Appreciation: Jim Popeo – East Boston Man and Mass Leader of LBJ’s Great Society and ‘War on Poverty’ – Passes at 90

V. James “Jim” Popeo, an East Boston native who dedicated his life to helping underserved families in Massachusetts as a leader of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, passed away peacefully recently at the age of 90.  Jim Popeo grew up on the streets of East Boston, a son of Italian immigrants who raised their large family in an atmosphere of love, packed in a unique A-frame home near Logan Airport.  The Popeo family home was the oldest in East Boston when Jim was a child.  Prior to the great Logan Airport expansion, Jim had many fine memories of playing in the airport hangars, mostly with his younger brother Bob, as being up close to the sights and sounds of the Airport were a constant part of growing up for the Popeo children.  The East Boston Social Center proved to be a driving force in their lives as were the affiliated East Boston camps Jim and his siblings attended throughout childhood.  When he was 13 years old, Jim met Joan DeCristoforo while attending the East Boston Camp in Westford.  Jim went on to marry Joan and the couple celebrated 68 years of marriage last summer. 

 Jim Popeo graduated from Christopher Columbus High School and Boston University.  Growing up in East Boston, and throughout his teen years Jim developed his true passion, helping people in need.  The more success Jim achieved in his life the more he understood the importance of providing opportunities for people living in underserved communities, especially in America’s long-neglected urban centers.  Jim worked for many years in the City of Springfield, running the Greater Springfield Community Center Association and its network of three community centers that were dedicated to helping children and families living in poverty.  During their Springfield years, Jim and Joan’s seven children have cherished memories of their father and his dedication to Springfield families in need, including hosting homeless families at holiday dinners, finding money to help a poor child get badly needed dental care and delivering Christmas presents and food to a family who had nothing but a kitchen chair in their apartment.  Jim Popeo had a positive impact on the lives of thousands of Springfield residents while also inspiring others in the community to give back and help provide opportunities for those who had been denied a fair shake due to systemic racism and the devastating impact on poverty.

 With his growing reputation as an empathetic and skillful social service leader with the proven ability to impact change and improve people’s lives, Jim was named Executive Director of the “War on Poverty” for the City of Worcester.  This pioneering program was established by the Economic Opportunity Act introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his Great Society vision, where programs such as that led by Jim Popeo in Worcester were collectively aimed at eliminating poverty by improving living conditions for residents of low-income neighborhoods and by helping the poor access economic opportunities long denied them.  As a leader within LBJ’s Great Society, Jim subsequently was asked to serve in a similar role for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  Governor Francis Sargent created a new state cabinet system to address poverty, installing Jim Popeo as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs.   In this role, Jim oversaw monies that funded critical public housing projects and other developments in low-income areas.  Jim Popeo’s work and leadership during LBJ’s War on Poverty and the Great Society helped forge significant positive change for inner city residents, including the establishment of community health centers which to this day remain an important aspect of life in Boston, Worcester, Springfield and other cities across the nation. 

Starting in 1970, Jim and his family lived on Crest Road in Swampscott.  The Popeo family home was a hub of activity for friends of Jim and Joan’s seven children.  All of Jim’s sons and daughters graduated from Swampscott High School. 

Jim Popeo and his brothers and sisters never forgot where they came from – East Boston.  Up until his final years, Jim would get together regularly for dinner at an old favorite Eastie haunt with a group of his old friends, and talk about their old days boxing in East Boston.  A photo of Jim’s old gang is hanging in the restaurant today.  Jim was especially close to and admired his brother Bob, a brilliant attorney who, like his big brother Jim, was beloved by those he encountered in his personal and professional life.  Just last year, Jim was beaming alongside his brother as his beloved East Boston Social Center held its annual celebration in honor of Bob Popeo. 

 Jim was especially proud of his fourteen grandchildren and reveled in their accomplishments and wedding celebrations where he showed off his dance floor moves.  Jim was always the life of the party but his most cherished place to be, any time of year, was his beloved cottage on Newfound Lake, his true home with his beloved Joan. 

Jim Popeo passed away on December 23, 2020 at the age of 90.

 V. James “Jim” Popeo is survived by his wife, Joan DeCristoforo Popeo; and his seven children, Paula Popeo and her husband Robert Schilling of New Bedford, Nancy Popeo and her husband Robert Murphy of Natick, James Popeo and his wife Holly of North Reading, Andrea Popeo of Marblehead, William Popeo and his wife Sharon of Portsmouth, NH, John Popeo and his wife Michele of Marblehead, Victoria Popeo of Bedminster, NJ; sons-in-law, Paul Johnson of Swampscott and Daniel LaVecchia of Bedminster, NJ; and fourteen grandchildren, Thomas Popeo, Jacquelyn Popeo, John Popeo and his wife Sarah, Vanessa and her husband Patrick Coonan, Anthony Popeo, Haley Bernatas, Emily Johnson, Sam Johnson and his fiance Pip Owen, Mary Popeo, Andrew Popeo, William Popeo, Katrina and Nick Aielllo-Popeo and Olivia Popeo and Troy LaVecchia. He is survived by three siblings, Victor R. Popeo, M.D. and his wife Annette of Marco Island, Florida and Yarmouthport, MA (formerly of Walpole) and Attorney R. Robert Popeo and his wife Brenda of Needham and Oyster Harbors, and his sister, Mary A. Popeo (wife of the late Hank Greenberg) of Venice, Florida (formerly of Louisville, Kentucky). He was the brother of the late Helen J. Gladney (wife of the late Arthur Gladney) of Barrington, Rhode Island and the late Constance Popeo Wilson (wife of the late David Wilson) of Lexington, KY.

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