More mischievous than his trademark gray suit and fedora might suggest, Stokley Towles thought nothing of pausing at a red light one night years ago to call out “fire drill” while driving his young daughter and her friends to dinner at the Ritz. Leaping out, they ran a quick circuit around the car before piling back in, just in time for the green light.
Though more serious by day, Mr. Towles in his own way ran circles around Boston’s staid financial world four decades ago when he persuaded his firm, Brown Brothers Harriman, to venture into the relatively unexplored realm known as global custody.
“Custody was not then considered what professional bankers did,” Mr. Towles told Global Custodian magazine in 2009.
Building an expansive operation from his idea, Brown Brothers Harriman now handles the settlement and safekeeping of investments and assets, such as bonds and equities in transactions that cross international borders, and currently reports more than $3 trillion in assets under custody.
Mr. Towles, whose public and private philanthropy extended from education to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, died in his Westwood home Feb. 14 after having lunch with a good friend. He was 77 and had been diagnosed in the fall with pancreatic cancer.
In the early 1970s, global custody “was a backwater,” said Digger Donahue, managing partner at Brown Brothers Harriman. “It wasn’t really a big glamorous thing for banks to be doing.”
Mr. Towles helped change that, partly through the force of his personality.
“He was not a typical banker,” Donahue said. “He just had more energy and exuberance, and he translated that into building a business.”
That exuberance was apparent in other avenues he pursued, particularly at the Museum of Fine Arts. The MFA named a gallery in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art for Mr. Towles and his wife, Jeanne, who jointly established a fund for acquiring pieces of art.
Mr. Towles was particularly fond of artists such as Andy Warhol and Alex Katz. He also was drawn to brightly colored works that seemed to capture his own unyielding sense of optimism.
“He found an interest in art truly life-enhancing,” said Malcolm Rogers, director of the MFA. “It added a dimension that meant a great deal to him.”
Mr. Towles, Rogers added, “simply loved working with the curators, side by side, learning from their experience and testing their judgment.”
Spending time with young curators, along with chairing the MFA’s board during part of the museum’s renovation in recent years, allowed Mr. Towles to add to his ever-expanding friendships.
“My dad was always interested in getting to know a whole new group of people,” said his son Amor of New York City. “He just kept going after new and widening circles of engagement, right up until the time he died.”
At gatherings of all kinds, “it was always such fun to be next to Dad,” said his daughter, Kimbrough of New York City. “He had such a love of life and told such great stories and was so full of laughter that you just wanted to be with him.”
Born in St. Louis, Stokley Porter Towles was the older of two children and was studying at Princeton University when his father died. Scholarships helped him finish at Princeton, an experience that prompted him to use his own financial success to help others.
Privately and without fanfare, he lent assistance to friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who wanted to further their educations or return to college.
“There was his career and his job, which was huge, but then there was his work for other people,” said his son Stokley Jr. of Seattle. “He loved helping people with education.”
Mr. Towles also established a scholarship fund at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, which his children and stepchildren attended and where he served as a trustee and treasurer.
“He was extraordinarily optimistic, almost unnaturally so,” said Richard H. Baker, former headmaster of the school. “Stokley felt that anything he wanted to get done, or anything we wanted to get done, we could get done. I relished being around him because it buoyed me up. He would never have suggested that he could do things that were superhuman. It just seemed that things were easy for him.”
After graduating from Princeton, Mr. Towles arrived in Boston in the late 1950s while courting his first wife, the former Holly Hollingsworth. Their marriage ended in divorce.
Mr. Towles graduated from Harvard Business School with a master’s in business administration before joining Brown Brothers Harriman in 1960. He stayed with the firm the rest of his life, becoming a partner in 1978 and a limited partner in 2010.
Global custody, the pursuit Mr. Towles suggested, became the biggest part of the firm’s business, now employing about 3,000 people worldwide.
In 1983, he married Jeanne Glass, who said via e-mail that Mr. Towles “was the love of my life and the best husband in the world and the most loving person, and the most fun.”
During family vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Towles would stuff his two-seat turquoise Porsche with any number of children, stepchildren, and their friends for a ride to get ice cream. Driving down the road, his car spilling over with passengers, he would slow down while passing pedestrians to cheerfully call out: “Hey, want a ride?”
A service has been held for Mr. Towles, who in addition to his wife, daughter, and two sons, leaves two stepsons, Clark and Chip Eddy, both of Los Angeles, and 13 grandchildren.
For Mr. Towles, a list of life’s enthusiasms included faithful Sunday attendance at Episcopal services, chardonnay, and the kind of common sense that laid a foundation for his optimism.
He also was a fan of TV shows such as “The Rockford Files,” “Seinfeld,” and “Cheers,” from which he drew life parables, invoking the characters Sam and Diane, for example, during heart-to-heart talks about the complications of romance.
Routines became rituals to relish. Mr. Towles began the day with corn flakes, said grace before meals, exercised daily, and had chicken soup on weekends.
And he stopped by the Faneuil Hall Starbucks each morning for a double-shot tall skim latte, greeting baristas by name before watching Boston come to life.
“For 20 or 30 years, he would get coffee at Faneuil Hall and go sit outside on a bench,” Amor said. “His friends could find him there. I could find him there. Over the course of a year, he’d see everybody, which was the whole point.”