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Meet Boston’s invisible billionaire

Gerald Chan is buying up Harvard Square and has sunk half a billion dollars into this area. So why has no one ever heard of him?

Gerald Chan at his Newton office, which he decorated in part with furniture from eBay.

Aram Boghosian for the Globe

Gerald Chan at his Newton office, which he decorated in part with furniture from eBay.

AS USUAL, LONGWOOD AVENUE, the main artery through Boston’s vast medical-industrial complex, is as clogged as any in even the most desperate cardiac patient. The lines into the overwhelmed parking garages back up, pushing minivans and Mercedes into the street, forcing other motorists to idle on Longwood as traffic lights change, tempers flare, and horns blare.

Neil Swidey/Globe staff

When a business associate came to Boston for a meeting, Chan picked him up in his VW, drove him to Cambridge, and gave him a personalized tour of the Yard. “When I do this,” Chan says, “I am sharing with them part of my world.”

The driver calmly maneuvers past the jam, turning down a ramp into a garage underneath Harvard Medical School. His car is immaculate but otherwise unremarkable, a white 2010 Volkswagen Passat wagon that he bought used. He pauses at the entrance to fish out a crimson pass from his armrest compartment, flashing it at the attendant. As the gate to this private refuge opens, he turns to me. “This is the highest status symbol in the medical area,” he says, waving the pass. “Parking!”

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That’s quite a statement coming from Gerald Chan, a man who has four university degrees, is on the Forbes billionaire list, and who, with his family, just gave the world’s wealthiest university the largest gift in its history. As thanks for that $350 million, Harvard renamed its public health school after Chan’s late father — it’s now the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It was the first time the university had named one of its schools after a benefactor since 1639, when the donation of 400 books and 779 pounds earned immortality for a minister by the name of John Harvard.

Chan places the pass on his dashboard. He had been given it only recently, after having arrived late for a meeting with the dean and apologizing that he’d been circling the block looking for a space. The garage under the Harvard Longwood campus leverages every inch of its precious real estate, using racks that accommodate two cars for every space, one on top of another. Just a few spaces are rack-free, and those are labeled for trucks and vans only. Chan’s Passat is neither, yet he begins backing it into one of the solo spaces.

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“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” comes a loud voice from the distance. Soon, a young parking attendant with a dark beard and a serious face appears at Chan’s window. “Those spaces are for trucks.”

“Ah, but it’s late enough in the day,” Chan replies hopefully. “C’mon, it’s five o’clock.”

The attendant shakes his head sternly and points to a rack space nearby. “I can put you right there.”

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Chan demurs, explaining that he is not comfortable parking in a space where his car would get raised above another.

“I can park it for you,” the attendant says.

“But I’ll still have to bring it out.”

When the attendant pauses, Chan moves in to close the deal. “Please, please!” he pleads, before pointing to another small car in a regular spot. “C’mon, look at that Honda over there.”

“We only have a few spaces,” the attendant starts to say. But then, motivated either by compassion or about-to-punch-out-for-the-day fatigue, he relents. “OK, you’re good.”

“Thanks sooooo much,” Chan says respectfully, drawing out that modifier to the point where, by the time he has finished the sentence, the attendant has disappeared.

I turn to Chan and smile. “He has no idea who you are.”

Chan lets out a huge full-bellied laugh. That’s just how he likes it.

The Chan family at the dedication ceremony for Harvard’s public health school in September 2014. Chan’s brother (and business partner) Ronnie stands at center with his arm around their mother (in green); Gerald Chan is fourth from the left.

photograph from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

The Chan family at the dedication ceremony for Harvard’s public health school in September 2014. Chan’s brother (and business partner) Ronnie stands at center with his arm around their mother (in green); Gerald Chan is fourth from the left.

GERALD CHAN PROJECTS REFINEMENT and restraint, right down to his habit of excusing himself to use the “loo.” At the same time, he comes across as unpretentious and accessible. He stretches out your name whenever he greets you (“Neil” becomes “Neeeeil”) and often finishes his sentences with the word “huh?” as if waiting for you to signal either comprehension or buy-in. When Chan laughs, which he does often, he puts his whole body into it, shaking his shoulders and thrusting his chin up toward the sky, like a Peanuts character.

