Every holiday season, International Data Group founder and chairman Patrick J. McGovern personally handed out bonuses to his US employees, a tradition that began in 1964 when he launched the company in a small Newton office.
The annual errand in recent years meant Mr. McGovern traveled to 15 IDG offices from Boston to San Francisco, greeting workers in a vast research and technology information empire whose publications include Computerworld, Macworld, and PC World.
For those holiday meetings, Mr. McGovern studied employees’ names and latest achievements, editors said. He liked to deliver each bonus-filled envelope with a hearty handshake and relevant words of encouragement. A self-made billionaire several times over, Mr. McGovern also had a policy of taking employees out for a champagne dinner once they had worked at IDG for 10 years. He took their picture with his own camera and gave the women corsages.
“He really got a kick out of seeing his people do great things,” said Pat Kenealy, a former chief executive and publisher of PC World who is now managing director and cofounder of IDG Ventures. “He had a radically decentralized global media company long before it seemed possible or fashionable for most others.”
Mr. McGovern, who with his wife, Lore, gave $350 million to open the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, died Wednesday in Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 76 and had homes in Hollis, N.H., and the San Francisco area.
A spokeswoman for IDG said Mr. McGovern requested that the cause of his death not be made public.
His love of computers started in the 1950s in the stacks of a Philadelphia public library when he was a teenager. He found a book about computers called, “Giant Brains or Machines That Think.”
“I got very stimulated, thinking the human mind is the one part of the human capabilities which differentiates us from all other living things,” he said in a 2000 interview for the Computerworld Honors Program archives. “I thought, ‘What an empowerment to mankind’s intellectual skills.’ ”
As a teen, he took plywood, linoleum strips, and carpet tacks and built a basic computer. It played tic tac toe and never lost. He noticed players became frustrated so he adjusted the machine to make a random move every 40th time, allowing some to beat the machine.
The project helped him land a scholarship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied biophysics and graduated in 1959.
A student bulletin board posting led him to work for the first US computer magazine, Computers and Automation, where he decided he wanted to be part of the information services side of new technology.
Mr. McGovern was born in Queens, N.Y. His father worked in construction, his mother was an actuary, and his grandparents had emigrated from Ireland.
When Mr. McGovern was a boy his family moved to Philadelphia, where he delivered newspapers at 8.
The arc of his fortunes followed the rise of computer technology. He was working for Computers and Automation magazine in 1964 when he got an idea to gather information about who owned mainframe computers and what they were doing with them.
He tried to think of a name for his research company while on a train ride back to Boston from New York. He wrote the words for the venture on index cards and shuffled. International Data Corporation was born and IDG followed.
Mr. McGovern published his first issue of Computerworld in 1967. It was only eight pages. He had planned to call it Computer World News, but a typographer told him the name would not fit across the top of the page.
IDG grew to employ 13,000 worldwide. The company owns 180 print titles, operates more than 400 websites, and produces 700 technology events each year in 55 countries. Forbes magazine placed Mr. McGovern 88th last year on its list of the 400 richest Americans.
The key, Mr. McGovern told the Globe in an interview in 2000, was to hire passionate people to conduct market research and stand back while they excelled.
“He was on the one hand, maniacal about decentralization,” said former PC World editor Harry McCracken, now an editor at Time magazine. “If you ran a magazine, you had a business plan every year, and if you made your numbers, you had a lot of latitude.”
McGovern won a reputation for his vigilance about maintaining the wall between editorial and advertising.
When McCracken quit in 2007 in an argument over a chief executive’s plans to squash an article titled “10 Things We Hate about Apple,” he got a surprise call from Mr. McGovern.
“He told me as editor of PC World, I could publish whatever stories I thought were right to publish. It was important to hear,” said McCracken, who returned to his post.
In 1991, when the new head of IDG’s books unit suggested publishing a basic computer programming book called “DOS for Dummies,” Mr. McGovern said he feared no one would want to be seen buying it. But he backed his publishing executive and the “For Dummies” series became a cultural phenomenon.
Mr. McGovern made more than 130 trips to China during his life and created one of the first joint ventures between an American company and China in 1980, according to IDG. In 1997, Forbes magazine declared “Pat McGovern has more readers in China than the People’s Daily does.”
He was married for almost 34 years to the former Lore Harp, who in 1976 cofounded Vector Graphic, one of the early personal computer companies, and was featured on the covers of several top business magazines in the 1980s.
In 2000, the couple gave one of the largest gifts in the history of higher education when they created the brain research institute at MIT. They frequently visited the institute’s labs and seemed to employ the same cheerleading style Mr. McGovern used so successfully at IDG.
“Both of them, Pat and Lore, they would give encouragement to individual scientists, ask them about their work, and congratulate them when they had a discovery,” said the institute’s director Robert Desimone, who added that Mr. McGovern “amazed people with his memory of their children’s names.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. McGovern leaves a son, Patrick; a daughter, Elizabeth; two stepdaughters, Michelle Bethel and Dina Jackson; and nine grandchildren.
A memorial service will be announced.
Mr. McGovern’s longtime friend Dr. Ira Steinman said that among their circles of intelligent acquaintances “you could just tell Pat had another 10 or 20 IQ points. He was always positive and upbeat and could muster lots of life energy.”
In the last weeks of his friend’s life, Steinman visited Mr. McGovern’s hospital room.
“He rallied and began to sing some wonderful songs from shows we’d seen together,” Steinman recalled, “and had all the people clustered around him singing along with him.”