Richard W. Boone dies; helped lead War on Poverty


Richard W. Boone, who helped launch President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty,” died Feb. 26. (Photo by Jim Browne)

Richard W. Boone, who helped launch President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and later led private-sector initiatives to improve the lives of the poor, died Feb. 26 at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 86.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, said his son Wade Boone.

Mr. Boone came to Washington to join the staff of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. In 1964, after the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity under the leadership of R. Sargent Shriver Jr., Mr. Boone helped conceptualize and lead what became known as the Community Action Programs.

Mr. Boone became one of the most forceful proponents of the philosophy that grass-roots efforts — as opposed to top-down initiatives carried out by social workers and other professionals — were more likely to alleviate urban blight and other social ills.

He “was the most radical of the Kennedy Administration poverty fighters, but he was a radical in the Kennedy spirit,” journalist Nicholas Lemann wrote in a history of the War on Poverty published in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in 1988. He “saw the War on Poverty as an opportunity to be seized.”

Mr. Boone helped popularize the concept of “maximum feasible participation” — a catchphrase of the era that referred to the empowerment of local communities — and helped establish Head Start, Upward Bound, and numerous health and legal services for underserved communities, Frank Mankiewicz, a former top aide to Robert Kennedy, said in an interview.

In 1965, Mr. Boone left the government to become executive director of the Citizens’ Crusade Against Poverty, a group with funding from labor unions and the Ford Foundation. Mr. Boone focused on a variety of issues related to poverty, in particular hunger, malnutrition and the food stamp program — causes he would continue to pursue throughout his career.

He worked with the Center for Community Change in Washington and as director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial before joining the Field Foundation in New York in 1977. He served as director of that grant-giving organization until it shut down in 1989.

In 1981, Mr. Boone helped found the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. He continued working as a policy adviser until his death.

Richard Wolf Boone was born on March 29, 1927, in Louisville and grew up watching his father, a doctor, serve destitute Appalachian communities.

Mr. Boone served in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II. He received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1948 and a master’s degree in social sciences in 1959, both from the University of Chicago.

After college, Mr. Boone worked in Chicago as a captain in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, where he gained experience in the prevention — rather than the punishment — of juvenile delinquency, his son said.

In Washington, Mr. Boone worked closely with Robert Kennedy on juvenile-crime matters and helped launch the Appalachian Volunteers, a precursor to Volunteers in Service to America (Vista).

Survivors include his wife of more than six decades, Chloris Robinson Boone of Santa Barbara; five children, Steven Boone of Santa Fe, N.M., Wade Boone of Kensington, Md., Brent Boone of Santa Barbara, Jed Boone of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., and Laurel Boone Nelson of Oxnard, Calif.; and six grandchildren.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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