As his laugh about the exchange with the parking attendant subsides, it’s clear it had gone exactly the way things in his life tend to go. He had gotten his way using only soft power, relying on his wiles and persistence without ever having to pull rank or surrender his anonymity — something more valuable to him than even his parking pass.

Chan’s determination to preserve his privacy while simultaneously emblazoning his alma mater with his family name is just one of the many contradictions that make him fascinating. He is a fabulously successful 64-year-old investor who is relentless in building his family’s empire even as he warns us about the dangers of becoming “mere economic beings.” He is a devout Christian who begins his mornings reading Scripture and a serious scientist who spends his days working with people on the front lines of research, where faith in God is often viewed as some kind of mental defect. He is a highly influential funder of novel cancer treatments who speaks passionately about the coming revolution in oncology even as he confides a more fatalistic belief that “cancer is Nature’s mechanism for making sure we don’t live forever.” And he is someone who evinces little interest in the real estate business, even as he has quietly scooped up enough buildings in Harvard Square to become the neighborhood’s biggest property player besides the university, almost overnight.

In his quest to keep a low profile, Chan has long been aided by his peripatetic lifestyle. The Hong Kong native became a US citizen in the 1970s, but for decades functioned as a citizen of the world, operating out of offices and homes in Massachusetts, California, London, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. For many years, though, Newton has served as his primary office for the Morningside Group, the private equity and venture capital investment firm he cofounded with his brother. About a year ago he made Newton his official home base, going so far as to surrender his California driver’s license and wait in line at the Registry in Watertown to get one for Massachusetts.

The decision reflects Chan’s increased business and philanthropic footprint here as well as Boston’s emergence as the global hub for his true passion: the life sciences. It also reveals Chan as the embodiment of Boston’s ambitions in the 21st century — a new version of the old Brahmin, a wealthy, civic-minded businessman able to connect East with West, the past with the future, and the academy with the marketplace.

CHAN HOLDS A DOCTORATE from Harvard as well as two master’s degrees. What he doesn’t own is a high school diploma.

In 1967, amid political unrest in Hong Kong, his parents sent 16-year-old Gerald and his 17-year-old brother Ronnie to the United States. Their father, Tseng-hsi, had fled poverty and war in mainland China to build a booming Hong Kong real estate company, Hang Lung Group. But he insisted that his family continue to live frugally, sharing an apartment that was well below their means. Their mother, who worked as a nurse, taught them the important role hygiene plays in avoiding infection. Her public health lessons stuck even if Gerald wanted to slink under the table when she insisted on disinfecting tableware with ethanol pads whenever they went to a restaurant.

In the States, while Ronnie enrolled at UCLA, Gerald took the unlimited Greyhound bus ticket his parents had bought him ($99 for 99 days) and headed east. He took summer courses at Columbia, living in Morningside Heights (a name he would recall years later when it came time for him and Ronnie to name their investment company). But when Gerald tried to enroll in college that fall, his lack of a high school diploma boxed him out. He eventually found a tiny engineering school by the airport in Los Angeles, which accepted him and the report card he had proudly proffered, even if it was entirely in Chinese.

He transferred to UCLA, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, then to the Harvard School of Public Health in 1973. He picked up another master’s, in medical radiological physics, then switched his focus to biology thanks to a radiobiology course taught by legendary professor John Little. He earned his doctorate in 1979, then headed for a fellowship at Dana-Farber, paving the way for a future where life sciences would loom large.

By that time, Ronnie had been back in Hong Kong for years, working in their father’s real estate company, but Gerald’s parents were pleased that he was headed for a life in academia. Still, a taste of the family business couldn’t hurt.

While Chan was studying for his doctorate, his father had given him some money and encouraged him to invest in real estate. Chan plunked down $145,000 for a six-bedroom Gambrel Colonial on Brattle Street, not far from the Harvard campus. He and his wife, Beryl, moved in, and the following year, Ashley, the first of their two sons, was born. Chan sold that house for nearly $450,000 in 1982, more than tripling his investment in just five years. His father was proud. “I was a hero,” Chan says, “huh?”

