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Henry Colt Jr., 88; nonprofit fund-raiser

HENRY COLT JR.

HENRY COLT JR.

With a graciousness that extended beyond mere courtesy, Henry Colt Jr. could make losing feel like winning for his opponents on the Cape Cod tennis courts where Boston Brahmins gathered to prove their prowess.

“That’s too good,” he might say, pointing admiringly at a player who slipped a shot past his reach.

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Win or lose, and often it was the former, Mr. Colt hastened to sweep the court when the match was done, rather than leave the chore for others. Carrying such manners into his work hours, he was particularly effective when he left the corporate world and reinvented himself as a fund-raiser for three education and medical institutions in Greater Boston.

“He always loved people, and fund-raising is a great job if you like people,” said his son George Howe Colt of Whately, a writer who chronicled his father and generations of the Colt clan in his 2003 book “The Big House,” about the family’s summer retreat on the Cape.

Mr. Colt, who for nearly 35 years served in development positions at Harvard University, Boston Children’s Hospital, and the Perkins School for the Blind, died Dec. 1 in his Easthampton home of lung cancer. He was 88 and previously lived in Dedham for many years.

“When he was in a room, his eyes were always lit up,” said his son Ned of Amman, Jordan, a former NBC correspondent. “He would always make everyone, no matter who they were, no matter where they were from, feel valued.”

Mr. Colt did so with such enthusiasm that his brother James, a former Massachusetts state representative who died four years ago, once shook his head as he watched Mr. Colt leap to greet visitors. “He’s the one who should have been the politician,” he mused.

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“When I was a child, my father’s ease with people astonished me,” George wrote in “The Big House.” “Wherever we went, he seemed to know everyone: the butcher at the general store, the guard with the paunch who told us where to leave our trash at the town dump, the man who wiped our windshield at the Esso station. And they knew him, joked with him, thought the world of him.”

Born in New York City, Henry Francis Colt Jr. was a descendent of John Murray Forbes, the railroad magnate and abolitionist.

He was the oldest of five children born to Henry Colt and the former Mary Atkinson. Her family was from Greater Boston, and the Colts returned there when Mr. Colt was very young.

Mr. Colt grew up in Brookline and Cambridge and graduated from St. George’s School in Middletown, R.I.

He interrupted his studies at Harvard College to serve in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and was a lieutenant on his first bombing mission as a navigator when his plane was shot down in enemy territory over Belgium.

He injured both ankles when he parachuted into a garden. A Belgian farmer and his daughters bandaged and fed Mr. Colt, who used rudimentary French and traveled in disguise as he escaped the country with assistance from the Belgian Underground.

“His closest call came on a railway platform crawling with German soldiers and Gestapo agents, when Dad, unaccustomed to wearing farmer’s boots, accidentally stepped on the toes of a Belgian woman,” George wrote. “ ‘Oh, forgive me, I’m so sorry,’ he blurted out in English, his Boston-bred manners trumping his survival instincts.”

The Germans were out of earshot and Mr. Colt safely traveled to England, where after a month listed as missing in action he sent family a telegram: “Safe. Well. Much love, Harry.”

Not long after the war, he dictated to a friend a memoir of a few pages, but in later years was reluctant to discuss his experiences.

George recalled that in 2004, when Iraqi gunmen held Ned and a few NBC colleagues captive for three days, their father said: “Now I think I know what it was like for my parents when I was missing in action for 30 days.”

After escaping Belgium, Mr. Colt was awarded a Purple Heart, and he returned to his economics studies at Harvard, where he recovered from the physical and emotional trauma.

“I probably should have gone into a mental institution,” he told George. “Instead, I got married.”

That marriage ended after a year. He finished his Harvard degree in 1947 and spent 18 years working for Air Reduction Co., an industrial gasses firm that transferred Mr. Colt to various cities.

The commuting and travel “led me to believe that there was something else more important in this life,” he wrote in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

In 1951, Mr. Colt married Elisabeth Wolcott Howe, who is known as Lisa, and who became an educator at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham.

When Mr. Colt left Air Reduction Co., he spent a dozen years working for Harvard in positions including director of the college fund and director of university development.

In 1977, Mr. Colt moved to Children’s Hospital, where he became vice president of development and community relations. Changing institutions once more, he finished his career with 19 years at Perkins, where he was director of development and public relations, and worked on securing the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation grants that helped fund school programs.

The Perkins school was “where he found his place in the world, where he really felt he could make a difference,” Ned said.

In “The Big House,” George wrote that it was “ironic that the prudent Bostonian proved so adept at coaxing others to part with their money” as a fund-raiser for three institutions, though his manners and presence proved invaluable in those roles.

“People figured that if he stood behind a cause, that’s exactly where they should put their money,” George wrote.

In addition to his wife, Lisa, and his sons George and Ned, Mr. Colt leaves two other sons, Harry III of Belgrade, Maine, and Mark of Medway; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. April 13 in Saint Philip’s Episcopal Church in Easthampton.

With blue eyes that recalled Paul Newman and his Brahmin bearing, Mr. Colt could have stepped out of central casting into the role that was his life.

“The highest compliment in the Wasp lexicon was to be called ‘attractive’ (or, as the men put it, damned attractive), which seemed to mean not only physically appealing — that went without saying — but socially graceful: unself-concious, athletic, able to put people at their ease,” George wrote in his book. “My father and his siblings were damned attractive.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached atbmarquard@globe.com.

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