Bob Prince, EHS ’67, a very successful “Everyman”
First African-American MBTA General Manager
It would be an exaggeration to say that Robert H. Prince, EHS ’67 helped transport more than hundreds of millions Massachusetts residents get to where they needed to go all by himself—but not by much. Named the first African-American General Manager (GM) of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in 1997 there is literally no position at the MBTA during a 25-year career Bob Prince didn’t master, and then moved up the ranks to become GM. “Twenty-five years ago, when I donned my first MBTA bus driver uniform, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to become general manager of the T,” he once told the Associated Press (AP). Running the MBTA with 1.2 M daily commuters, 6,500 employees and servicing 178 cities and towns was a huge management challenge. Prince credits much of his success to life-lessons learned at English High.
Born in Roxbury and then moved to Hyde Park, Prince was just three blocks away from Hyde Park High School. Instead he chose to “ride the MBTA buses and trolleys” to English. “I thought English was a better school. Great academics and athletic programs. The school was a melting pot. The divisions were more geographical than racial,” referring to a time when English served all Boston neighborhoods.
The English High motto was a guiding principle for Prince. “Our motto of honor and achievement meant something to me. Say you are going to do something then you do it. My experience at English also taught me to have a sense of pride in myself, and to value diversity and respect for all people.”
Prince remembers the English High dress code, real shirts and ties. “If you forgot your tie the teachers would give a big awful one, and then you never forgot to wear one again.” Calling himself an introvert, Prince singles out two EHS teachers who helped him, science teacher Joseph Yalmokas and homeroom teacher Bob Sheridan. “They challenged me and from that I gained the confidence in myself that I would need to succeed in life.”
Prince also remembers one not so fortunate event at English when teacher Joe Doherty accused him of defacing school property when he discovered the name “Prince” had been carved into a desk. Innocent, he talked his way out of a sticky situation. Years later he discovered his uncle who had also gone to English did the deed.
Prince’s only regret was not playing football and joining in the team’s camaraderie. “I would have liked to play with guys like Mike Thomas, Floyd Priester and Greg Hayes.”
In 1976 Prince started his first job at the MBTA and held more than 20 different operational and management positions before being named GM of the fourth largest transit system in the country.
“I thought it was ironic that I went to the oldest public high school in America and now I was GM of the oldest subway system in America.”
Prince had many challenges. It was a time when there were growing discrimination claims against the MBTA by women and minorities. But Prince saw claims of racial and sexual discrimination fall during his tenure. “My first six appointments were women,” he says. He himself was the object of a lot of hate mail. “But I got it from everybody so I thought I must be doing a good job.”
There were natural disasters to deal with also. A hundred-year rain storm in 1969 flooded the Greenline and tunnels. “We had up to 18 ft of water in the subway. I slept in my car four days. We had to get the lines restored.”
But it was the Boston Blizzard of ’78 that Prince cemented his reputation as a “can do” guy. The Governor had declared Martial law. Prince needed to get to his office, and he tried to drive. He was stopped by a National Guardsman. “I don’t care if you are Mary Poppins,” the armed Guardsman said, “turn around.” Prince drove home. Then he walked almost 10 miles from his home in Brookline to his office in Quincy!
Prince is most proud of the establishment of the Silver Line during his tenure which is a hybrid subway/trolleybus, underground/above ground line connecting the South Station Transportation Center with the Boston Convention Center, the Boston World Trade Center and directly to Logan Airport. He’s also proud of his work to make the MBTA more accessible to handicapped riders.
All and all Prince is satisfied with the job he did the “T.” “I believe leadership means leaving things better than you found them.”
After the MBTA Prince spent 15 years as Vice President of Transportation at AECOM, a global infrastructure consulting firm. He was involved with national transit issues and focused on state of good repair/capital needs assessments, security analyses, bus rapid transportation development, and new-system operations start-up.
“I wrote the book for two reasons. First African-American people don’t tell their personal stories. Second you have to realize that everyone has a story within them. “
Prince stays active in transportation issues and national groups and has been honored many times for his contributions to the sector. He’s not certain about the future of public transit. “I don’t have crystal ball but the pandemic obviously affected ridership.” He points to the shifting of populations from cities to suburbs and employers allowing employees to work from home as having a future impact on public transportation.
One thing he is certain about is the need for Congress to pass the infrastructure bill. “I don’t care if its Republicans or Democrats, we needed this bill yesterday. We have bridge failures and tunnel systems built in the 19th century.”
Prince currently lives in Florida with his wife Judith of 47 years and has two children and two grandchildren. His EHS yearbook lists one of his hobbies as being a gourmet cook. His specialty is deserts. But he can only make them when his wife lets him in the kitchen he says which isn’t often.
His message to English High students of today: “Don’t listen if you are told you can’t do it. If I listened to that message I would still be driving a bus!”