To this day, Chan speaks of his father in only reverent tones. Gerald stands 5-foot-8 but says his father was “almost six foot, I think,” even if the framed photos on his desk suggest they may have been closer in height.

His father had been able to visit Gerald during his Harvard days just once, in the mid-1970s. But as Gerald later described it in a speech, the memory of that visit never left him. While the two men perused the stacks at a bookstore, a coffee table book of Norman Rockwell paintings caught his father’s eye. Drawn to the warmth of nostalgia woven into those paintings, his father asked his son to buy him the book. Chan did, inscribing it “To Dad, as a token of affection.” That Rockwell book, Chan told his audience decades later, “was the medium by which my father and I communicated a tender feeling between us from the depth of his soul and mine.”

After graduating, Chan continued to build his life in the States, weighing several offers for assistant professorships. A bit burned out, he decided to take a break from the lab. He bided his time buying apartment buildings around Boston and making a living as a landlord, though he expected to return to science.

But one day back in Hong Kong, his father urinated blood. He went to his doctor, who diagnosed him with bladder cancer and sent him to a specialist at UCLA. That doctor performed a partial operation rather than removing the entire bladder, a decision Gerald rues to this day. The cancer continued to spread. After further treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, his father decided he wanted to return to Hong Kong to die. Even then, he insisted on flying coach, until his son pleaded with him to go business class. In 1986, within nine months of his diagnosis, his father was gone, at age 65. Gerald returned to Hong Kong to help his brother run the family business.

Across my many hours with Chan, in various settings, he was thoughtful and expansive. He grew silent only once, when I asked him to tell me more about his father’s visit to the Harvard campus. Because the exchange over the Rockwell book had taken place in the Coop, I wondered if the Square had any added meaning for him.

Politely but firmly, Chan refused to talk about it further. “With some things,” he told me, closing his eyes, “less is more.”

ON A TUESDAY morning in April, after much prodding, Chan agrees to take me on a walk around Harvard Square. As we stroll Harvard Yard, I ask what the campus means to him. “Oh, I don’t know,” he says, drawing out his words. “These buildings are very old.

When Chan wants to deflect, he opts for an empty sentence like that.

Yet it’s clear the Harvard campuses, both the main one here and the medical campus in Longwood where he toiled for years in the lab, hold special significance for him.

Yuling Luo is the founder of Silicon Valley-based Advanced Cell Diagnostics, one of the many biotech startups for which Chan has been the principal early funder. When Luo came to Boston for a meeting, Chan picked him up in his VW, drove him to Cambridge, and gave him a personalized tour of the yard. “He clearly showed a lot of attachment to the campus of Harvard,” Luo says. “He was taking pictures of me, like a proud father. I was very touched.”

After I mention Luo’s comments, Chan grows more introspective. “When I do this,” he says, “I am sharing with them part of my world.”

There is real meaning for him in all those red bricks. He seems at home among them. As Harvard provost Alan Garber says, anyone who saw Chan walking around Harvard Square “would probably assume he was a Harvard professor.” Of course, that’s the life he once envisioned for himself, but things worked out differently. The Chan brothers have turned their father’s very successful company into one of the biggest real estate developers in Hong Kong and an increasingly important presence in mainland China. While Ronnie oversees the Hang Lung real estate operation, Gerald leads their Morningside investment firm, putting all his lab knowledge to use investing in life-science startups and his landlord background to work buying up buildings around Boston. (Despite Gerald’s Newton base, Morningside remains incorporated in Hong Kong.)

In April 2012, Chan bought two buildings in Harvard Square for $16 million. Over the next 18 or so months, using a series of shell companies, he spent more than $100 million more on nearly a dozen other buildings in the Square. In some cases, rents went up and leases were not renewed. Fixtures like UpStairs on the Square and Leo’s Place were soon gone. There was fear about who would be next.

A year ago, merchants and tenants in Harvard Square were feverishly trying to divine what Chan’s grand plan might be. Denise Jillson, who runs the Harvard Square Business Association, says those worries have largely abated, since Chan’s buying binge hasn’t been followed by any radical changes.

