Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Extended Obit on Grandpa in Boston Globe: Robert Palmer, 73; played key role in reforming state prisons

More on Grandpa (my father-in-law). Great article. Click link and see the photo of the man in his prime.
Robert Palmer, 73; played key role in reforming state prisons ROBERT PALMER

By Bryan Marquard, Globe Staff | January 17, 2007

Fix the problem, not the blame, Robert M. Palmer used to say. He spoke those words so often that Mr. Palmer and his proverb of choice became fodder for an editorial cartoon.

Guided by that management maxim and a sense of compassion, he was a force behind efforts in the 1970s to implement prison reform in Massachusetts. Friends and family say he also helped Polaroid Corp. become a pioneer in the emerging concepts of corporate commitment and responsibility, serving as spokesman when the company cut off shipments to South Africa during apartheid.

"He really cared about making the world a better place," said Frank Hall, who was Massachusetts commissioner of correction in the 1970s when Mr. Palmer chaired the Governor's Advisory Committee on Corrections. "We all like to say that, and to have other people say that about us, but he really was that way."

Mr. Palmer, who retired to Maine about a decade ago, died of heart failure Jan. 4 in his Ogunquit home. He was 73.

"He had an enormous understanding of human frailty," said Chet Atkins, a former US representative from the state's Fifth District. "He could hold people to very high standards, but could appreciate their frailty and help them get back on track and help them pick themselves up and restore their dignity."

Born in Boston, Mr. Palmer graduated from Brookline High School and Columbia University and served in the Army before marrying in 1957.

He went to work for Polaroid Corp. and rose to director of corporate relations, becoming the public voice of the company.

Edwin Land, the company's founder, "encouraged Bob to involve Polaroid in the community," said Mr. Palmer's former wife, Barbara of Pittsburgh . "Dr. Land insisted that Polaroid reach out and do good things in the community, and I mean important things, not just playgrounds."

Part of that outreach included Mr. Palmer's work with the state's prison system. As chairman of the Governor's Advisory Committee on Corrections, he became an instrument of change in the early 1970s when the riots at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York prompted systems across the country to contemplate reform.

"I think Bob really understood what was going on in the system," Hall said. "He helped bring about some of the reforms in corrections in Massachusetts, and he was immensely helpful to me."

Mr. Palmer's advocacy, he said, helped lead to the prerelease programs for inmates that significantly reduced recidivism.

"He was very much of an advocate for having a balanced parole board," said Paul Chernoff, a Superior Court judge who was chairman of the state Parole Board in the early 1970s. Mr. Palmer, he said, pushed for a parole board that included members "from many walks of life, not just law enforcement," and which included lawyers and treatment professionals.

"He was also an advocate of due process hearings," Chernoff said, adding that Mr. Palmer helped bring about changes now taken for granted.

"In a way, he was ahead of his time in a lot of things that he attempted to do," Barbara Palmer said.

She said Mr. Palmer, who formerly lived in Boston and Concord, brought a quality of mercy to his work.

"He didn't think we needed to blame people, he thought we needed to fix what went wrong," she said. "That pretty much sums him up. He didn't have any time for witch hunting. He wanted people to settle down, look at what was going wrong, and remedy it."

"He didn't care who you were or where you were from," said his son, Robert, who works in Connecticut. "He was a big believer that everybody makes mistakes, but you try to fix it. In my daily life, in the management work I do, I quote him every day."

"He had such a positive way of looking at people," said his daughter, Catherine, a physician in Pittsburgh. "He could really see what was the best in people and their potential and what they had to offer. And then he would step back. He didn't want to take credit for it; he just wanted to help them have the opportunity to do what they wanted to do."

Whether he was working with inmates or speaking with his children and grandchildren, Mr. Palmer did not condescend because of age or social background, his daughter said.

"He was very funny and had a quick wit. As kids, we always enjoyed him because he treated us as thinking people," his daughter said, adding that her father developed a warm bond with his three grandsons by taking the same approach.

"I think he left an extraordinarily lasting impression," Atkins said. "He was a man of enormous compassion and with very, very strong values."

In addition to his son, daughter, former wife, and three grandsons, Mr. Palmer leaves two brothers, Charles of Wayland and E. Samuel of Arlington, and a sister, Judith Muggia of Winchester.

The service will be private.
One tiny correction. His daughter, my wife, Catherine V. Palmer, of Pittsburgh, works with physicians as Director of Audiology at UPMC's Eye and Ear and Pitt. She has a Ph.D, not a M.D.

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