Robert Dentler; helped draft school desegregation plan

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

Sitting on his living room couch in Lexington in early 1975, Robert A. Dentler pondered a reporter's question about why US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. had tapped him as an expert to help draft Boston's school desegregation plan.

"I don't put much weight on the idea that anyone is expert enough to solve social problems," he said with a smile. "The solutions come out of developing the collective will of the community."

In the years that followed, he was hailed by many as having done just that in Boston, while opponents of the busing plan that was used to desegregate schools argued that Dr. Dentler was among a small cadre that imposed the will of a few on the lives of thousands. Those who knew him best, though, say his moral commitment to fairness was unwavering.

"He had a deep and abiding desire for achieving justice," said Charles Willie, professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a court-appointed master who oversaw desegregation in Boston's schools. "He would have nothing to do with a plan that wasn't designed to achieve justice. Justice as he saw it was justice for people of color as well as for white people. It was justice for people of limited income as well as for affluent people. That was something that stayed with him."

A sociologist and an architect of Boston's school desegregation plan, Dr. Dentler died Thursday in Mount Auburn Hospital of geriatric myelodysplasia, a bone marrow disorder. Still working at 79, he had hoped to return home to Lexington and his consultant duties.

While he played a key role in what most view as the most divisive social issue in Boston in recent decades, Dr. Dentler had lent his knowledge and experience to desegregation plans across the country, from the suburbs of New York City to the Midwest, the South, and California.

"On a national basis, you just have to say he's one of the real towering figures in desegregation efforts around the country," said Martin Walsh, regional director for the community-relations service of the US Justice Department during Boston's school desegregation years.

Family members said justice and racial equality were never simply academic pursuits for Dr. Dentler, who was a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

"My father believed and raised all of his children to believe that we're all in one boat and we're all lifted up together," said his daughter, Deborah of Glendale, Calif. "He believed individual effort and collective effort combine to improve the life of the community, and this was something that was absolutely fundamental in our home. Segregated society was a moral sin."

In a letter nominating Dr. Dentler for the American Sociological Association's distinguished career award, Joyce Ann Miller, president of Keystone Research Corp., said his work "illuminates the ways in which the practice of sociology can contribute to the betterment of the human condition."

Receiving the award last year, he said his greatest professional satisfaction came from implementing in 18 cities the US Supreme Court's 1954 decision outlawing segregation in public schools.

"The best years came under federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, who retained me to help desegregate the schools of Boston," Dr. Dentler said at the ceremony.

Helen Dentler said her husband "felt that working with Judge Garrity was the epitome, the high point of his career."

Born in the suburbs of Chicago, Dr. Dentler was the second of three children. His father had emigrated from Germany, arriving in New York as a cabin boy on a ship. Raised in a Lutheran family and sent to a military school as a teenager, Dr. Dentler decided he wanted to be a poet, a profession his father did not find suitable.

"My dad was an idealist," his daughter said.

He was, she said, "a dreamer and a lover of poetry, and quite romantic about my mother and about the world. But he was a real Midwesterner, truly, truly forged in the Midwestern culture. He was a formal person and had a strict Calvinist upbringing, so he had a reserved nature and a work ethic."

Dr. Dentler graduated from Northwestern University in 1949 with a bachelor's in political science. As a student, he reviewed nightclubs for a magazine and then covered the police beat for the City News Bureau of Chicago. While at Northwestern, he met Helen Hosmer on a blind date.

They married in 1950, the year he received a master's in English literature from Northwestern. He received another master's, this time in sociology, in 1954 from American University, and received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1960.

Dr. Dentler taught at Pomfret School in Connecticut, Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, the University of Kansas, and Dartmouth College before spending a decade at Columbia University's Teachers College.

In 1972 he decamped to Boston University, where he was a professor and dean of the School of Education. Three years later, Garrity asked Dr. Dentler and his associate dean, Marvin B. Scott, to assist in drafting a desegregation plan for Boston's schools.

"Of course, when you engage in fairness and justice, you don't always get high marks," Willie said with a chuckle, noting that Dr. Dentler and others involved in desegregation largely worked without a cheering section.

To achieve a racial balance, the desegregation plan called for many students to be bused from their neighborhoods to other schools. Opponents protested the court orders, and some demonstrations turned violent.

Nevertheless, Willie said, if Dr. Dentler "thought he was doing what was right, what was just, and what was appropriate for all people involved, then he would run with it."

"Nobody expects miracles," Dr. Dentler told the Globe in February 1975 after Garrity announced his appointment.

Several years later, he and Scott wrote a book about their experiences, "Schools on Trial." What many would consider a minor miracle had occurred, but Dr. Dentler and Scott acknowledged that there was always more to be done.

"Desegregation has been achieved in Boston," they wrote. "Quality integrated education will take longer."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Dr. Dentler leaves two sons, Eric of Belmont, Calif., and Robin of Littleton; a brother, Howard of Mount Pleasant, Iowa; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. April 13 in First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Lexington.

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