1218 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

1218 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

Not that there aren’t still critics. Psychologist Lin Reicher is one of a couple dozen mental health professionals working out of 1218 Massachusetts Avenue, which Chan bought last year. She complains that rents have gone way up, she and others have been switched from long-term leases to month-to-month, and they’ve been stymied in their efforts to reach Chan directly. She’s read about the humanitarian who had given Harvard such a historic gift, but says “there’s nothing recognizable in that description in our experience.”

Chan recently bought 10 Church Street for $17.5 million.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Chan recently bought 10 Church Street for $17.5 million.

Earlier this year, news filtered out about Chan’s highest-profile purchase yet, the 21,000-square-foot structure on Church Street that had housed a movie theater since 1925. Chan bought it for $17.5 million —  $11 million more than Charles Hotel owner Dick Friedman had paid for the shuttered theater two years earlier.

Because Chan paid such a premium for a theater that reportedly wasn’t even for sale, the purchase fueled more speculation that he must have some secret master plan. But Chan tells me that, in fact, the building was being quietly shopped around, and the purchase had come about like all his others in the Square: A broker had approached his team. “All the brokers in the Square know me, and they know I always close on deals,” he says.

Chan’s reputation has become so well known that brokers seem to be invoking his name to increase the buzz on their properties. The newest property to go on the market in the Square is the unmistakable “Curious George” flatiron building, which comes with a sticker-shock asking price of $80 million. A story in the trade press suggested Chan is the most likely buyer, since he’s fueled the neighborhood’s recent gravy train of high-priced purchases. “I’m not in the gravy train business,” he tells me. “There’s a lot more that I can do with $80 million.”

While Chan gets passionate whenever he talks about science, for him, real estate appears to be purely transactional. “You buy it, you rent it, you put it out of your mind,” he says. If he has a guiding philosophy with real estate, it is this: “Hang on to it. Don’t sell.”

“In all my real estate purchases over the years — let me think about this — no, there is not one property that I regret having bought,” he tells me. “There are many that I regret having sold.”

Among the regrets was his first purchase, that Cambridge house on Brattle Street that made him a hero when he sold it for three times what he’d paid. Shortly after that first sale, he expressed interest in buying it back — “seller’s remorse, I guess,” he says — though the new owners didn’t bite. The remorse may not have been entirely sentimental. The house is now assessed for $2.5 million.

No matter. He recently paid millions more than that for a historic house on Brattle Street, this one even closer to the Square. He says he hasn’t decided yet how he will divide his time between it and his longtime home in Newton, except that he will keep them both. Lately, he’s been doing quite a bit of shopping for furniture, favoring the same source he used to furnish his Newton office: eBay.

18-28 JFK Street: Capital One has a long-term lease here but has never opened a branch. Chan says there’s little he can do.

Arabm Boghosian for The Boston Globe

18-28 JFK Street: Capital One has a long-term lease here but has never opened a branch. Chan says there’s little he can do.

Chan says he spends only a tiny fraction of his time thinking about real estate. But as we walk along JFK Street in Cambridge and I ask him about a vacant double-wide storefront in one of his buildings, I’m not surprised that he knows the fine details of its lease. Capital One has paid its rent on the space every month for more than two years, even though it has never opened a branch there. Chan says he’d prefer an active business, but he inherited the long-term lease, so there’s little he can do.

I bring up the theory floated in The Harvard Crimson that Chan may be snatching up all these buildings with the plan of one day donating them to the university. “Ah, speculation is what students do,” he says, though he doesn’t actually reject the suggestion.

We head down Winthrop Street, where his Passat is parked in a reserved space outside another of his acquisitions. In the basement where the Indian bistro Tamarind Bay once operated there is now Night Market, a funky small-plates Asian restaurant that his older son, Ash, opened late last year. An artsy entrepreneur in his mid-30s, Ash is building his own portfolio of eateries and real estate here and in California.

Chan says he has no grand vision for the Square. (“Nah. I’m too busy trying to cure cancer!”) But he admits that it doesn’t seem as vibrant as it once was, and says Davis Square in Somerville, where he’s also picked up some property, seems to be humming more. Adding restaurants is one way to inject more life. But truly making Harvard Square more vibrant, he tells me, “is above my pay grade.”

“Just what is your pay grade?” I ask, mentioning that Forbes has estimated that he and Ronnie are together worth about $3 billion.

