It seems inevitable that a town project highlighting Needham residents who’ve reinforced the idea that life is good would feature the guys who trademarked that message.
Life is Good founders brothers Bert and John Jacobs were back in their hometown last week for the unveiling of a mural in their honor as part of “From Needham to the World,” the latest effort of the Needham Community Revitalization Trust Fund (NCRTF).
“We started the fund in 1999 to be able to help revitalize Needham’s public spaces,” said Chair Paul Good. “But the more important thing was the whole intention of the fund was to bring objects and experiences that would lift people’s spirits.”
The NCRTF has done more than 40 public space projects, including sculptures on the Town Common. This is their fourth mural, all creations of Needham graphic designer Seymour Levy. The colorful 4-by-8-foot installation uses images and text to depict the story of the Jacobs brothers’ Life is Good brand of clothing and optimism over nearly 30 years.
Good said they envisioned featuring people from Needham who had “gone off and done cool things, really positive things in the world. So we said, ‘Let’s put together a program that might be able to allow kids and adults here to really get a chance to recognize how little sleepy Needham gives you the opportunity to be able to spawn all kinds of amazing things.’“
The popular Life is Good enterprise is one of those things. What began with the Jacobs brothers selling T-shirts from their van in 1994 has become a national clothing line with a social impact mission. Their iconic image of a smiling ‘Jake’ and message of optimism has grown into a $150 million business headquartered in Boston with a manufacturing plant in New Hampshire and more than 4,000 retail locations across the country. They also established The Life is Good Playmaker Program to help overcome the impacts of early childhood trauma.
The two brothers said growing up in Needham contributed to their success.
“Nobody does anything on their own,” said Bert. “Needham played a huge role.”
The extended Jacobs family was from Boston, but a relative — Needham resident Mike Heffernan, who was instrumental in originating the NCRTF — influenced their mom to buy a house in Needham. “I think that really changed our lives in a lot of ways,” Bert said. “It gave us a chance, and it gave us the friends and the network to do something special.”
John agrees. “I think of all the levels of support you get in a town like Needham,” he said. “Like we grew up next to Cricket Field and there were counselors there to organize stuff, and if they weren’t there we had space to play wiffle ball and football or whatever it was. And great teachers, great schools.”
John said their mother, Joan, was the embodiment of their values. “We call them the Life is Good superpowers. She really represented them to us and modeled how you are grateful, and express love and use humor to get through difficult times. She showed us day in and day out how to do that. And Bert and I feel really lucky to have siblings who also model that.”
Bert and John are the youngest of six children who grew up in a small house at 11 Sunnyside Road — a home they later rebuilt for their parents. “We grew up in bunk beds and we know each other,” said John. “Bert can make me laugh, we have a lot of magical connections. We also fight like siblings and that didn’t stop when we got into business together.”
He said being siblings in business allows them to have a directness that saves time. “You can cut right past the pleasantries when things aren’t right. But then you do realize that the level of trust, and belief that the other guy’s gonna come through, is through the roof.” Ultimately, he said, the most important thing is that they are completely aligned on their longterm mission of spreading the power of optimism.
“Sometimes people look at the brand and think, ‘Oh, that’s for people on Easy Street who have everything perfect, but I’m struggling in my life,’” said Bert. “It’s not. We were like the poorest family in this town and we had all kinds of dysfunction in the home and the emotional health was not the best. But human beings are resilient, and that’s more what the brand is about, welcoming everybody to just make little steps to make your life better.”
As they stood in front of the mural outside Needham Center Fine Wines with friends and family in the crowd that spilled onto Chapel Street, the brothers expressed appreciation for the recognition.
“The mural is great. We’re thrilled. It’s really fun,” Bert said. “It’s most meaningful to have people that are close to us here and celebrate. It’s not about us. We’re really lucky. We’re proud to be from Needham.”
“We’re honored to be here today,” John added. “And we’re really grateful to be Needham Rockets through and through.”
The Life is Good mural will be on exhibit for four months until the Needham Community Revitalization Trust Fund unveils its next “From Needham to the World” profile.
The NCRTF is funded by private donations. More information is available at www.needhamma.gov/3886/NCRTF.