By Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer

Bob Boyer never thought he’d be here. A former boxer from West Philadelphia, he was a young man in the Air Force, just past 20 years old, when he was transferred to the vehicle maintenance division at the airbase here in 1961.

At the time, the State of Oregon wasn’t a welcoming place for African-Americans, having only then begun to finally upend the many segregationist laws here. But a tight-knit black community had formed nonetheless in Northeast, and after he was discharged Mr. Boyer quickly found work in an autoshop on Union Avenue and made himself at home. He’s been here ever since. 

At his age, Mr. Boyer doesn’t need a resume, but if he did, it would read more like a short novel: boxer, Airman, auto mechanic, railyard worker, shipyard foreman, union boss, car salesman, community organizer, property manager, small business owner, president of his neighborhood association, Vice-President of the region’s NAACP, State Senator, to name just a few of the titles he’s held. But to get to know Mr. Boyer is to understand that some things don’t fit so easily on a resume, even one as impressive as his.

After nearly 60 years spent living and working in Northeast, it’s the other things, the intangibles, that matter more: husband and father of 8 (and 18 grandkids); linchpin of the community; a keeper of local history that we can all learn a thing or two from. 

He’s grateful for the opportunities that he’s been afforded, and cites the saying, ‘when one door closes, another opens,’ as a slogan of sorts for his life, while adding that you really have to look for those openings. As a property manager who knows a thing or two about construction, it seems he may have also built a few of them himself. One thing is certain: when Mr. Boyer comes in the door, he steps all the way through. But he also makes sure to leave it open for those coming behind him.  

Photo by Mischa Webley

While pounding spikes in the railyards, working the docks as a longshoreman, and starting a family in the 1960’s, he found time to get his associate’s degree from Cascade Christian College (whose name, by the way, he and others later successfully lobbied to have changed to Portland Community College).

Never missing a day of work, he would continue his education at Marylhurst University, and became the first African-American to graduate from there in 1977 with a degree in business management. As he moved up the ranks of the union to become shop steward and then president, it gave him a taste for politics that he never lost. It suited him well for the troubles facing the neighborhood at the time.  

In the 1970’s, 80’s, and even through the 1990’s, it was hard to get the city government to pay attention to the needs of Northeast Portland, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. As a member of the Planning Board for the Model Cities Initiative, an outgrowth of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program, Mr. Boyer and others helped organize the first neighborhood associations in Northeast, which together created the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN).

Through the power of this unity, the Northeast community found a way to speak as one to demand positive change from the city, and they started racking up wins quickly. One of their most enduring efforts was the successful campaign to change Union Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. 

It seems that few things have happened in recent Northeast history that Bob Boyer wasn’t somehow involved with. People such as him, and so many others, paid their dues to this area by always putting the needs of the larger community first and finding common ground with a wide variety of people and embracing unlikely allies.

In all of his work, it was this eagerness to build relationships with just about anyone that led him to work closely with many notable names and community members that helped shape Northeast and the city at large: Avel Gordly, Dick Bogle, Charles Moose, Bud Clark. The way he sees it, if you want things to be different, you have no choice but to dive right in. And when you dive in, you just might make history along the way. 

Now almost 80 years old and not quite retired from any of his endeavors, he says Portland has treated him very well and that’s it’s been a blessing. With a large, beautiful family, a successful small business and decades of active community involvement, he is blessed indeed. 

Not too bad for an ex-boxer from West Philly.