“My pay grade? GS-8,” he says with a wry smile, invoking the salary schedules for government functionaries.

39 JFK Street: In the American Express building, the former Leo’s Place (as well as other space) remains vacant.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

39 JFK Street: In the American Express building, the former Leo’s Place (as well as other space) remains vacant.

While Chan’s buying spree was originally met with suspicion, now the more common reaction is impatience. Leo’s Place, once a favorite hangout of Ben Affleck’s, has been gone for more than a year. Chan’s representatives secured city approval to open a noodle restaurant there but then shifted gears and got the OK for a breakfast joint. They told the licensing board they planned to open it last June. It is still vacant.

Parsnip, a fine-dining restaurant taking over the space once occupied by UpStairs on the Square, was supposed to open last fall. The space is being remodeled with spare-no-expense meticulousness, and Chan says it will open soon. But, as with most of his initiatives, he seems thoroughly unhurried.

About 15 years ago he bought an 18th-century manor house called Heckfield Place, which sits on 400 acres in the English countryside about an hour from London. He did little with it for years, and it fell into further disrepair. But in 2011, he closed it to start a massive renovation and turn Heckfield into a luxury countryside hotel. Progress, however, has been slow. A British food blogger recently wrote that the opening has been delayed so many times that “it is now farcical to actually conceive that it will ever open.”

But friend Ben Elliot, a notable Brit whose aunt is Camilla Parker Bowles and father-in-law is Steve Winwood, says he is confident Heckfield will open later this year. (“He is perhaps more confident than I am,” Chan says with a chuckle.) As Elliot puts it, “Gerald wants it to be the very best country-house hotel in the world, and I imagine it will be.” He cites the example of Spring, the restaurant Chan recently opened in the august Somerset House in London. With a kitchen run by Michelin-starred chef Skye Gyngell, Spring has become what Elliot calls one of the hottest tables in the city.

Another chef Chan met through Heckfield, Peter Quinion, will oversee Parsnip. But until it opens, Quinion on many nights can be found offering previews of his plates in Chan’s Newton home.

IT’S LATE EVENING, and the table has been cleared of the lamb with rosemary puree and the chili roasted pineapple with pain perdu. Although “Chef Peter” is packing up his things for another night, the conversation still has hours more life left in it, lubricated with red wine and mint tea.

People who know both Gerald and Ronnie Chan well describe the brothers as incredibly close yet remarkably different. In Hong Kong business and political circles, Ronnie is a boldface player — an outgoing, outspoken character who fills every room he enters. Gerald prefers to slip into most rooms unnoticed. (He tells me their younger brother, Andy, who is eight years his junior, lives in Canada and is “mostly retired.”)

But in his own element, at home in Newton, Gerald can also be charismatic. Nowhere is that more true than when he is sitting at his table, surrounded by good food and smart company. He calls these dinner gatherings his “salons,” and there is something decidedly 19th century about them, even if a recurring theme is how to push science toward the 22d century. (He says his wife isn’t usually an active participant because she’s not particularly interested in specialized science talk. “She’s very quiet,” he says, “very spiritual.”)

On the second of two dinners I attend on back-to-back weeknights in April, the guests include the chief of neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the head of innovation for Partners HealthCare. The conversation jumps from researchers who peddle “old data” to the flat tax to birth order. There is usually at least one member of his small Morningside investment team at these dinners, since business is the backdrop. (Morningside patent attorney Jason Dinges, seated next to me, is one of roughly 20 employees working out of the Newton office.) But the salons appear to be less about transacting business and more about Chan leading an Old World-style, import-export exchange of ideas.

While managing the discussion, Chan uses his iPad to take a picture of each dish that Chef Peter has set before him. He says he does this “so I can critique Peter later, though I never do.”

At my first dinner, after the final cheese course has been cleared, Chan steps away to speak privately with Nancy Ip, who holds a professorship his family endowed at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Meanwhile, another out-of-town guest, Cedric Francois, explains to me what makes Chan so different from most venture-capital investors.

Francois runs Apellis, a biotech startup based in Kentucky. “Gerald doesn’t ask the questions most VC investors are asking,” he says. Those people want assurances about certain financial metrics, so they can satisfy their limited partners. Chan doesn’t have to answer to anyone besides his inner scientist.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Francois says. “He wants to make money. And he is a tough negotiator. But if he believes in something, that’s the most important part.”

