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Jerome Rappaport: A Legend and His Legacy

The civic leader and philanthropist is remembered by the BC Law community, whose policy center bears his name.

Photograph by Lee Pellegrini

Long before the foundation named for Jerome Lyle Rappaport and his wife Phyllis gave Boston College Law School the largest gift in its history at the time—$7.53 million in 2015—the philanthropist, developer, civic visionary, and policy guru had already made an indelible mark on Massachusetts.

Rappaport brought all of that experience, and more, to bear on BC Law—then under the deanship of Vince Rougeau—when he established the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy, which complements the work of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston established in 2000 at the Harvard Kennedy School.

As news spread of Rappaport’s passing on December 6, remembrances of him poured in from the BC Law community.

“Jerry Rappaport was a visionary leader,” said BC Law Interim Dean Diane Ring. “He led by example, in a way that raised others up and enriched his community. We will be forever grateful for his generosity in establishing the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy at the Law School, which has become a central part of our programming and brought additional opportunities for students with its Fellows Program and Distinguished Visiting Professor Program. Jerry inspired generations of students interested in public policy, and his legacy will continue to do so for generations to come.”

In the six years since the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy moved to BC Law from Suffolk University, it has expanded debate over pressing political, social, and civic issues with an extensive series of speakers, panels of top experts, and a roster of distinguished visiting professors—among them former governors Martin O’Malley, Jane Swift, and Dannel Malloy ’80 and justices Geraldine Hines and Robert Cordy. The Senior Fellows program has been populated by up-and-coming leaders in civil rights, public rights, urban planning, and legal defense.

To inspire and afford opportunities for gifted Massachusetts law students passionate about public service, the student Fellows Program provides public policy internships that nurture a community of emerging leaders, reflecting Rappaport’s decades-long vision of a better Boston and Commonwealth.

BC Law Professor R. Michael Cassidy was the center’s inaugural faculty director. “I will always admire Jerry for his generosity to Boston College and Harvard University, his mentorship of our students, and his great confidence that our communities could be made better by more informed and deliberate public policy choices,” he said.

“Jerry Rappaport touched and enriched the lives of so many people, myself included,” said Elisabeth “Lissy” Medvedow, executive director of the center. “He was the consummate visionary and philanthropist who exuded a magnificent combination of political savvy, will, and tenacity, with the truly human qualities of caring, humor, and compassion.”

Medvedow described Rappaport as a dapper man with his suit and blue sneakers who extolled the virtues of the Rappaport Fellows—all 252 of them—and regularly shared his pride for their accomplishments, with a particular sense of joy at the recent election of 2010 Rappaport Fellow Michelle Wu as Mayor of Boston.

“I am deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Jerry Rappaport, who inspired generations of leaders into public service in Boston,” Wu said. “As one of many young people who walked through doors opened by Jerry’s commitment to public service, I know his legacy will continue to have a profound impact on our city. My heart is with his family and loved ones.”

Rappaport had a facile mind, photographic memory, and the wherewithal to turn his ideas into action. He blazed through Harvard, earning a bachelor’s and law degree by the age of 21, while also establishing the Harvard Law School Forum. Among the early dignitaries to speak at the forum were Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The forum continues to this day.

Rappaport wasted no time jumping into public life, working on the gubernatorial campaign that helped John Hynes end the long reign of James Michael Curley in 1949. In the following decade, he founded the New Boston Committee to support City Council and School Committee candidates and established the Greater Boston Area Council to promote metropolitan and regional planning, according to the Phyllis & Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation website.

During that time, he also began work on Boston’s West End neighborhood,. It turned into a 20-year urban renewal project that became one for the history books, converting a crowded enclave of narrow streets and single family homes into Charles River Park, a middle- and upper-income district of high rises and green spaces well known to Boston drivers for the Storrow Drive signage, “If you lived here, you’d be home by now.”

All the while, Rappaport’s philanthropic interests multiplied and included the establishment of the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Charitable Foundation 1997. The couple’s generosity has touched numerous institutions, among them Smith College, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.

To many of those who knew Jerome Lyle Rappaport, learned from him, and benefited from his openness to possibilities, he was an inspiring human being.

BC Law Professor Daniel Kanstroom, who as the center’s current faculty director is tasked with continuing the work that Rappaport began, said, “Jerry was one of the most accomplished and successful people I have ever known. He was also unfailingly kind, generous, empathetic and open-minded. We will miss him very much personally; but it is an honor and privilege to work on his legacy projects.”

A similar sentiment was voiced by executive director Medvedow. “I genuinely adored him, as did our Rappaport Center community,” she said. “He encouraged law students, graduate students, and hundreds of public-service minded individuals to become ‘emerging leaders’ to create positive change for communities. He inspired all of us to do better for the world around us.”

Read more in the Boston Globe and Banker & Tradesman.

Photograph, from left: Former Dean Vincent Rougeau, Jerome Rappaport, Phyllis Rappaport, and inaugural Faculty Director R. Michael Cassidy at the announcement of the Rappaport Center’s move to BC Law in 2015.