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Clint Allen, an entrepreneur who savored life’s journey, dies at 76

Clint Allen.
Clint Allen.

Clint Allen didn’t start out destined for the Ivy League and business successes.

“No one in my family went to college,” he told some high school students in 2017, “but I was taught to work hard from the age of 11 when I pumped gas during the early morning shift from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m.”

A serial entrepreneur and a serial enthusiast whose passions were unbound by the constraints that limit many lives, Mr. Allen went from a Brockton cold-water flat to leading a Harvard rowing team to victories and running businesses large and small.

He was 76 when he died Sunday in Massachusetts General Hospital of complications from heart surgery.

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“In everything he did, he saw opportunity,” said his friend Joe O’Donnell. “If it was interesting, he did it, and he did it pretty well.”

Among his many ventures, Mr. Allen had been an investment banker, chairman and chief executive of the financial firm Burgess & Leith/Advest Inc., and had provided initial funding when Wayne Huizenga bought into the original Blockbuster video stores and turned them into an expansive chain worth billions of dollars.

For Mr. Allen, a founding director of Blockbuster who served on the board until Viacom bought the company in 1994, financial success was only part of his vigorous approach to life.

“I love my life, my family, my friends,” he wrote for the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class. “I can say, without equivocation, that I am happy!”

Years after his seasons as a star fullback at Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton, Mr. Allen was chief executive of the Miami Dolphins “for about a week” when Huizenga bought the team and briefly needed a CEO while dealing with professional team ownership rules, said his daughter Samantha Allen Adams of Dover.

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“He liked to say he was the only CEO of a professional football team who never lost a game,” she said.

With a sense of humor that was dry or boisterous as the situation needed, “there wasn’t a room he walked into that didn’t welcome his presence or a situation that he didn’t change for the better,” said his daughter Lawson Allen Albright of Chestnut Hill.

As a Harvard junior, Mr. Allen was the stroke for Harvard’s undefeated heavyweight crew in June 1966 when the rowers defeated Yale in record time at an annual matchup, winning by 22 seconds. Days earlier, a TV reporter had hoped for a serious answer when he asked Mr. Allen about the terrible responsibility of his leadership role.

“Terrible is right,” he deadpanned. “I have to do the thinking. I have to supply the power. And it’s imperative that I be the best-looking. Looks are very important.”

His humor found a particular venue when he was with O’Donnell. The two were Catholic high school graduates who roomed together for a post-graduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy to prepare for Harvard. Both were from very modest financial backgrounds.

“We would argue about who was poorer,” said O’Donnell, who also is an entrepreneur. “He would say, ‘I had an outhouse,’ and I’d say, ‘Really, you had an outhouse? How lucky were you.’ "

The zingers never stopped.

Mr. Allen “would say, ‘I grew up in a cold-water flat,’ " his wife, Lawson, recalled, “and Joe would say, ‘Oh, you had water?’ "

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The oldest of three children, Arthur Clinton Allen III was born in Brockton on Feb. 6, 1944, and grew up in a three-decker apartment building in which his grandparents also lived.

His father, Arthur Allen, was a safety inspector for the Employers’ Group insurance agency. His mother, Lorraine Renaud, was a nurse.

Along with pumping gas at dawn as a boy, and doing homework between customers, Mr. Allen “had so many crazy jobs,” his daughter Samantha said. “He had no money, so he always had to work.”

Even as he achieved financial success, Mr. Allen passed that work ethic along to his three daughters.

“That sense of deep appreciation of working hard for an honest wage was burned into our consciousness,” said his daughter Walker Allen of San Francisco. “We all knew in the fibers of our bones that resilience was the cornerstone of one’s existence.”

Mr. Allen also “was an extraordinary musician. He could play almost any instrument by ear,” Samantha said.

He played piano and guitar well enough to make money leading a trio that landed a spot on Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour” TV show.

And during the summer between Exeter and Harvard, Mr. Allen toured in Massachusetts with Peter, Paul & Mary.

At Cardinal Spellman, Mr. Allen was such a good football player that he had 72 college scholarship offers. At first he shrugged off suggestions that he apply to Harvard, assuming he wouldn’t be accepted, and said in the 2017 talk: “One of my mentors asked me, ‘How could I be rejected if I didn’t even apply?’ "

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While at Harvard, he met Lawson Prince, his roommate’s sister.

“Whenever there was a party, I would go find him,” she said. “In another life he could have been a standup comic. He really could work a crowd. His timing was perfect.”

Mr. Allen graduated in 1967 and they married in 1971. Now retired, she had been a counselor at The Rivers School and had a psychotherapy practice.

Along with other ventures, Mr. Allen founded what is now the American College of Corporate Directors, an organization that provides education and credentials for those who serve on boards of publicly-held companies.

Mr. Allen served on 18 boards, including for Swiss Army Brands, Steinway Musical Instruments, and Psychemedics, and had been on the President’s Council at Mass. General.

“He used to say, ‘Good ideas area dime a dozen. Making a good idea happen? Now we’re talking,’ " his wife said. “And he was someone who could make a good idea happen.”

Mr. Allen endowed a scholarship for students to attend Harvard and, with his wife, endowed a scholarship in an upstate New York school district near their vacation home.

He also had helped coach girls’ crew at Nobles and Greenough School, inspiring athletes to become a national championship-caliber team, and worked to raise funds to ensure that girls’ crew and boys’ crew were equitably supported.

“He was just appalled by this inequity. Being a champion for women, and having three daughters, he took it upon himself to do something about it,” said his daughter Lawson, who was on the team.

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As a coach, she added, “he made us believe that we could do anything. I wish I could find the words to describe how he did that, but I don’t know if there are words.”

In addition to his wife and three daughters, Mr. Allen leaves a sister, Jane Tougas-Francis of Marion; a brother, Richard of Rochester; and six grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be announced.

Along with business ventures and philanthropy, Mr. Allen was a pilot and had run an aerial photography business. He rode motorcycles and participated in the Cannonball Run race across America.

In the garage of his Needham home, Mr. Allen keep racing cars, replicas of the chopper motorcycles used in the movie “Easy Rider,” and a work space.

“He had in his office, over his desk, a picture of the three-decker house he grew up in,” his wife said. “He said he put it there because he needed to keep grounding himself.”

And in large letters on the wall was his motto: “Life’s a journey, enjoy the ride!”


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