Next to his wife, whom he worshiped in ways that made their marriage the envy of friends for half a century, James F. Cleary’s great love was Boston.
His journey in the financial world took him from a Dorchester upbringing to a home with a commanding view of the city, and Mr. Cleary did not forget the steps he took along the way.
“When we used to walk to work together in the mornings, he always amazed me,’’ said his daughter, Karalyn of Boston. “He used to say hello to every caretaker in the Public Garden and on the Common. He would say: ‘Hey, great job guys. The park is looking great today,’ and give them a thumbs-up.
“He truly appreciated that they were making this city look better and look beautiful. And he loved that because he loved Boston as only someone who came from Dorchester and moved to the top of the Ritz could appreciate the city.’’
Mr. Cleary, formerly president of the Blyth Eastman Dillon & Co. securities firm and more recently an advisory director of UBS, died Sunday in Massachusetts General Hospital of acute leukemia, which had been diagnosed a few days earlier. He was 86 and kept homes in Palm Beach, Fla., Boston, and Osterville.
Applying lessons from the business world to higher education and the arts, Mr. Cleary created a second career boosting the finances of Boston College, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Boston Pops.
“He was world-class about giving back,’’ said longtime friend Jack Connors, a founder of the Boston advertising firm Hill Holliday and former chairman of BC’s board. “He was a prodigious fund-raiser and raised literally millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, for the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, and Boston College, among others.’’
Mr. Cleary, Connors added, was just as adept at lifting the spirits of everyone he encountered and helping others climb ladders in the working world that he had long ago ascended.
“He was one of these rare folks who took great joy in the success of others,’’ Connors said. “He was happy for your success. He wanted other people to know about your success, and he would tell them. If there were two or three people meeting, he would go on and on about you and what you had done.’’
Mr. Cleary became a Boston College trustee 40 years ago and cultivated donations in excess of $1 million. In his hands, fund-raising was a lively affair. He and his wife, Barbara, established the James F. Cleary chair in finance at BC’s Carroll School of Management.
“He helped make business fun,’’ said the Rev. J. Donald Monan, chancellor of the university. “Jim had great enthusiasm, great imagination, and terrific follow-through. I mean, he was just a gold mine of ideas. But it wasn’t just his imagination and ideas; he was willing to pitch in and make sure those ideas were realized.’’
In addition, Monan said, Mr. Cleary “was a great friend to me over the years.’’
Mr. Cleary also served as a Boston Symphony Orchestra trustee, and more than 20 years ago helped found the fund-raiser, A Company Christmas at Pops.
“Jim Cleary was a great lover of life and a great fan of the Boston Pops,’’ Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops, wrote in an e-mail.
“We will miss his generosity and the example he set for philanthropy in our community,’’ Lockhart wrote, “but, most of all, I will miss his enthusiasm for living. I feel grateful to have known him.’’
Mr. Cleary grew up in Dorchester, the middle child of five siblings, and went to Boston Latin School before leaving on his 17th birthday to join the Navy.
He served in the Pacific theater of operations during World War II. After the war, Mr. Cleary returned home and used the GI Bill to attend Boston College, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Moving to New York City, Mr. Cleary worked with the company that would become Blyth Eastman Dillon.
“He started out as a stockbroker, cold calling,’’ his daughter said, “and he eventually ended up running the company.’’
Jumping at the chance to return home in the late 1950s, Mr. Cleary ran the Boston branch and became a partner in the company. For him, Boston was always a better city, even though he returned to New York for several years in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
“I just saw a fantastic opportunity here,’’ he told the Globe in 1965, adding with a grin, “We have all the plusses.’’
One advantage in those years was that his commute to work from his Weston home and his family took only 23 minutes
In 1961, he had married Barbara Coliton, who was from Malden and was a fashion buyer for Jordan Marsh. They met on a blind date to have dinner at the Parker House.
“She walked in the room, and that was it,’’ their daughter said. “She was the prettiest girl he had ever seen. He was always so proud of her and admired her for her sense of style.’’
That remained the case into their 80s, as Mr. Cleary was still known to greet his wife’s arrival in a room with a smile and an appreciative wolf whistle.
“She would light up, and he would light up,’’ their daughter said. “How lucky of them to feel that way about each other after 50 years of marriage.’’
“He adored her,’’ Connors said. “It was old school. He would take her dancing; he would take her to dinner. He created an example for many of us about what a marriage ought to be like, or could be like.’’
Besides his wife and daughter, Mr. Cleary leaves a son, James Jr. of Boise, Idaho; another daughter, Kristin Welo of Weston; a sister, Mary Ronan of Arlington; a brother, Charles of Needham; and four grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. tomorrow in Saint Ignatius of Loyola Church at Boston College. Burial will be in Newton Cemetery in Newton.
In his last few days, Mr. Cleary did not spend time ruing the abrupt diagnosis.
Instead, “from his hospital bed he kept giving us life lessons,’’ Karalyn said. “He helped his granddaughter with her term paper. And he kept saying over and over again, ‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’ He felt very, very fortunate.’’
Connors called him “an American original,’’ adding that “he had great ideas, he had great imagination, and everything was possible in the world of Jim Cleary.’’