Chan’s deep interest in science — he doesn’t watch TV and his bedtime reading includes rafts of papers from scientific journals — led him to the field of immunotherapy. Based on tantalizing early results, this emerging field has begun to attract billions from big pharmaceutical companies, making Chan’s investments that much more valuable.

Usually, Francois explains, when a new pathogen enters our body, our immune system can figure out how to conquer it within about three days. But cancer and other diseases are like sophisticated cat burglars that manage to disable our immune systems’ alarm sensors so they can do their dirty work undetected. With immunotherapy, however, cells are injected with viruses — such as polio, HIV, or measles — that have been reengineered so as not to be deadly to the patient, only to the cancer. The introduction of this foreign foe serves to reactivate the patient’s internal alarms, firing up the immune system to go on the attack against the tumor.

Chan bet early on a company named BioVex, which developed an immunotherapy treatment using a modified herpes virus to treat melanoma. In 2011, pharma giant Amgen bought the company in a deal valued at up to $1 billion. Although its run of promising results suffered a setback last spring, Chan remains bullish.

Four years ago, key investors backed away from a startup called Aduro Biotech in part because some patients in its immunotherapy trial developed fevers. Chan, however, saw the fevers as a sign that their immune systems were revving up, and he became the company’s biggest investor. In March, pharmaceutical giant Novartis hatched a cooperation deal with Aduro valued at up to $750 million, which will give it a small stake in the company. Johnson & Johnson also owns a slice. Chan’s firm owned nearly half the pie until a couple of weeks ago. That’s when Aduro, whose treatment for pancreatic cancer was awarded “breakthrough” status by the Food and Drug Administration, raised $124 million more in an IPO.

Chan outside the Nasdaq building on April 15, the day one of his big investments, Aduro Biotech, went public.

photograph from Nasdaq

Chan outside the Nasdaq building on April 15, the day one of his big investments, Aduro Biotech, went public.

Chan is also the largest investor in Apellis, the startup that Francois runs, which is developing immunotherapy treatments for autoimmune disorders, such as obstructive pulmonary disease.

As an investor, Francois tells me, “Gerald is shrewd, but he’s not calculating.” If money were his driving force, he says, Chan would clearly make different choices. “Look around. This is a nice house, but this is not the house of a multibillionaire.” His house is hardly the grandest on the block. Although it has a dining room, Chan holds these dinners in his kitchen, around a simple blond-wood table. On the mirror in the first-floor bathroom is a handwritten Post-it that reads, “When flushing the toilet, please hold the handle for a longer time before letting go.”

When Chan returns to the table, he says immunotherapy provides the potential for a paradigm shift in cancer care. Chemotherapy, he points out, “is basically poison.” (The treatment has its roots in research involving World War II veterans who’d been exposed to mustard gas.) Still, he cautions: “Nature has its boundaries. We all have to die.”

When I ask how he squares those two sentiments of optimism and fatalism, he says, “What we’re tackling is premature death.” Life expectancy in America is now around 79. “So I guess anything before that is premature,” he says.

When he answers another question by once again saying it is above his “pay grade,” I call him on it. “You told me the other day you were GS-8, so I looked that up. That’s like thirty-nine grand.”

“Oh,” he says, flashing a smile. “I guess I’m more like GS-13.”

Anticipating this move, I had looked ahead on the chart of base salaries. “That’s about seventy-three grand,” I say.

He pauses for a beat and then says, “Getting closer.” With that, he tips his chin toward the ceiling and lets out a roar of a laugh.

HARVARD OFFICIALLY RENAMED its School of Public Health after Chan’s father last September. But seven months later, as we walk into the main entrance, I ask him if he’s disappointed that the big sign facing the courtyard makes no mention of his family name. “Not at all,” he says, explaining that he’s sympathetic to all the complicated logistics of renaming a century-old institution.

Settling into a seat in the first-floor cafeteria, Chan tells me he wouldn’t mind if it took longer. “I want my private space, you know? I don’t want to be a public figure,” he says. “So I hate you for changing my life.”

