The first day Jay Light set foot in a Harvard Business School classroom he nearly turned around and left.
The school’s case study approach, in which a professor draws from real life situations to prompt discussions, left Dr. Light surprised and intimidated.
“I had no idea what a case study was,” he recalled in a 2009 Harvard Gazette interview, adding that “I just sat there thinking, what in the world have I gotten myself into?”
By staying, rather than heading out the door, Dr. Light began a career that led him to become the ninth dean of Harvard Business School — a leader credited with being a steadying influence during the 2008 economic crisis that battered the finances of universities across the country.
He was 81 when he died of leukemia Oct. 15 in his South Dartmouth home.
Joining the faculty in 1970, after graduating with a doctorate from a joint program of the business school and Harvard University, Dr. Light was immediately popular with students and was the first faculty member to receive the Excellence in Teaching award for his work in the master of business administration program.
“Jay was a natural teacher,” Angela Crispi, the executive dean for administration, and Srikant Datar, dean of Harvard Business School, wrote in a message to the school community in announcing that Dr. Light had died.
Dr. Light “was a wonderful colleague, a thoughtful mentor, and a beloved friend to many generations of faculty, staff, students, and alumni,” they added. “He was undaunted by what seemed difficult. He was unafraid to say no. He relished a good laugh and a good story.”
He also was considered a consummate Harvard insider when then-President Lawrence H. Summers named him acting dean in 2005. Dr. Light previously was senior associate dean for planning and development, and initially wasn’t expected to be a candidate for the permanent Harvard Business School dean position.
“Every dean gets his portrait painted,” Dr. Light’s wife, Judy, said. “He said he thought his was going to say, ‘2005-2005.’ "
Within months of becoming interim dean, Dr. Light shepherded to completion a capital campaign that raised about $600 million to fund student financial aid, faculty recruitment, technology initiatives, new global research centers, and building projects on the school’s campus.
Those projects would provide students with “what’s going to be a much better and more functional campus,” he told the Globe in early 2006, not long before officially becoming dean.
During his tenure, Dr. Light “advanced the school’s global engagement, opening a new research center in India and launching the ambitious Harvard Center Shanghai,” Datar and Crispi said in their statement.
When the 2008 financial crisis happened, they said, Dr. Light “moved quickly to manage expenses and generate additional revenue at the school, strengthening the financial structure of not just Harvard Business School but Harvard University.”
Then in December 2009, saying the school was “safely on the other side of this Great Recession,” Dr. Light announced he would step down the following June.
“His wisdom and advice have mattered to far more than just me,” Harvard’s then-President Drew Faust told reporters that day. “His financial wisdom has been important to all of us. My sense is one of deep gratitude, and sadness as his term ends.”
Jay Owen Light was born on Oct. 3, 1941, in Lorain, Ohio, where he grew up the second child and only son of Marian Leisey Light and James Light. Dr. Light’s mother was a high school teacher and his father supervised a steel plant.
“His family lived right on Lake Erie in a small house,” Judy said.
Throughout life, she said, he pursued a passion that began in his youth: “He grew up sailing every day on Lake Erie.”
Dr. Light also stayed close to friends from high school and college, she said, among them a friend from teenage years who visited a couple of weeks before he died.
“I think everybody who met him really liked him,” she said.
After graduating from Lorain High School, he went to Cornell University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1963, after studying engineering physics in a five-year program.
“This was the Sputnik generation and everyone there was thinking science,” she said of the era when the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into Earth’s orbit. “He had really hoped to be an astronaut.”
Instead, he kept his feet on the ground and headed to California to work as an analyst at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, studying space missions.
He felt he needed management training and applied to the MBA program at Harvard Business School, then was recruited as one of the first students in a fledgling doctoral program run jointly by the business school and Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
He graduated in 1970 with a doctorate in decision and control theory.
That year he met Judith Hodges, who was then a computer programmer, through her roommate.
“He had an amazing sense of humor,” she said, and that continued through his final illness.
“I actually wake up every day smiling, thinking of something he said,” she added. “He really was a fun guy in a very bright way, a very clever way.”
Dr. Light and his wife divided their time between homes in South Dartmouth and on Jupiter Island, Fla.
After joining the Harvard Business School’s faculty, Dr. Light eventually served in roles that included being a director of the Harvard Management Company, which handles the university’s endowment investments. But when asked in the Harvard Gazette interview what he was most proud of during his decades at the school, he spoke of his years as a professor.
“I loved my time in the classroom,” he said. “As a faculty member, I built a series of courses that challenged students to think in new and different ways about important issues.”
Through Harvard, Jamie Dimon, the chairman and chief executive of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and one of Mr. Light’s former students, said Dr. Light “earned tremendous respect” as a professor. “He was strong and analytical, yet with a big heart and great character — a force of nature, but in a subtle way.”
And Dr. Light offered lessons to more than just students.
“I treasured our dialogues and learned so much from them,” Summers said of Dr. Light in an e-mail expressing condolences to Judy Light. “I admired Jay so much and greatly valued our friendship.”
In addition to his wife, Dr. Light leaves a daughter, Anne of Irvine, Calif.; a son, James of Boulder, Colo.; a sister, Joan of Michigan; and a grandchild.
Gatherings to celebrate Dr. Light’s life and work will be announced.
To better understand the complexities of the business school, Dr. Light told the Harvard Gazette that as dean, “I found I needed to make a constant effort to get out of my office and walk the halls, and invite students to breakfast, and get together with faculty, and hold meetings with staff. And ultimately it was great, and I learned a lot.”
In a statement through Harvard, Nitin Nohria, a university distinguished service professor who succeeded Dr. Light as dean, called him “a trusted advisor and sounding board. His dedication to the school ran deep and, in everything he did, he was a true servant leader.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.