To Bob Coard: ‘Well done, Boss, and thank you for your leadership’

I always considered Bob Coard “The Master of the Metaphor.” For five years in the 1970s, I called him “boss.” It was my job to take his thoughts, write them down, put a period here, a paragraph return there – and then get it out to the press and the public. About the war on poverty, he would say there was not enough ammunition. “A popgun war,” he said. For those who didn’t see the value of the poverty programs, he had little patience. Their actions were not just unreasonable or outrageous: to Bob, they were “unconscionable.”

Bob Coard steps down next week as head of ABCD, the city’s anti-poverty agency. He is the longest-serving community action official in the country with a tenure that extends back to the formative stages in the early 1960s.

Coard was a bridge builder. Back in the day, even as the busing controversies were roiling and dividing our city, he stood in South Boston with Gov. Frank Sargent, Sen. Bill Bulger, and a gaggle of folks from every part of Boston as the governor signed into law a bill to provide state funding for CAP programs across Massachusetts.

I came and went in that job, now three decades ago and more, and others easily took my place. But a piece of ABCD remains in my soul. When I moved on, I borrowed a tradition that retiring presidents are said to maintain: Back sometime in 1975, as he dictated to me a statement he wanted to be made public, I wrote down his words, and stored a copy in the top drawer of the desk in the Public Information office for those who followed me. And I told them that those are Bob’s words, in his own voice – you cannot possibly write anything better. Whenever he asks for a new statement on some new calamity that hurts the poor, quietly retreat to the office, pull the draft out of the desk, re-type it on fresh letterhead, have a cup of coffee to make it appear you’re laboring long and hard, then bring it up and put it on his desk.

And even though they are all his own words, I told them, make sure to give him a red pencil – because he is certain to make changes!
No one could create and articulate the rhetoric of the war on poverty than the inimitable Bob Coard.

When the office of Economic Opportunity was first formed in Washington in 1965, the federal government said it would wage war on poverty; but alas, it really became little more than a series of flawed, ill-conceived skirmishes. An army was raised, to be sure, but the ammunition necessary to win any lasting victory was never made available. But there remain committed soldiers on the ground, and the cause endures.

To borrow a few military metaphors, Bob Coard has spent his lifetime on the front lines of the war on poverty. For him, it was always an uphill battle, and he has routinely been under attack over these many years, often from the flank, but sometimes from friendly fire. For him there was never a ceasefire, nary a truce. He simply fought the good fight.

Now that he joins the ranks of the retired, this veteran of many wars deserves our commendations.

But somehow, I think, a simple “Thank you” will be enough.

Thanks, Boss.