Obituaries

Richard Balzer, 73; was executive coach, author, and collector

Mr. Balzer was a writer and executive coach.
Mr. Balzer was a writer and executive coach.

A film broke part way through the show during one of Dick Balzer’s many trips to Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theatre, and rather than wait for it to resume, “within minutes he had the whole group in the theater in conversation about the film,” said his friend Paul Reville, who was with him that day.

When led by Mr. Balzer, such impromptu discussions did more than skim the surface. “Having a conversation with Dick was unusual because it immediately went deeper than the typical conversation,” Reville said. “He would throw you a curveball, and he would love it if you threw a knuckleball back in return.”

A writer, documentary photographer, executive coach, and respected collector of antique inventions that create optical illusions, Mr. Balzer wasted no time in a life that found him shooting photos in urban neighborhoods of New Haven at one point and creating presentations for the Harvard Art Museums at another.

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“He was so alive,” said his wife, Patti Bellinger. “He just devoured life like he didn’t have a moment lose.”

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Mr. Balzer, who along with running his organizational consultant firm had been a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, died in his Brookline home on Dec. 3 of cancer. He was 73.

“First and foremost he had a giant heart — not just for his friends and family, but also for social justice and political issues, too. He felt them in his bones,” said Larry Lucchino, a longtime friend.

“He frequently urged all of his friends to express their feelings and their love for each other,” said Lucchino, a part-owner of the Red Sox, and the team’s former president and CEO emeritus. “He was way ahead of all of us in terms of being in touch with his feelings and paying attention to human connection and love in this life.”

The range of Mr. Balzer’s creative curiosity was on display in books he published in the 1970s. They included “Street Time,” a collection of his illuminating photographs of the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, with text drawn from notes he jotted down during the many hours he walked the streets with Fred Harris, a black community organizer.

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Mr. Balzer also wrote “China: Day by Day,” which included his photos from a 1972 trip to that country with his first wife, Eileen Hsu-Balzer, and “Next Door, Down the Road, Around the Corner: A Family Album,” a photographic journey through all 50 states. “Clockwork: Life In and Outside an American Factory,” was drawn from his months working at Western Electric in the Merrimack Valley and included his photos of coworkers.

In 1998, Mr. Balzer published “Peepshows: A Visual History,” a history of optical toys such as magic lanterns and peepshows that predated movies, and which created the illusion of images that moved. The devices, which flourished as popular entertainment in the 18th century, had fascinated him for decades.

“The peepshow, often a simple wooden box, with a biconvex lens, a set of prints, and the magic storytelling powers of a showman, was for a curious public a transporter through time and space, a purveyor of both edification and pleasure,” he wrote on a website he created to showcase his expansive collection.

“Itinerant showmen hawked their wares in competition with other street entertainers in Europe’s great cities,” wrote Mr. Balzer, who for many years led the Magic Lantern Society of the US and Canada, and who gave a lecture and presentation about the devices at the Harvard Art Museums last June while very ill. “The peepshow had to compete with dancing bears, learned pigs, jugglers, balancing acts, conjurers, pantomimes, and puppeteers. The magic occurred only when a viewer set their eye near a hole and entered the private space of the box to see the wonders of a world beyond their daily life.”

The middle child of three siblings, Richard J. Balzer grew up in Great Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, and graduated from Cornell University.

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A student activist, and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Mr. Balzer was a VISTA worker with youth gangs in New Haven and in later years would work as a consultant and strategist for unions such as the United Automobile Workers and the United Steelworkers.

At Yale Law School, he was part of a circle of friends that included Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who is now a senior lecturer at Harvard Law School. “They say that you can’t choose your family. That is not so. I chose Dick Balzer to be my brother,” she said during a service held for Mr. Balzer on Dec. 10 at Fenway Park. (He was an ardent Red Sox fan, and those gathered went out onto the field at the end to sing “Sweet Caroline.”)

From his law school days to his years as an executive coach, when his clients in more than 80 countries included British Petroleum and Goldman Sachs, “the range of his friends and the people who counted him as a friend was just extraordinary,” Gertner recalled in an interview.

Traits close friends recognized — “his extraordinary intuitiveness and extraordinary judgment” — became the foundation for his executive coach career, she added.

“He had a really high standard for what he expected of people,” said Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “He expected people to engage seriously and not be distracted, and he held himself to that standard.”

In his often intense conversations, Mr. Balzer offered wisdom and candid critiques — leavened with playful humor — to the executives with whom he worked, to his friends and children, and even to the person next in line while waiting for a movie.

“I think of Dick as a magic lantern himself,” Reville said. “He was constantly illuminating aspects of character and of people and of life that you wouldn’t ordinarily see.”

In 2004, Mr. Balzer married Patti Bellinger. “He didn’t do things by half and he didn’t let me or the kids do things by half either — he believed life was lived right in the middle of the fray,” Bellinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, said at his December memorial service.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Balzer leaves his daughter, Julie Fei-Fan Balzer of Watertown; his son, Matthew of New York City; his stepchildren, Jordan Badia Bellinger of New York City and Isabella Badia Bellinger of Palo Alto, Calif.; his brother, Bob of Santa Fe, N.M.; and his sister, Nancy Miller of Florida.

“He was a man who wanted to see and taste and smell and feel all of life,” Matthew said in a eulogy.

Yet even though Mr. Balzer’s work took him around the world, “he was certainly a family-focused person,” Reville said.

“Dick’s love is intense, fierce, sometimes too enveloping, protective, loyal – like a magnificent spirit animal, beside you every step of your way,” his wife said in her eulogy.

With his death, Gertner said, “there’s a silence in our lives that I can’t quite figure out how to fill.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.