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Jerome Rappaport, philanthropist and civic leader who shaped Boston and its institutions, dies at 94

Longtime developer sought to ‘rebuild the city’

Jerry Rappaport left his mark on the city's neighborhoods and skyline.Family photo

Barely into his 20s, Jerry Rappaport was an academic prodigy who had finished Harvard College and Harvard Law School in about four years when he helped John B. Hynes defeat James Michael Curley in the historic 1949 mayoral election that changed the course of Boston history.

Though he quickly moved into powerful government posts, Mr. Rappaport soon realized his true path lay elsewhere — as a developer reshaping the city’s neighborhoods and skyline.

“Early on, I decided there’s a limitation in changing politics that I couldn’t do,” he said in an interview three weeks ago. “It was easier to rebuild the city than to change its politics.”

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One of the most storied figures in modern Boston history, Jerome Rappaport died at home in Lincoln early Monday of a newly diagnosed and rapidly progressive cancer. He was 94.

As the key developer for the West End urban renewal project, he played a significant role in reinvigorating Boston, though in the six decades since it began, that project has been praised for its success and criticized for displacing thousands of residents.

“When you think about it, it’s really a miracle that it got done. It took a lot of dedication to get there,” Mr. Rappaport said in an interview for this obituary.

“I have a sense of pride that it was the major development project in the city that you can walk through today that fulfilled every obligation that we had, and is a continuing urban project,” he added. “And it fits into the pattern of the rest of the city.”

Although the Charles River Park high-rise buildings that stand in what had been the West End are part of his most visible legacy in Boston, Mr. Rappaport also was a philanthropist whose endeavors wove their way through Greater Boston’s civic life and intellectual realm for more than 70 years.

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As a late-1940s student, he founded the Harvard Law School Forum, which since then has brought in speakers including US Supreme Court Associate Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.

In 1950, Mr. Rappaport founded the New Boston Committee to promote and support City Council and School Committee candidates and met with immediate success in elections.

“I can look at the city today and see the fulfillment of the vision of the New Boston Committee, in terms of its dynamics and excitement and vitality,” he said. “The city has become an outstanding place to both live and work.”

At the Harvard Kennedy School, he launched the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, which prepares fellows to work more imaginatively in state and local governments, rather than at the national and global levels — the typical aspiration for similar philanthropic efforts.

“I do believe the presence of that program at the Kennedy School created some heft around the idea that state and local government could be cool,” said Governor Charlie Baker, who was part of the institute’s original advisory board. “That whole thing was a really wonderful gift to state and local government here in the Commonwealth.”

Mr. Rappaport also founded the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy, now at Boston College Law School, which has counted among its fellows Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

“I am deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Jerry Rappaport, who inspired generations of leaders into public service in Boston,” Wu said in an e-mail. “As one of many young people who walked through doors opened by Jerry’s commitment to public service, I know his legacy will continue to have a profound impact on our city.”

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Hundreds of fellows have sharpened their governmental skills over the years at the institute and center.

With his wife, Phyllis, Mr. Rappaport also contributed more than $30 million to public policy, health, and arts initiatives through the Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation.

“Jerry is the smartest, most creative, most intentional person many of us know,” she wrote about her husband. “Probably no one of us comes close to having the magical combination of his photographic memory, strategic brain power, flair for design and branding, nose for investments, incisive humor, interest in others, willingness to lead, and human warmth.”

Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, an artist who was born in Cuba and was awarded the Rappaport Art Prize in 2007, said that “this is not an ordinary family of philanthropy. This is philanthropy of the heart.”

Campos-Pons, who formerly lived in Boston and now holds the Cornelius Vanderbilt endowed chair of fine arts drawing at Vanderbilt University, said that “losing Jerry is losing an incredible well of goodness at a time when so much good is needed.”

Born in the Bronx in New York City on Aug. 17, 1927, Jerome Lyle Rappaport was the older of two children.

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His father, Arthur Rappaport, ran a successful clothing business where, as a boy, Jerry made boxes for 25 cents an hour before working his way up to running the cash register. His mother, Cora Walfesch Rappaport, raised the children.

“She was very bright,” Mr. Rappaport recalled. “She was a person who valued education and pushed me.”

As a boy, Mr. Rappaport was among the youthful scholars featured on the “Kid Wizards” radio program. Skipping grades, he was 16 when he started at Harvard College, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1947. He was 21 when he finished his law degree in 1949, and in 1962, he received a master’s from a precursor to the Kennedy School.

Joining the Hynes mayoral campaign ranks after Harvard, Mr. Rappaport was instrumental in turning out younger voters for Hynes’s victory. He then went to work for the new mayor, an experience that foreshadowed his subsequent development work.

“John appointed me secretary and put me in charge of reorganizing city government, which was in chaos,” Mr. Rappaport said. “I brought the push and the shove, but they let me do it and helped me do it.”

Mr. Rappaport and his first wife, Nancy Vahey, had six children. Their marriage ended in divorce and a custody dispute followed. Nancy, then remarried, ended her life in 1963.

His second marriage, to Barbara Scott Sears, also ended in divorce. They had two children together.

In 1980, he married Phyllis Cohen, whose professional business career had included working at Digital Equipment Corp. They have homes in Lincoln, Nantucket, and Stuart, Fla.

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As philanthropists, they also supported research into Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and other mental illnesses.

“I was privileged enough to spend most of my life with him,” she wrote before he died.

“At our best, we give each other what we need most from each other and then give each other the freedom to do whatever we each need to feel happy.”

Services are private for Mr. Rappaport, who in addition to his wife leaves 11 children from their previous marriages, Martha Meyers of Naples, Fla.; Amy Arambula of Fresno, Calif.; Margaret Joy Weaver of Sedona, Ariz.; James of St. Augustine, Fla.; Jerry Jr. of Needham; Nancy of Cambridge; Elizabeth of Washington, D.C.; Sara of Monterey, Jill Rapaport Glist of Pelham, N.Y.; Jonathan of Lincoln; and Andrew Sears of Los Angeles; 16 grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.

“He was a very committed father, grandfather, and great-grandfather,” Phyllis said in an interview.

As for his commitment to improving Boston, Mr. Rappaport said by phone before he died that “one of the things I understood at the beginning is that cities are dynamic. You never build a perfect city. There are always things that need to be changed.”


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