Even though Dan Rothenberg was one of the most successful real estate developers in New England, he kept a remarkably low profile. He was a developer of The Mall at Chestnut Hill and numerous other projects, but his name rarely surfaced in the media, as much by design as by chance.
“My father really had an abhorrence of self-aggrandizement and ostentatiousness,” said his son, Ned, of Brooklyn, N.Y. “What mattered to him were the personal connections with the people he was dealing with, and his ability to see the actual effectiveness of what would happen. If he did something, he wanted it to make people’s lives better.”
That was true in business and in the approach Mr. Rothenberg took to widely spreading the wealth he accumulated. Instead of making a few large contributions to well-known institutions, he gave to some 200 nonprofits regularly. He visited every place he supported and made it clear his donations were meant for them, rather than to reflect on him. He never wanted his name on a building.
“He would often tell people if they sent him more than a handwritten thank-you note, he would never give money again,” said Deborah Denhart, who worked for Mr. Rothenberg on charitable matters. “He felt so strongly that the time, the money, and the effort should go to the work, and not toward making donors feel good about themselves.”
Mr. Rothenberg, whose legacy stretches from the shoppers in upscale Chestnut Hill stores to the homeless his contributions helped house and feed, died in his sleep Tuesday in his West Newton home. He was 89.
Among the institutions Mr. Rothenberg helped support was his alma mater, Dartmouth College, and human service agencies such as the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter. The vast majority of the agencies to which he contributed, however, were nonprofits such as Julie’s Family Learning Program, which only secured its own space in South Boston less than a decade ago.
“Some of them are places you never heard of, that have tiny, tiny shoestring budgets,” said Denhart, who added that Mr. Rothenberg was so averse to flashiness that he didn’t like the word philanthropy.
“He would say, ‘Deb helps me with my stuff,’ ” she said with a chuckle. “I have no business card. That is not how he operated, which is what made him a joy to work for.”
When he visited each nonprofit to which he contributed, Mr. Rothenberg asked to meet the janitor, who he saw as a bellwether of how the agency was run. “He would always ask to talk to the person who, as he said, took care of the place, and wanted to know if that person was treated well,” Denhart said.
A sharp and perceptive businessman, Mr. Rothenberg succeeded partly by paying close attention to the particulars of every project. He and Julian Cohen, his partner in C&R Management, pored over ever detail.
“One day he told me, ‘If you can’t figure it out with a Number 2 pencil and a pad of paper, don’t do it,’ ” said Phil Ortins, vice president of the company.
“And every deal they made was figured out on a yellow pad of paper,” Ortins said. “They would sit across from each other and talk about it. The next day, they’d do it all over again. They’d tear up the paper and do it again to make sure they didn’t make a mistake. And they’d keep doing it and doing it and doing it. It was very simple.”
By the time Mr. Rothenberg and Cohen, who died in 2007, sought financing for a project, they carried in their formidable memories every figure a banker might want.
When it came to projects, however, Mr. Rothenberg was as concerned about each fit in the fabric of the community.
“This can be a joyous place, a neighborhood rather than a regional shopping center,” he told the Globe on the February day in 1974 when the ribbon was cut to officially open The Mall at Chestnut Hill.
Two decades later, dressed unassumingly as always, he strolled through the mall, conversing with shoppers he recognized, and disposing of stray pieces of trash he spotted.
“This is a nice place,” Mr. Rothenberg told the Globe in 1994. “It feels good.”
Daniel E. Rothenberg grew up in Brookline. His younger brother, the late Dr. Michael B. Rothenberg, became a prominent child psychologist.
Their father bought and sold goods and the family struggled financially in the Great Depression, and lived in a Coolidge Corner apartment.
Mr. Rothenberg graduated from Brookline High School in 1942 and went to Dartmouth, from which he graduated in 1946. He spent part of his college years at Yale University, where the Army sent him for several months to study Japanese during World War II, until it disbanded the program. He also was stationed in Cuba.
In 1948, Mr. Rothenberg married Susan Saftel, who skipped her Radcliffe College graduation for their wedding, which was on the same day. The couple went to Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne.
“Instead of a short honeymoon, they went to live in France for a year because he had money from the GI Bill and they had a great time,” their son said.
Returning home, Mr. Rothenberg went into the real estate business and by the early 1960s was partners with Julian Cohen, who though younger had also attended Brookline High and Dartmouth.
“They never had a contract between them,” Ortins said. “As Danny used to say, they never had an argument. They had disagreements, but they never had an argument.”
Instead, they enjoyed a great deal of success, which didn’t temper the way Mr. Rothenberg treated tenants and workers at the malls and shopping centers C&R Management developed.
“He would talk to them all, and he would talk to them the same way,” Ortins said. “It didn’t matter if you were the landscaper or the president of Bloomingdale’s.
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Rothenberg leaves a daughter, Ann of West Stockbridge, and two granddaughters.
A service will be announced.
“There are no Dan Rothenberg wings on any hospitals and there won’t be, which doesn’t mean he didn’t give to any hospitals,” his son said. “But he savored small organizations. He didn’t like to deal with development offices and people who were professional fund-raisers. He wanted things to actually happen.”
Over the past 15 years, Mr. Rothenberg paid all the expenses not covered by scholarships for about 160 college students from low-income families: computers, books, travel to and from school, studying abroad, monthly stipends for sundry items.
“He would say to them: ‘Don’t think about what you can’t do, think about what you can do, and then ask me,’ ” Denhart said.
That was also the case with Rosie’s Place, a Boston shelter for homeless women, where Mr. Rothenberg facilitated renovations, expansions, and contributed to annual costs.
“The great thing about Dan was that he heard what we wanted to do and he turned it into answers and solutions for us,” said Sue Marsh, the executive director.
Mr. Rothenberg, she added, also “gave great advice for running a nonprofit. One thing he said was, ‘Don’t get trapped by the bricks. Don’t get trapped by what you’ve got. Think about what you need to do.’ ”
When they visited a few weeks before he died, “one of the things he said was, ‘Aren’t we lucky that we get to do the things we do,’ ” Marsh said. “I will miss seeing him and hearing from him. He was a sweetie.”