The Rewards of Risk-Taking: Henry Barr
October 28, 2011
Catching up with Henry Barr, recipient of the 2007 Lewis Changing People’s Lives award
Henry Barr was only twelve years old when a counselor at the West End House Camp challenged him to box a bigger boy during the camp’s regular Friday night boxing matches. “I was a reasonably good athlete,” Barr said, “but I was really scared.”
It was a pivotal moment for Barr, the child of a Lithuanian immigrant family who had lost his mother a few years prior. He was spending time at the camp because his father felt it would provide support and a respite from the hardships at home.
The counselor, a man named Bobby Gordon, recognized that Barr was a boy who needed to be challenged to take a risk. Gordon told Barr, “If you don’t do this, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
Reluctantly, Barr stepped into the ring: “I was scrambling at first, but by the third round, I ended up winning the fight.”
The experience taught him that risks correlate to their returns—and the bigger the risk, the bigger the return. For Barr, the rewards of that Friday night match were a new sense of confidence and maturity, as well as a new willingness to embrace risk. Now, 50 years later, the lasting friendship between Gordon and Barr attests to the profound effect a consistent, stable, nurturing relationship can have on a child’s life.
That same risk-taking spirit fostered at the West End House served Barr well when he stepped in to serve as president during a difficult period in the Club’s history. An independent Boys & Girls Club in Boston, West End House serves immigrant and urban youth through programs in life skills, academic support and college preparation, fitness and nutrition, and the visual and performing arts.
The West End House provides a diverse population of financially disadvantaged children in the Boston area with an array of youth development services.
When it was founded in 1906, West End House was headquartered in Boston’s West End, a community of predominantly Eastern European and also Italian and Irish immigrants. As boys, Barr’s father and uncle were original members, and Barr and his own brother (joined by fellow alumnus and Grand Circle Chairman Alan Lewis) had grown up with the West End House from a very early age. The Club had supported Barr’s family after his mother’s death, allowing Barr and his brother to attend camp before they were officially old enough to do so, and later, even providing a scholarship for Barr to attend law school. So he was keenly aware of the transformative effect an organization can have on young people who might not otherwise find what Barr called the “extraordinary camaraderie of a place where you can feel safe and secure.”
In the ‘90s, the Club’s future was in jeopardy, and its facility (now located in Allston-Brighton due to urban renewal in the West End) was sorely outdated. Even though the West End House was already slated to close, Barr was determined to save the association that had been so influential in his own life. “We embarked on a $10 million fundraising campaign,” he said.
Around the same time, Barr ran into one of his old friends from summer camp—Alan Lewis. As the two reminisced about their summers in Maine, Barr told Lewis about the challenges the West End House was facing, and Lewis offered his help. “The Lewis family was absolutely the linchpin to the revitalization of the West End House,” Barr said. Thanks to their encouragement and support, the facility received a total renovation and expansion—including a technology lab, areas for educational activities, a performing arts studio, and a commercial kitchen with dining room.
Henry Barr with Grand Circle Chairman Alan Lewis at the 2010 Grand Circle Foundation dinner.
Today, Barr works as senior partner at the law firm of Barr & Cole and also serves on the West End House’s Board of Directors, where he continues to be involved in planning for its future. The Club currently serves 1,500 members and has recently established a girls’ summer camp, with its inaugural season in 2011. Barr foresees additional enhancements to its programming under Executive Director Andrea Howard—who was recently profiled as a Gutsy Leader by Grand Circle Foundation—as well as new initiatives, such as supporting West End House alumni to ensure that they graduate college. Not only that, his involvement in the Club continues to be very personal—his own two sons became members as soon as they were born, and each spent 14 seasons at the boys’ summer camp in Maine.
Barr credits Bobby Gordon, the counselor at the West End House Camp who encouraged him to fight in that boxing match so many years ago, with helping him to become the person he is today. The lesson he learned about risk has become a personal philosophy: “You can’t worry about failing in life,” he said. “You have to keep on going.”
Grand Circle is proud to support organizations like the West End House Boys & Girls Club. To learn more about the work of Grand Circle Foundation—or to sign up for its monthly e-newsletter—visit www.grandcirclefoundation.org.