Bob Hohler, a champion of change

On the evening of June 2, a colleague called to let me know that Bob Hohler – mentor and friend — had passed away.

This week, I learned of a White House initiative to nominate Champions of Change.  I would be hard-pressed to think of a better candidate than Bob Hohler.

Bob was an astonishing instigator of transformative change whose life is worth studying and emulating.  Although he seldom discussed it, he grew up one step away from homelessness in Boston.  Last time I went out for a drink with him, he pointedly noted his abstinence.  Present but unspoken was the family history behind that choice.

Bob HohlerWith his unique brilliance, personal warmth, and energy, he demanded excellence from everyone around him.  He was a rebel, flinty, and determined.  He improved his community and our country over his entire lifetime until he left us suddenly at age 78.

After marching in the south for civil rights, and helping his friend Henry Hampton produce Eyes on the Prize, he ran for Lieutenant Governor of Vermont.  He played the inside and outside game better than anyone I’ve ever met. You can read more about his life in the Boston Globe.

I met Bob twenty years ago when I started working at the Corporation for Supportive Housing.  His work with the Melville Charitable Trust not only led to pioneering support for CSH, but Bob and the Trust were instrumental in starting, resourcing, and creating the long-term infrastructure for Funders Together, the national funders collaborative focused on homelessness which continues today.

A few months ago, Bob wrote to me: “The stakes are so high and the way ahead so full of IED’s.  Yet we can take giant steps, if we develop a set of sound, shared strategies and focus on implementing them.  The head spins.”

Every time I heard from Bob my head spun and I was inspired to do even more – as were so many of us that had the good fortune to work with him.

In December, 2009, Bob wrote about Atul Gawande’s collection of essays, noting that:

“‘Betterment,’ he (Gawande) says, ‘is a perpetual labor.’ His prescription? You have to work every day for change. You need a diligent attention to detail, a disciplined commitment to doing things thoroughly and well, a refusal to accept failure and a constant search for new solutions.  It sounds simple, but to get better is fiendishly difficult.
Bob stepped up every day of his life, no matter how fiendishly difficult the challenges.  A true and enduring Champion of Change.

His work celebrates those who, despite working within severe limits and facing huge obstacles, use their ingenuity to craft new, better solutions. He points out that often these solutions are the result of people working together as a team.

With Bob’s passing, our team is diminished.  He impacted so many of us.  But he would expect us to suit up and hit the field every day through thick and thin – like his beloved Boston Red Sox.   And we’ll be there with his playbook at hand, doing our best to live up to his legacy – to be like Bob.