How Boston Strong T-shirts became a rallying cry for a city

An idea by college students turned into a rallying cry for Boston.

Like any other common room at any college, this one in the Little Building on Emerson College’s campus was home to a wide range of emotions. Awkward moments, anger, laughter. On April 15, 2013, though, all of those feelings were trumped by fear.

Outside of those walls, helicopter blades chopped through the air and panic created a dense fog of tension as word circulated that two bombs had gone off at the Boston Marathon.

In this room, located a few blocks from the finish line, Emerson College students turned the news on and off as they took comfort in each other’s presence. More than that, they thought beyond their room and found a way to help their city heal.

Chris Dobens and Nick Reynolds, two of the students, had talked about making T-shirts earlier in the school year. In fact, that might be the reason why, as they scrolled through Facebook checking in on friends, Dobens saw an advertisement for a site where he could make a custom T-shirt.

“Wait, no. That makes sense. Nick, let’s make T-shirts,” Dobens recalled saying.

Boston Marathon Tribute

The design was simplistic with its blue and gold color scheme – the same one that the Boston Athletic Association used for the 2013 Boston Marathon – and a short phrase written in caps across the chest: “Boston Strong.”

“It was right after President Obama had done the press conference, and he didn’t actually say the word strength, he used the word resilient or something like that,” Reynolds said. “There’s this idea that there’s a special sense of strength imbued in Bostonians or in the culture of Boston. It sounded nice. It looked good on a T-shirt.”

The slogan on the shirts wasn’t, however, intended to become the rallying cry of a recovering city.

Dobens and Reynolds thought they could sell the shirts – with all of the proceeds going to charity – to the people sitting in that room. Maybe they could sell 100 of them by using some social media savvy and the tightly knit environment at Emerson. After starting a Facebook page and tweeting out about the shirts using the hashtag “Boston Strong,” the movement began to grow and Lane Brenner, a communications major who also lived on the floor, joined the campaign.

When the trio went to bed that night, they had sold 63 T-shirts through Ink to the People, a custom T-shirt website that helps its users to fundraise for different organizations. By the time they checked the next morning they had sold 117. Ink to the People eventually donated the first 1,500 shirts to the campaign and then gave the trio a discount so that as much money as possible could go to the group’s charity of choice – The One Fund.

The Boston Strong campaign kept the group busy in the weeks following the marathon, to a point where it distracted each of them from the horror that had occurred down the street. One year later, that initial distraction still helps them to cope with the emotions surrounding the event.

Business was brisk.

“Even to this day, when we see things in the news about it – even right now with the trial and the potential death penalty, it still brings back that fear,” Dobens said. “It still brings back the heartache that you went through during that day, but you know that everyone is so much stronger now. … I think just being able to do this, just makes it so much easier to keep going.”

As much as the shirts became wildly popular, with more than 64,000 sales to date, the hashtag they used as they tried to promote their shirts came to define the city’s mentality after the tragedy. While Reynolds and Dobens came up with the phrase though, they said they do not want to own it.

“What we believe in is that this logo, this phrase, belongs to the city, not to us,” Dobens said.

Now, a year later, Dobens, Reynolds and Brenner have raised more than $978,000 for The One Fund. They still have critics who claim the trio benefits financially off their shirts, but they say they are no richer now than they were a year ago as all of the proceeds go directly to charity.

Either way, they will continue to sell these shirts and continue to make a difference for those impacted most by the bombings. And when the third Monday in April comes around this year, they will see the unifying ability of their homegrown campaign.

“I’m really, really hoping to see a lot of blue and yellow around that city,” Brenner said of this year’s marathon. “It’s probably one of my favorite cities in the world, and I think seeing something created in a dorm room all over that city would be awesome.”