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Robert Hohler, longtime champion for social justice, 78

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / June 12, 2011

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Robert Hohler knew well the ravages of homelessness and poverty that he fought as executive director of the Boston-based Melville Charitable Trust.

Though he rarely spoke of it, he grew up poor in the city’s South End. His family lived under the cloud of his alcoholic father, a former big-band era trombonist, and he was haunted by memories of the Christmas when he was 7 and his parents placed him and a brother in an orphanage for several months.

By age 14, his family had lost their home, and he was the main breadwinner, hawking newspapers on Mass. Ave., where his father had become a panhandler.

“If you asked him to talk about it, he would, but it wasn’t what he led with,’’ said David Wertheimer a deputy director with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who considered Mr. Hohler a mentor in philanthropy. “He led with his passion that ending homelessness was not only morally the right thing to do, but economically the right thing to do.’’

Mr. Hohler, 78, who was a leader of OxFam America in the 1970s and a firebrand of the antiwar and civil rights movements in the 1960s, died June 2 of a heart attack while hiking with his wife, Karen, on vacation in England. They were on a walking tour of Hadrian’s Wall in the village of Heddon-on-the-Wall near Throckley, Northumberland, when he collapsed.

He started at the Melville Trust at its inception in 1991 and was a key leader in Melville’s work over the last five years to stabilize a housing and business development in Hartford. Known as Billings Forge, the mixed-income 98-unit development has job training programs, a farmer’s market, and a farm-to-table restaurant called Firebox.

Mayor Pedro E. Segarra said Hartford “is sad beyond measure’’ at the news of Mr. Hohler’s death. Billings Forge, he said, was “a testament to his mission of individual empowerment and sustainable communities.’’

Mr. Hohler’s devotion to philanthropy was recognized in 2009 when he received a premier award from the Council on Foundations, a nonprofit association of more than 2,000 foundations and corporations. The council named him Distinguished Grantmaker that year.

“There was nothing abstract in Bob’s lifelong commitment to social justice: It arose out of the deepest feeling for the lives and possibilities of people too easily and often overlooked or pushed aside, and it was everywhere seasoned with realism, humor, and a genuine love for the push and pull — the real social work — of getting things done,’’ the trust’s chairman, Stephen Melville, said in a statement.

Mr. Hohler’s passion for social activism began as a teenager when he joined a youth group at the Unitarian Universalist Arlington Street Church in Boston, and it soared during the civil rights movement.

In 1965, he marched on Selma, Ala., with his best friend, Boston filmmaker Henry Hampton, and was with the Rev. James J. Reeb of Dorchester just before he was attacked and killed by segregationists in Selma. Reeb was 38.

Mr. Hohler later was instrumental in fund-raising for Hampton’s film production company, which created the “Eyes on the Prize’’ documentary series on PBS. Hampton died in 1998.

“I can say without exaggerating that he spent every day working toward, or thinking about, making the world a better place,’’ said his son, Bob, a Boston Globe reporter.

Born George Robert Hohler, he was Robert from childhood and rarely used his first name or initial.

At age 30 in 1963, Mr. Hohler became the youngest director ever of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Laymen’s League. Four years later, he became the Arlington Street Church’s first lay minister.

He drew Globe headlines in April 1969 when he staged a sit-in and hunger strike at the UUA headquarters on Beacon Hill to protest the church’s investments in companies with Defense Department contracts during the Vietnam War.

He ended the demonstration after six days when the church agreed to divest almost $1 million in stocks and bonds and review the rest of its portfolio, according to a Globe report.

By May 1970, he was working in communications for the Polaroid Corp. when he was jailed along with 168 other antiwar demonstrators who engaged in a sit-in at the Newton Draft Board.

At a court appearance, Mr. Hohler told a judge that it was not he and fellow protestors who were guilty of disorderly conduct, but American society for “spending $66 million a day for violence in Indo-China. . . . We are rational, sane, humane, and orderly citizens who want to change our society.’’

Mr. Hohler left the corporate world of Polaroid in the early 1970s to work as director of development at the Putney School, an independent prep school in Vermont. While living in Vermont, he ran and lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor in 1976.

He had first ventured into politics in Boston as a teenager when he campaigned for City Council president Gabriel Piemonte’s unsuccessful bids for mayor.

In 1977, Mr. Hohler recounted his life with his father in an award-winning essay published in Reader’s Digest titled, “My Father Played for Me.’’ He recalled his joy as a boy when his father warmed up his trombone for a gig, the family’s despair when the instrument was hocked for booze, and feelings of reconciliation as his dying father pantomimed playing his horn from a hospital bed. “All those years of bitterness, grief, hatred and despair are swept away. And I love my father — again,’’ Mr. Hohler wrote.

Mr. Hohler was married more than 20 years to Karen (Chrobak), who owned the Whippoorwill craft stores in Boston for three decades. She closed shop a few years ago.

Reflecting on their marriage, she said, “He was the forest, and I was the trees. He understood great ideas and big concepts. I was the practical, how-to-do-things side.’’

“It was great because he could teach me the implications of things, how to conceptualize and see the big picture. And I taught him how to prioritize, get organized, and make lists.’’

Mr. Hohler overcame his deprived childhood through a keen ability to find mentors, she said. “He found the Boy Scouts who met in church . . . he found a mentor at the library. He found the people he needed.’’

The couple enjoyed traveling. They visited Mexico every winter and were enjoying England when a family legacy of heart disease struck down Mr. Hohler in an instant, she said. “I have this beautiful picture of him sitting on Hadrian’s Wall an hour before he died,’’ she said.

Mr. Hohler had three children from his first marriage. He married Barbara (Abbott) during his senior year at Boston English High School in 1951. He graduated from Northeastern University in 1959 after years of studying while working full time.

Mr. Hohler and his first wife divorced in 1972. She died Tuesday in a local hospice at age 78 from ovarian cancer, which was diagnosed almost a decade ago, their son said.

Bob Hohler said his father’s devotion to social justice could be consuming to the exclusion of almost everything else. “He was just amazingly dedicated. He was all about ‘you’ve got to make the world better.’ He really believed that,’’ he said.

In addition to his wife and his son, Mr. Hohler leaves his daughters, Cynthia of South Easton and Julie Boudreau of Canton; stepdaughter Raina Chrobak of Arlington; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A memorial service is planned. No date has been set.

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@mac.com.