Bert Yaffe’s commitment to public health began in the deep South, when his parents took in a boarder named Sarah Stokes, a nurse who delivered health care to residents of his poor county.
At 14, Mr. Yaffe said in a 2000 speech, he began driving her in Georgia on rounds and was struck by her determination to provide the best possible care to the greatest number of people, with very limited resources.
“On the red clay back roads, through the cotton fields, and among the broken-down shacks and contaminated wells of Hancock County, she introduced me to hookworm disease, untreated tetanus, the born afflicted of an untreated syphilitic parent, end-stage cancer without palliative care, and a sharecropper victim of stroke, pitifully plowing a field,” he said.
He recalled her frustration that she was unable to prevent sickness and often unable to relieve pain. Later, he said, when he became a public health leader, he would “turn to Sarah Stokes and ask, ‘How many people will really benefit from this?’ Or, ‘Could these resources be better used somewhere else?’ ”
Mr. Yaffe, whose 1970 campaign for Congress as an antiwar candidate inspired young voters, died Aug. 12 after a brief hospitalization. He was 93 and lived most of his life in Fall River.
He founded and led the New England Coalition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and the Erna Yaffe Foundation, named for his late wife. A successful businessman for nearly 30 years before moving into politics and public health, he led the Massachusetts Public Health Council over the course of five gubernatorial administrations.
“Bert was deeply and actively involved in the politics of the state and the country,” said Michael S. Dukakis.
The former governor described Mr. Yaffe as “a wonderful guy, always an inspiration to guys like me,” and added that he was “especially committed to public health.He spent an enormous amount of time working on it.”
Mr. Yaffe, whom Dukakis said was a “combat veteran, a Marine, and very proud of it, and at the same time very liberal politically,” ran for the state’s 10th Congressional District seat in 1970 as an antiwar Democrat, but lost to Margaret Heckler, the Republican incumbent.
“His campaign drew a lot of young people into politics, me included,” said E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist who grew up in Fall River and met Mr. Yaffe there.
“Would that everyone could be lucky enough to have such a second father,” Dionne wrote in an Aug. 14 Washington Post column about Mr. Yaffe.
In a 1970 letter to the Globe about his candidacy and his opposition to the war, Mr. Yaffe wrote: “Cease-fire proposals are fine and good, but they do not reach the central fact that has emerged from 30 months of ‘negotiations’ in Paris, that our inflexible support of the South Vietnamese dictatorship remains the principle obstacle to our finding peace in Indochina.”
Mr. Yaffe was a delegate to several Democratic National Conventions in the 1970s and 1980s. He also served as president of the Massachusetts Public Health Association and the Massachusetts Health Council.
Born in Sparta, Ga., Bertram A. Yaffe graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in 1941. He attended law school at Emory and worked as a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune before enlisting in the Marines, said his daughter, Cheryl Yaffe Kiser of Weston.
He was visiting relatives in Brookline when he met Erna Jaffe of Fall River. They married in 1942.
During 27 months serving in the Pacific theater, Mr. Yaffe rose to the rank of major, fought in the battles of Bougainville, Guam, and Iwo Jima, and received two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. In 1999 he published a book called “Fragments of War: A Marine’s Personal Journey.”
“What was really striking about the book was the amazing respect he showed for his Japanese opponents,” Dionne said, adding that Mr. Yaffe believed war “should always be a last resort and never a first resort.”
After the war, Mr. Yaffe and Erna settled in Fall River, and he took over her father’s business, the High Point Paper Box Co. After Erna died of a brain tumor in 1977, Mr. Yaffe’s daughter said, he “started exploring the whole notion of disease prevention.”
“He loved his wife, and when she died, he went on a journey,” she said. “He became evangelical about promoting different ways of thinking about public health and disease prevention.”
The foundation he began in his wife’s name led to creation of the New England Coalition for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, which focused on issues including the prevention of AIDS and obesity.Continued...