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Bob Wright, at 59; homeless for years, but inspired many

By Christine Legere
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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A sign appeared in a small niche in front of the Park Street Church Monday, letting passersby know that Bob Wright, a longtime homeless man who sat there daily and greeted the world with a smile, had died.

In the church’s window, a memorial was set up in honor of Mr. Wright, who died in his sleep sometime Sunday night in an apartment friends had helped him secure about 18 months ago in Ruggles Assisted Living Center in Roxbury.

Mr. Wright was just 59 years old, but 12 years of living on the streets and a hard-won battle with alcoholism had left him with myriad health issues.

“He was getting sick a lot lately,’’ said Christina Nordstrom, who had befriended Mr. Wright in recent years, regularly supplying him with gift cards for necessities and eventually helping him land the apartment. “It’s sad, but it’s also a blessing.’’

Mr. Wright had been a fixture on the corner of Park Street for more than a decade, perched on a folding chair, with a clamshell filled with birdseed nearby and a sign beside him that reminded people to “smile . . . it’s the law.’’

“He loved sitting out on the corner and being with people,’’ Nordstrom said. “He made a lot of friends and acquaintances.’’

Mr. Wright was originally from the Boston area. He had worked as a roofer, bred cattle in Florida, and driven herds in North Dakota. He spent a great deal of time crisscrossing the country on a motorcycle, towing his dog, Beano, in a custom-made trailer. In a May 2008 interview with the Globe, he estimated that they had covered a good 100,000 miles together.

But Mr. Wright’s life became solely about survival in 1995, when a Framingham boarding house where he lived burned down. He then roamed the streets of Boston, building igloos to sleep in during the winter or finding shelter beneath elevated stretches of the Southeast Expressway. Sometimes Mr. Wright slept in the subway.

Food was often foraged from dumpsters, he said in the 2008 interview. Mr. Wright fondly recalled how he once found two discarded frozen turkeys in a dumpster after the holidays. He boiled them under a bridge in Boston, in a pot filled with water from the Charles River. The aroma was so enticing that homeless people from all over the city turned up to join him for dinner.

Because of Mr. Wright’s outgoing and engaging manner, he made many friends while sitting in front of the Park Street Church. People would frequently bring him leftovers from dinners and tell him their family news. Mr. Wright’s own family consisted of his late brother and father and a mother he had long ago lost track of.

His childhood had not been easy. Mr. Wright said in his 2008 interview that he was not afraid of fending for himself on the streets of Boston because “we grew up in a Home for Little Wanderers and a whole slew of foster homes, which we regularly ran away from.’’

Boston civil rights attorney Jonathan Margolis struck up a friendship with Mr. Wright about five years ago. The homeless man said in the interview that his friendship with Margolis “ran so deep.’’ The attorney not only took him shopping for warm clothes, he brought him to his Brookline home for Christmas dinner. The pair also worked on Margolis’s sailboat, which was moored north of Boston.

But Mr. Wright thought the best thing Margolis did for him, with help from Christina Nordstrom, was securing him an apartment in Ruggles in October 2007. The center is run by Hearth, a nonprofit formerly called the Coalition to End Elder Homelessness.

Margolis said Mr. Wright loved the apartment. “He used to complain about the food sometimes, but he would be sure to add how much he loved it there,’’ Margolis said.

It was Margolis who placed the sign announcing Mr. Wright’s death at the Park Street corner.

Nordstrom recently self-published a book called “Park Street Angels: a Chronicle of Hope,’’ that outlines her developing relationship with Mr. Wright over a two-year period.

Andy Ferguson, a Hyde Park resident who works in Boston, saw the announcement of Mr. Wright’s death a few days ago.

“Through his kind and gentle presence, Bob put a human face on the problem of homelessness and hunger, a problem that unfortunately is often too easy to ignore,’’ Ferguson said. “As we go through our daily routines of hustling to work, dealing with traffic, swollen T rides, and long lines for coffee, if we could all think of his gentle, prodding ‘smile . . . it’s the law,’ everything falls into perspective.’’

A memorial service is planned Thursday at 12:15 at Park Street Church.