself in a silent reverie listening to an organ fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. Mr. Ross, who had suffered in recent years from a variety of health problems, died Monday of respiratory failure at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He was 66 and lived in Quincy.

“There was a fundamental generosity to Ray,’’ said Jim Stewart, director of First Church Shelter in the basement of First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. “Even though he himself never had more than a couple of hundred dollars, he would give it to someone in need. He gave of his substance, and not just from his person. He’d pull money out of his pocket and give it to you.’’

His giving wasn’t confined to work. If Mr. Ross believed in a cause, he put himself on the front lines. Though he disliked crowds, he marched and protested for peace in Boston, Providence, and Washington, D.C. Though his life was centered in New England, he traveled to California and Nicaragua on social justice excursions.

“It takes a certain temperament to be an activist and to give of yourself like that,’’ said his younger brother, Mickey of Cranston, R.I.

At a memorial service Thursday at First Church in Cambridge, Joe Freitas spoke of being a child when he met Mr. Ross in the early 1990s at an antiwar demonstration in Providence. Mr. Ross, who sometimes lived with friends, became a surrogate parent when he moved in with Freitas and his mother in Providence.

Quoting often from Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,’’ Mr. Ross encouraged Freitas to write school essays about the plight of the homeless and other social justice issues, and he stressed the value of being studious.

“He would say, ‘Capitalism sucks and always do your homework,’ ’’ Freitas recalled, drawing laughter from 40 people in the church.

Mr. Ross, Freitas added, “was truly selfless, and you won’t meet many people like that.’’

Born in Boston, Raymond E. Ross was the ninth of 10 children born into a family that splintered in his childhood. He grew up in foster care, mostly in Billerica.

After high school, his brother said, Mr. Ross spent four years in the Army, stationed for part of that time in Germany. Then he went to the University of Rhode Island, where in the manner of many caught up in the activism of the 1960s and early ’70s, he dropped in and out of school.

By the time he graduated in 1981 with a bachelor’s in psychology, Mr. Ross was already a few years into a career that roamed the landscape of social service jobs.

In Rhode Island, he was a clinical child-care worker at an East Providence hospital and a case manager at a Woonsocket mental health center. He supervised the autistic and the developmentally disabled at a Jamestown agency and was an outreach worker at Amos House, a resource center in Providence for the poor and homeless.

Sometimes he worked outside the social service field, once with a company that repaired organs in churches. That stint spurred a deep interest in organ music.

“He just became a Bach junkie,’’ Stewart said. “We have a lot of tapes and CDs in the office at First Church Shelter, and I’d frequently find him with his eyes closed at the desk, listening to a Bach fugue. Occasionally I’d see him noodling around on the keyboard. He was modest about his ability, but he could do more than play ‘Chopsticks.’ ’’

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Ross began working at First Church Shelter and at Boston’s Pine Street Inn. For the past several years, he was a direct care counselor for the Somerville Homeless Coalition, handling the overnight shift, but often returned Friday nights to work at First Church Shelter.

“He was always so pleasant, respectful, and nonjudgmental of the guests, and I think he really identified with their struggles and the difficulties, which put the guests at ease around him,’’ said Michael Libby, director of programs for the Somerville Homeless Coalition.

A deep and expansive reader, Mr. Ross was fond of history and psychology - quotes from John Quincy Adams and Carl Jung adorned his memorial service program. Given to wordplay, Mr. Ross rarely let pass the chance to twist a name or phrase. He may have sipped Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, but to him the beverage was always from Drunken Donuts.

A spiritual seeker who abstained from organized religion most of his life, Mr. Ross surprised some in the last year of his life by joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hingham, where he taught a Gospel essentials class and was ordained a priest in February.

In addition to his brother and niece, Mr. Ross leaves a sister, Jean Bisognani of Las Vegas, and another brother, Matthew of Florida. And although his family grew up apart - other siblings spent time in orphanages or foster care - Mr. Ross was very family-oriented, his niece said.

“Ray would be the first to say he was not a saint,’’ she said during the service, “but he was always reliable in the things that mattered. He was there for me, for friends, for humanity in general.’’

“To me,’’ she added, “the world is a sadder place and certainly a less fun place without him.’’