Robert Hohler, leader of social justice efforts, dies in England

Robert Hohler, the executive director of a Boston-based charitable trust whose projects included broad efforts in Connecticut to end homelessness and shape public policy, died Thursday while hiking in England with his family.

Hohler, 78, was a civil rights activist who marched on Selma, Ala., with Martin Luther King, then helped produce an acclaimed television history of the movement, “Eyes on the Prize.” He was a founding member of the Board of Directors of The Connecticut News Project, publisher of The Mirror.

hohler, bob

Bob Hohler

As the executive director of The Melville Charitable Trust, Hohler played a role in two projects within walking distance of the state Capitol in Hartford: the Billings Forge housing-and-restaurant complex and The Lyceum, a home to public-policy conferences.

At Billings Forge, legislators could dine and have after-work drinks at the Firebox. At the Lyceum, the same lawmakers and others could interact with national figures on a wide range of public policy issues.

The Melville Trust stabilized Billings Forge, a financially troubled housing complex whose failure would have been devastating to the Frog Hollow neighborhood. At the same time, it took over nearby restaurant space, which became the Firebox, and established a year-round farmer’s market.

The Lyceum is home to the Partnership for Strong Communities, a non-profit that works on promoting affordable housing, ending homelessness and encouraging vibrant communities.

The Melville Trust, founded in 1991, also is one of the funders of the Connecticut Mirror.

Hohler grew up in poverty, often teetering on the edge of homelessness in Boston’s South End. For a time, he lived in an orphanage.

His long career as an activist included a stint as a lay minister at Boston’s Arlington Street Church, a Unitarian Universalist Association church. His ministry included staging a hunger strike to protest what he considered  church investments that promoted war and racism.

At The Melville Trust, Hohler made the organization a national player on issues relating to homelessness.

“Bob has been involved in the Trust virtually since its inception, and his bold imagination, unflagging energy, and relentless optimism have been the driving force behind its activities and those of its many partners for close to two decades,” said Stephen Melville, chairman of the trust’s board of directors.

Hohler was chairman of The Partnership for Strong Communities and a member of the board of Billings Forge Community Works.

In accepting a national leadership award on behalf of the trust in 2004, Hohler said, “At the center of everything we do is the idea of individual empowerment, of helping people to help themselves by getting access to the tools and means to achieve.”