Barely two years into his leadership of State Street Bank, William S. Edgerly said his growing outside involvement with public-private partnerships to improve the lives of those who were struggling in Boston was an essential part of his work.
“A major bank in a city has a clear role to play pertaining to that city,” he told the Globe in the summer of 1977, adding that such efforts were more easily accomplished when business leaders, government officials, and civic activists acted together. “I find it very satisfying working with others to solve problems.”
State Street was on uncertain financial footing when he took over as chief executive and chairman, and Mr. Edgerly set it on a path for more than two straight decades of double-digit earnings growth, a run that carried into his successor’s tenure. He also was a key force in persuading Boston’s business community to help create summer jobs for youths and rehabilitate hundreds of inner-city housing units.
Yet he often avoided the spotlight if he thought too much attention would be paid to his work on behalf of city residents, and his role in the growth of his company. All evidence to the contrary, he would say of himself: “This is no new emerging financial leader.”
Mr. Edgerly, who led State Street Bank for 17 years, from 1975 to 1992, died Wednesday in hospice care at his home in the Newbury Court retirement community in Concord. He was 96 and had moved there a few years ago after living in Cambridge for more than four decades.
“Bill Edgerly was great for the City of Boston,” said Raymond L. Flynn, whose years as Boston mayor overlapped the last half of Mr. Edgerly’s time as a chief executive.
“He was president of the State Street Bank,” Flynn recalled, “but he was also great for the neighborhoods of Boston.”
That increasing civic involvement occurred while Mr. Edgerly was revamping his bank’s role in the financial world.
“When Bill took the helm of the company in the mid-1970s, State Street was a regional bank with a processing business,” wrote Ronald O’Hanley, the institution’s current chairman and chief executive, in a tribute that is posted online.
“Bill made the strategic decision to pivot from State Street’s traditional commercial role and focus instead on large-scale asset management and asset servicing,” O’Hanley said.
That change eventually positioned State Street Bank as a national leader in those realms.
Mr. Edgerly “was instrumental in founding State Street Foundation,” the institution’s philanthropic arm, O’Hanley said, and “was a leader that exercised the highest ethical morals.”
Younger leaders in Greater Boston’s financial and civic worlds turned to Mr. Edgerly for insight and guidance, which he offered after listening intently and asking question after question.
“What I really remember was you’d better bring your A-game,” said former governor Charlie Baker, who was in his late 20s when he met Mr. Edgerly. “He was very nice and not harsh or any of that, but just so obviously smart that you better come up with something to talk about that’s going to keep him interested.”
After Mr. Edgerly was presented with ideas or proposals, “you would get a really thoughtful answer from someone who was clearly very focused on you and paying very close attention to what to you were saying,” Baker said. “I felt, as a young guy, that the bar was being set very high for me.”
The younger of two brothers, William Skelton Edgerly was born on Feb. 18, 1927, in Lewiston, Maine, a son of Florence Skelton Edgerly and Albion Stuart Edgerly.
Mr. Edgerly graduated in 1944 from what was then Mount Hermon School and then served in the Navy for a year.
Back home in Sudbury, he had a chance encounter with Lois Stiles, who was two years younger. “I had noticed her but not closely enough earlier, when we were both in Sudbury High School,” he later wrote in his memoir, “Nine Decades.”
When her prom date fell through, Mr. Edgerly offered to take her to the dance. “She wore a beautiful yellow gown,” he wrote, adding that “we were dancing on air the whole night.”
They married in 1948, the year before he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and economics.
Mr. Edgerly’s father, an English professor at MIT, had died of a heart attack while teaching there when William was 20.
Lois Stiles Edgerly, who died in 2019, was a talented oil painter who wrote, edited, and compiled the books “Give Her This Day: A Daybook of Women’s Words” and “Women’s Stories: An American Daybook.”
She and William “were a formidable team,” said their son, Len of Sanibel, Fla.
It was not uncommon to hear them talking at 3 a.m. “in the kitchen over tea and hot cocoa because something at the bank had been baffling to him or created an anxiety or uncertainty in how to proceed,” Len said.
After MIT, Mr. Edgerly worked for Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., and then was called back to the Navy, stationed in the Mediterranean Sea during the Korean War.
He took a job at Cabot Corporation upon finishing his Navy service, and while there received a master’s degree from Harvard Business School.
Mr. Edgerly was a financial vice president at Cabot when he was offered the chance to become State Street’s chief executive.
A founding board member of the Pioneer Institute, a public policy research organization, he also was the founding chairman of the Boston Private Industry Council and helped launch the Boston Housing Partnership.
At the end of his time at State Street, and after retirement, he worked to create charter schools in the state, lobbying legislators to help get the Education Reform Act approved in 1993.
“Rather than bemoan a situation as hopeless, I would rather spend my time trying to make a difference,” Mr. Edgerly told Steve Bailey, then a Globe business columnist, in 2000. “You might say I am an optimist.”
An avid reader who was fond of the books of Albert Camus, Mr. Edgerly kept journals most of his life and wrote poetry on his iPhone in later years.
“He was able to navigate the world of Boston business and banking, very much fitting in and being admired, and then he had some hidden and deep currents,” Len said. “I think that probably enriched his leadership style. People had a sense that he was coming from deep places.”
A private service will be held for Mr. Edgerly, who in addition to his son leaves his daughter, Stephanie of Concord; five grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.
In many ways, Mr. Edgerly’s marriage to Lois was the secret to his success as he turned to her for advice over the years while making decisions about work and other parts of their lives.
In a 1977 Globe interview, she recalled that his decision to take the State Street Bank job was “a joint venture.”
“When he was asked to be president of the bank, he told them he needed time to think it over, came home, and talked it over,” she said. “That’s how it always is. We do things together.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.