At the end of November 1976, Roger A. Saunders was chairing a labor negotiating meeting between Boston hotel owners and their workers when a union president took a phone call, and then grimly announced that the Hilton chain was closing its Statler hotel in the Back Bay.
“My first instinct was to save this hotel so it wouldn’t be torn down,” Mr. Saunders later recalled in a Globe interview. “You know, the Statler was the hotel where my parents were married in 1928. It was a Boston landmark.”
His family already owned prominent Boston hospitality businesses such as the Lenox and Copley Square hotels. So in less than two weeks he put together a multimillion-dollar deal to rescue the Statler Hilton and give hope to its 600 employees, who had lost their jobs when the hotel’s doors were chained shut just before Christmas.
“We’re not smarter than Hilton, but we try harder,” Mr. Saunders said in 1984 of the Statler, which his family had renamed the Park Plaza and Towers. “We’re Bostonians. We love this city, we’re having a great deal of fun, and we’re making money.”
A storied and lifelong hotelier who started out running an elevator as a boy and was still conducting room inspections at the Lenox well into his 80s, Mr. Saunders died Friday morning in his Boston home. He was 93 and his health had been declining.
“He loved life,” said his son Todd. “He lived every day with the wisdom of an elder statesman and the curiosity of a child. He had such curiosity about new things and new adventures.”
The Lenox Hotel in the Back Bay is still part of the holdings of the Saunders Hotel Group, which Mr. Saunders helped found in the early 1960s.
At various points over the past eight decades, he and others in his family have owned and operated hotels and commercial properties in Boston, its suburbs, and as far away as Florida, though the Park Plaza and Copley Square hotels have since been sold.
More interested in ensuring that his hotels ran well than he was with the praise that came his way, Mr. Saunders forged friendly relationships with hotel patrons and workers alike.
“He’s one of the world’s nice guys,” Bets Whitman told the Globe in 1984, when she was executive director of the Women’s Educational & Industrial Union, a nonprofit charitable organization.
“The Saunders family has a strong community background,” she said. “They really put their money where their mouth is with respect to Boston. Roger is perceived with great respect. When he speaks, people listen.”
Part of his family’s third generation to own and manage Boston properties, Mr. Saunders was a grandson of Jacob Saunders, a Lithuanian immigrant who started a residential real estate business.
Irving M. Saunders, who was Jacob’s son and Roger’s father, expanded the family holdings by buying and managing commercial real estate. He also launched the Saunders hotel empire during the Great Depression when he bought a small hotel in Boston’s Theater District, though Irving’s 1949 purchase of the Copley Square Hotel is regarded as the family’s more significant entry into the hospitality business.
Roger Saunders and his younger brother, Donald Saunders, along with their children, went on to run and manage the family’s real estate and hotel holdings, a multi-generation business that has extended for more than a century.
Focusing on the family’s hotels, Roger Saunders became an industry leader on the local, regional, and national levels, work that was all-encompassing.
“He used to say the one thing that’s different about running a hotel is that the day you open, you throw away the front door key, because you’re always open,” said his son Gary, who is now chairman of the Saunders Hotel Group. “There’s no other business like that.”
Mr. Saunders formerly served as president and chairman of the American Hotel and Motel Association (now the American Hotel and Lodging Association). He also had been president of the Massachusetts Lodging Association and its preceding organizations. In 2005, he was among the Massachusetts association’s inaugural Hall of Fame honorees.
Yet with all his accomplishments, Mr. Saunders “was never patting himself on the back,” said Todd, who lives in Gloucester. “He had quiet determination and a real desire to succeed. But he was doing it for all the right reasons.”
Mr. Saunders was quick to emphasis that hundreds of people played roles in each of his prosperous ventures: hotel employees, guests, city workers who kept business areas clean, and government officials with whom he negotiated on important matters such as taxes.
In 1994, when the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau honored him with its Outstanding Corporate Citizen award, Mr. Saunders told the Globe that “in most every success, victory really has a thousand children.”
Born in Boston on Feb. 14, 1929, Roger Alfred Saunders grew up in Brookline, attending the Runkle School as a boy and graduating from Brookline High School.
His mother, Shirley Brown Saunders, was an artist, and as a youth Mr. Saunders started working for his father, after Irving purchased the old hotel on Tremont Street near Boston’s theaters.
“When I was 10 or 12 years old, I ran the elevator and counted the dirty linen that came downstairs,” Mr. Saunders told the Globe in 1984.
“I was a bellman. I did all the things you could do in a hotel,” he said. “So today, when I look at what an individual is doing in one of my hotels, I recognize their problems. I instinctively know when they are doing a good job, and I sympathize with them.”
He graduated from the University of Miami and in 1953 married Nina Alexander. The couple had four sons, one of whom, Jeffrey, died in 2020.
A Polish immigrant, Nina was educated in Milan and New York City and was president of Interior Design Associates before dying in 1991, at 57, of lung cancer, though she wasn’t a smoker. Much of her work focused on renovations and improvements to the Saunders family hotels.
Mr. Saunders served on advisory boards for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he endowed a gallery.
His 1996 marriage to Norma Siskind Stilson ended in divorce.
In the mid-1990s, a business dispute between Mr. Saunders and his brother, Donald, who lives in Boston and Florida, generated considerable news coverage as they divided the family’s holdings.
“In recent years they have patched up a lot of those differences,” Gary said, “and they have more recently reconciled and have visited together.”
Gary, who lives in Brookline, said that for his father, family “was so important, and not just the blood family, the company family.”
“Dad had an incredible, very natural gift to connect with people, whether they were people who worked at the hotel, or friends, or family,” said Tedd Saunders, who lives in Boston and is Todd’s twin.
In addition to his three sons and brother, Mr. Saunders leaves eight grandchildren and five great-grandsons.
A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Monday in Temple Israel in Boston.
“Around town, Roger Saunders is known as the dean of Boston hoteliers, the ‘Mr. Nice Guy’ who saved the Statler Hilton from extinction during Boston’s darkest days of the mid-’70s recession,” wrote Steve Bailey, then a Globe business columnist, in 1995.
“Dad was so welcoming and so genuine in his ability to make people feel comfortable,” Tedd said. “I think that was one of the great hallmarks of his life.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.