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Adrian Walker

She’s not the retiring type

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / June 6, 2011

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Doris Bunte’s home overlooks Harbor Point, the old Columbia Point housing project, and there is something appropriate about that.

She is, after all, one of the greatest advocates for public housing that Boston has ever seen and, at 77, her passion for the subject is undimmed. “Everyone hates public housing,’’ she said recently, “except the people who live in it.’’

I caught up with Bunte after receiving word that she had been ill. She didn’t want to talk about it, and certainly isn’t looking for sympathy. A few years ago she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and this year she had tumors removed from her lung. For now, she’s fine.

Bunte’s career is unparalleled in Boston politics. She was a tenant activist at Orchard Park (now Orchard Gardens) who rose to state representative, and then became the first former tenant to run the Boston Housing Authority, under Mayor Raymond L. Flynn. She left the BHA in 1992, and seemed to disappear.

That was deliberate. Her last couple of years in city government weren’t happy ones. Though she enjoyed a good relationship with Flynn, she later complained of being cut out of his inner circle, and her management of the housing bureaucracy had its critics. There was also a federal corruption probe to deal with. The job was, and is, tough. After two decades in the public eye, Bunte vanished.

But even out of sight, she was busy. She worked at the Boston University School of Public Health and, in a less predictable move, spent many happy years at the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. She did both simultaneously, and quietly.

The center is a unique institution in academia. While it is ostensibly devoted to sports, its real mission is unabashed activism. Sports just happens to be a great way to gain entree to young people and get their attention. It conducts programs in middle schools and high schools on such nonathletic subjects as domestic violence and homophobia.

It was a great landing spot for someone who had always been, at heart, an activist. Among Bunte’s many roles there was helping raise $3 million over about 12 years. She retired a year ago, but remains a heroine to the center’s director, Dan Lebowitz.

“She didn’t just embrace the mission and collect a paycheck,’’ Lebowitz said. “She brought people together . . . I’ve got great love for her.’’

Bunte came to the center through a roundabout path. She served on a board with Northeastern’s then-president, Jack Curry, and he suggested she meet the center’s founder, Richard Lapchick. They immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits.

“Richard told me, ‘I don’t look for controversy, but I don’t run from it, either.’ Richard Lapchick was the first person I ever met who believed in equal access and lived it,’’ Bunte said.

In her years at the center she drew heavily on the political skills she had honed at the State House. When she was elected in 1972, the Legislature had a handful of black legislators and very few women. Her 12 years there were ultimately the key to the rest of her career.

“It was phenomenally interesting,’’ she said. “I learned that the less you have, the more important government is. The more you have, the less dependent you are.’’

She spends her time now watching a new generation of politicians, taking part in things when asked. Even in her late 70s, retirement doesn’t seem to suit her. She likes her privacy — she joked that after leaving the BHA, she never expected to talk to the Globe again — but remains a passionate observer of the city.

Now she’s thinking about writing a memoir, partly to pay tribute to her allies over the years. “I’ve had wonderful opportunities,’’ she said. “In my search for social justice I’ve been blessed.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.