He laughs, because we both know this article, as much as he initially resisted it, isn’t what threatens his low profile. “You can’t give Harvard the biggest gift in its history and ask it to rename one its schools and expect to remain anonymous,” I remind him.

As it turns out, though, Chan had hoped to do exactly that.

It’s not that he didn’t clearly intend to have his alma mater bear his father’s name for posterity. He’d been interested in pursuing this route from the moment his old friend Larry Bacow, the former president of Tufts University and a current Harvard trustee, had informed him that the university corporation would be willing to rename one of its schools. Chan didn’t even quibble with the price the corporation quoted him for naming rights. It’s just that he hoped to do all of this without calling attention to himself.

Bill Lee, who serves as Harvard’s equivalent of trustee board chair, tells me Chan had wanted to give the money but delay the renaming and not reveal the identity of the $350 million donor for several years, so he could hang on to his anonymity awhile longer. But Harvard opposed that request, arguing that such secrecy could only fuel speculation that there might be dodgy money behind the gift.

In the end, Chan relented. Unlike most major gifts, his family’s is unrestricted. Harvard has already gotten the first payment of $60 million and will receive five more payments over the next five years, dean Julio Frenk explains. The money will go to the School of Public Health’s endowment, though the principal will remain off-limits. In five years, the school will be getting an annual annuity of about $15 million to use however its dean sees fit.

Chan knew that putting no restrictions on his family’s gift was the way to strengthen the public health school as it enters its second century. (Although Harvard’s overall endowment has galloped past $36 billion, only about $1 billion of that belongs to the public health school.) Chan also knew that agreeing to reveal his identity would help Harvard in its effort to attract other mega-donors with naming rights. “I don’t know which school will be renamed next,” he says. “Probably the ed school.”

And as much as Chan talks about his desire to remain a private figure, now that he is in his 60s, there are hints that he is not entirely opposed to being noticed. He enjoys having top university administrators solicit his thoughts, mentioning to me a lunch meeting he would be having the next day with the president of MIT. (“I hope he arranged for parking!”) And he keeps a website where he warehouses the full texts of the various speeches he has delivered, mostly at universities. Like the professor he might have otherwise become, he regularly directs people to pore over one speech or another of his, as though he’s handing out a reading assignment. Yet he seems to do this more out of pride than vanity. He puts considerable thought into challenging the minds under all those mortarboards.

In one commencement address for a Johns Hopkins program in China, he warned the graduates to “never let the forces of economic imperialism reduce you to a mere economic being,” and he admitted that his contemporaries, the baby boomers, “are the most selfish generation that ever lived and are truly guilty of generational child abuse.”

While it may seem easy for a billionaire to tell debt-saddled twentysomethings not to become overly focused on money and consumption — “If one iPad makes you happy, two iPads will not make you twice as happy” — Chan is careful to keep his own money in perspective. “Where people get into trouble is they let money get in them,” he says.

That’s why he says he has no hesitation about carrying out the plan that he and his older brother hatched with their father shortly before his death: They would aggressively build up the family empire and then just as aggressively give it away.

Ronnie alluded to this pact during a different renaming ceremony last fall, at the University of Southern California, when a $20 million family gift in honor of their mother ushered in the new, respectfully titled, Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Speaking of the next generation of Chans, Ronnie said, “The money will never go to them!”

When I ask Gerald if his two sons are on board, he says, “Of course!” Ash has his restaurant and real estate work, while his younger son, Evan, who is in his late 20s, works as a Christian campus minister in California. Each son is pursuing something important to their father, the hard-charging businessman who is also deeply spiritual. “Without faith,” he says, “life becomes empty.”

It’s starting to get late, as we sit in the cafeteria at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, when our conversation is interrupted by a young master’s student. She approaches us to explain that she and some fellow students have reserved the cafeteria to hold a workshop.

“What is the subject of the session?” Chan asks.

“Power and identity,” she replies. “Sorry I have to kick you out.”

“That’s OK,” Chan says, clearly pleased that he remains unrecognized. “You’re more powerful than we are now. So we’ll move.”

Related coverage:

Graphic: Harvard Square properties acquired by Chan

Gerald Chan mum on plans for old Harvard Square Theatre

Billionaire buying into Harvard Square

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.
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