Robert L. Beal’s business accomplishments were there for all to see, such as the renovation of Boston’s iconic Custom House Tower undertaken by the Beal Cos., his family’s investment and real estate development firm.
And while generations of his family had a hand in shaping the look of Boston since the 1800s, Mr. Beal’s personal touch — often behind the scenes and unheralded — shaped the feel of Boston and the rest of the state, his friends said.
“He was just one damn good citizen,” said former governor Michael S. Dukakis, a friend since they were boys growing up across the street from one another in Brookline.
Mr. Beal, who had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, died while taking a nap Sunday afternoon at his home in NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham.
He was 78 and had moved to NewBridge after living for decades on Beacon Hill, where he opened his home to friends and anyone he thought could make his city a better place.
“He was a legend,” said Vivien Li, a longtime friend who formerly led the Boston Harbor Association for more than two decades and had been chief executive of Riverlife in Pittsburgh.
At his home, Mr. Beal brought “all sorts of people together — different political parties, different interests, different social backgrounds,” she added. “You don’t see that many civic leaders, business leaders, bringing people together in personal settings where you get a chance to know each other better.”
Few could match the breadth of Mr. Beal’s philanthropic activities, through his personal donations and participation on a lengthy list of boards.
Along with serving as a leader of his field’s national and state organizations, such as the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, he was an overseer, trustee, or board member for institutions such as Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
His love of animals was seen in his involvement with the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Boston Zoological Society, through which he helped support the Franklin Park Zoo.
“He was deeply committed to philanthropic endeavors,” said his brother, Bruce A. Beal, with whom Mr. Beal formerly ran the family firm.
“We were both raised to understand that if you took from a community, you had to give back,” said Bruce, now chairman of the firm Related Beal, formed in a merger several years ago.
Mr. Beal’s contributions to Combined Jewish Philanthropies went beyond fund-raising and working with the organization’s budget committee.
In 1991, he was part of a six-person Greater Boston group that visited Israel in a show of solidarity during the Gulf War. The delegation was among the first from the United States to travel there after Iraq bombed Israel.
“It was very traumatic seeing people everywhere carrying gas masks,” Mr. Beal told the Globe upon returning that January. “It was very wrenching to see babies in plastic cribs and mothers trying to get gas masks on their children.”
Friends weren’t surprised that he risked his life for such a trip. The group was handed gas masks upon landing in Israel.
“Robert insisted on coming along. He basically had no fear whatsoever, as far as I could tell,” said Barry Shrage, who was then president of CJP and part of the delegation. “He was the person to stay extremely calm, in good humor, positive all the time.”
That was the same Bob Beal who kept a careful calendar and called hundreds of friends each year to personally wish them a happy birthday, the same man who every Fourth of July grilled hot dogs and hamburgers for his famous annual picnic.
“His way of giving was giving and expecting nothing in return. He would just give,” said his nephew Bruce A. Beal Jr., president of the Related Cos., the New York-based parent company of Related Beal. “He would do anything for anybody. He wouldn’t even ask. He would figure out what someone needed, and he would do it. And he would never ask for anything for himself.”
“He was my Uncle Bobby,” he added, “but we used to talk about how he was everybody’s Uncle Bobby.”
Born in Boston in 1941, Robert Lawrence Beal was the younger of two brothers whose parents were Alexander S. Beal and Leona Rothstein.
Mr. Beal grew up in Brookline – “he would tell the story of how I taught him how to ride a bike,” Dukakis recalled – and attended Belmont Hill School.
He graduated from Harvard College in 1963 and from Harvard Business School two years later. Before joining his family’s firm, he worked for the Beacon Cos. under Norman B. Leventhal.
“He said, ‘I learned a lot from watching the master,’ ” Li recalled.
In 1988, Mr. Beal wrote in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class about the satisfaction he and his brother took “in having had the opportunity to reshape and to contribute to the revitalization and preservation of Boston’s historic landscape through our real estate investment activity.”
“He was deeply involved in the transformation of the city, a very sensitive developer,” Dukakis said.
Some of that meant working with, and sometimes helping guide, the city’s and state’s top politicians.
“When I wanted to talk about real estate issues and economic prospects generally, he was always just a phone call away, and his insights into what was actually going on — and would go on in the future — were sharp, understandable, and incredibly accurate,” Governor Charlie Baker said. “He supported a ton of good causes and was always on everyone’s short call list — because he almost always said ‘yes.’ And he loved Boston. All of it.”
Mr. Beal had his own short call list, too, and encouraged people such as Li to take on leadership roles – in her case chairing the Brownfields Advisory Group for MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development agency.
“In that way, he mentored a lot of people, particularly women,” she said. “He would push us to do things we didn’t think were possible. He empowered us.”
Mr. Beal, whose marriage to Rosalind E. Gorin ended in divorce, had no immediate survivors beyond his older brother, Bruce.
“I think his children were the City of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the different things he was interested in,” Bruce said. “My brother really was, in my book, Mr. Boston. He ate it, he drank it. It was very important to him. He gave his time and his money unselfishly.”
The Beal family held a private burial ceremony for Mr. Beal Tuesday and will announce a public memorial gathering in the spring.
“He was an incredibly kind person,” his brother said.
That compassion helped Mr. Beal bring together philanthropic leaders.
Long involved with the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley Alexis de Tocqueville Society, Mr. Beal and the late Myra Kraft facilitated meetings that included officials from United Way, CJP, The Boston Foundation, and Catholic Charities, said Shrage, who now teaches at Brandeis University.
“Because of his personality and because of the people he knew, he was all about collaboration,” Shrage added. “He figured if we were talking to each other we could do greater things.”
Li said Mr. Beal’s legacy could be seen as “finding where there was a need that others hadn’t thought about,” which often meant meeting with people others hadn’t thought to seek out – from Beacon Hill to Boston’s immigrant communities.
“He was never afraid of going out and meeting people who had a different point of view – to understand, to learn, to appreciate,” she said.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.