The Bernie & Phyl’s Furniture chain that Bernie Rubin and his wife founded became famous for its TV ad jingle, though customers could be forgiven if they were more apt to recognize Bernie and Phyl than, say, the most popular sofa and end table.
After years of appearing in those commercials, the Rubins became accustomed to strangers breaking into the “quality, comfort, and price – that’s nice!” refrain whenever they were spotted, even if they were sharing an otherwise quiet meal in a restaurant.
“This happens time and time again,” he once said, untroubled by the attention.
Mr. Rubin, who with his wife founded a business in a single Quincy location that has grown into a series of stores that stretch from South Portland, Maine, to Hyannis, died in Florida Monday of COVID-19. He was 82.
“I have a lot of respect for somebody who can start a business from scratch and stick with it and make it prosper and create a legacy for his family, which Bernie did with a lot of class,” said Ed Ansin, owner of WHDH-TV, Channel 7. “Bernie was a great patriarch. He loved his family.”
Ansin, a longtime friend, often accompanied Mr. Rubin to sporting events, where the Bernie in the commercials was the same Bernie in the next seat.
“We went to Red Sox games, Patriots games, Celtics games,” Ansin said. “He was just a wonderful human being. Everybody loved Bernie. He had a great personality and a nice way about him.”
Having entered the furniture business as a teenager, cleaning the store for which his father drove a truck, Mr. Rubin worked seven days a week after he and his wife launched Bernie & Phyl’s in 1983.
The work demands didn’t show on TV, where his enthusiasm made commercials memorable.
“He had a presence and felt very comfortable with the camera,” said Terrie Brown, a senior account executive at WBZ-TV, Channel 4, who handled Bernie & Phyl’s advertising. “He worked the camera and the camera loved him.”
By appearing in years of commercials, the Rubins “became household names. They became a brand into themselves,” said Bill Fine, president and general manager WCVB-TV, Channel 5. “The fact that people liked them and trusted them was probably one of the most important factors in their success.”
As the company expanded, the couple’s three children joined the business. Larry Rubin is now chief executive, Rob Rubin is president of merchandising and marketing, and Michelle Pepe is director of community relations.
In turn, Mr. Rubin and his wife became more involved in philanthropic efforts.
Phyl Rubin was diagnosed in the early 1970s with multiple sclerosis, and the couple worked to raise funding for research and increase awareness.
They recorded public service announcements, and the Greater New England chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society honored her in 2010 with the MS Hope Award at its MileStones Gala.
Mr. Rubin, meanwhile, was forthright in persuading business associates and friends to contribute to charities he supported.
“He made sure people knew a cause was important to him,” Fine said.
And yet, Fine added, Mr. Rubin made his case without being overbearing.
“He was without question one of the kindest, warmest, friendliest, gentlemen I’ve ever met,” Fine said.
Born in Boston on Dec. 17, 1937, Mr. Rubin grew up in Mattapan and was 4 when his mother died.
His father was a milkman, and Mr. Rubin told Furniture World Magazine in 2012 that he helped out on his father’s Boston delivery route, carrying milk upstairs in three-deckers.
When his father started driving a truck for a furniture business, Mr. Rubin began running errands for the business when he was 13, and also cleaned floors and polished furniture in the store.
It was then that he began planning for the day when he could open his own furniture store.
As a high school senior, Mr. Rubin met Phyllis Segal when a friend brought him to her Sweet 16 birthday party. They fell in love and within months were inseparable.
As a commuter student at Northeastern University, from which he graduated, Mr. Rubin kept daily contact with Phyl, proposing when he was 19 and she was 17. They married a year later, in 1958.
Initially after college, Mr. Rubin joined his father’s furniture trucking business. Over the years, he and his wife lived in Randolph and Sharon.
The Rubins had three children and were in their 40s when they launched Bernie & Phyl’s in 1983, in Quincy. By then, she was also several years into her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, and together they worked seven days a week, side by side, building their business.
Expanding a location at a time, the Rubins — later joined by their children —turned the original store into a chain. More than 400 people are now employed at locations that include Braintree, Hyannis, Natick, Raynham, Saugus, and Westborough, as well as South Portland, Maine, and Nashua and Newington, N.H.
The Rubins drew praise for their ability to bring their children — and more recently the next generation — into their business.
When the time arrived to let his children take leadership roles, Mr. Rubin was “the kind of parent who said, ‘You know what? I love you all. It’s your turn,’ ” said Kerry Lebensburger, senior vice president of Ashley Furniture. “His strength was that he believed in his kids. I don’t think there’s anything more a father can do.”
Along with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Mr. Rubin and his wife supported causes and agencies such as the Pine Street Inn, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, and the Home for Little Wanderers.
In addition to their financial contributions, they provided furniture for Roxbury Village — transitional housing the Home for Little Wanderers runs for young adults aging out of foster care, said Rick Houpt, the agency’s manager of corporate relations.
And Mr. Rubin periodically hosted up to 20 children at Fenway Park for baseball game outings known as Bernie’s Baseball Buddies.
These are kids who don’t get to go to Fenway ever. That’s an enriching experience for them,” said Houpt, who added that Mr. Rubin “was a special guy.”
For Mr. Rubin, sharing his good fortune with others was important.
“We are the luckiest people,” he told The Boston Globe in 2010, when his wife went public with her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. “There’s a lot of ups and downs in life. Nothing ever goes smoothly. But when all is said and done, we’ve had a nice ride.”
Information was not immediately available regarding a service for Mr. Rubin, who in addition to his wife and three children leaves 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
With a gift for friendship and a love sports, particularly baseball, Mr. Rubin and a companion at a game “could easily fill all nine innings with conversation,” Fine said. “Bernie was as great at answering questions as he was with asking them.
And perhaps inevitably, given how recognizable he was from his TV commercials, work sometimes followed Mr. Rubin into the ballpark.
“We were at a Red Sox game one time and there was a family that sat behind us — a couple of young boys, they were probably 10 or 12,” Ansin recalled. “Bernie was sitting right in front of these two boys, and I turned to them and said, ‘Do you know you have a celebrity in front of you?’ Bernie turned around to see them, and the boys immediately started singing, ‘Quality, comfort, and price – that’s nice!’ ”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.