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Adrian Walker

Zakim legacy links people

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / March 10, 2009
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To many Bostonians - particularly those who have moved here since his death in 1999 - Lenny Zakim has become a bridge.

Though he thought of himself, metaphorically, as a person devoted to bringing people together, this development would probably shock him.

But while his namesake soars through the skyline, Zakim is also remembered in a more intimate way that he did conceive. The Lenny Zakim Fund is a charity he set up following his diagnosis of incurable cancer in 1995.

"When Lenny was diagnosed, people wanted to endow a chair for him at Harvard," his widow, Joyce Zakim, recalled yesterday. "I really see the Lenny Zakim Fund as an extension of Lenny's heart and spirit."

Zakim was the longtime director of the New England office of the Anti-Defamation League. That job title only hints at the scope of his life's work, which essentially was to encourage Boston's legendary factions to talk to one another and to learn to live with one another. He worked for the ADL for 20 years, the last 16 as its head.

In that role, he was a tireless foe of anti-Semitism, but he was also a genius at reaching out to others. He planned the first black-Jewish seder in Boston. He helped found an antibias program for teens. He worked endlessly to improved relations between Jews and Catholics.

Zakim became a nationally known figure, but along the way he developed a passion for people hoping to affect the world right outside their doors. The fund was envisioned as a way to help such people get going.

This year's awardees included a handful of well-known groups and dozens that truly embody the term grass roots.

The bridge was a memorial pushed by his good friend Cardinal Bernard Law. Law persuaded Paul Cellucci, then governor, to embrace the idea. When Charlestown residents balked, it became the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, a name nobody uses.

As foundations go, the Lenny Zakim Fund is a mom-and-pop operation. I asked Jude Goldman, the executive director, how big the staff is. "You're talking to two-thirds of it," she said cheerfully. Two-thirds? "I have one part-time assistant, so I figure that makes me two-thirds of the staff."

A law firm, DLA Piper, donates office space and other support, so the money the fund raises can go where it is meant to go.

The 55 grant recipients this year split about $325,000. All of the groups it funds are within Interstate 495. Many of the programs are youth-oriented, geared toward the arts or violence prevention. But any good idea seems welcome; consider Discover Roxbury, which organizes tours to increase awareness of the neighborhood's history.

The fund has become a family project. Zakim's children are now old enough to participate in the fund and have embraced it. Josh, 25, has joined the board. His sisters, Deena and Shari, 22, will eventually join him. Joyce Zakim is on the board and visits as many recipients and applicants as she can, describing this as one of her favorite things to do. "When I'm sitting in a board meeting and I see Josh sitting there, I just think, 'Yes, Lenny would love this.' "

Zakim's illness unfolded over several years, and he seems to have spent a fair amount of time thinking about how he would be remembered. Speakers at his funeral noted that he had planned the whole service - right down to the recessional, Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road." And he thought to begin a charity to carry on his name and life's work.

But legacies don't follow plans, and Zakim's has taken an unexpected turn, thanks to the bridge. Joyce Zakim drives it occasionally and speaks of it with wonder.

"Lenny would be so surprised," she said. "I hope it is a message to future generations to think about the work he did in bridging differences and bringing people together."

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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