At Emerson College in 1969, Richard Chapin faced a list of demands from striking African-American students. After a week of negotiations, Chapin, then the college’s president, agreed to add courses on civil rights, scholarships, and soul food in the cafeteria.
But the college said it could not afford 10 new fellowships and would not make the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a school holiday. More than 200 black students and white supporters gathered for a sit-in at Mr. Chapin’s Beacon Street office. The school’s athletic director, former Olympic wrestler Jim Peckham, worried for Mr. Chapin’s safety and blocked the door.
“When the crowd started to come in off the street to the accompaniment of a terrifying Black Panther call, Jim threatened to take the first one through the door and break him across his knee. . . . But this would have aggravated the situation, so I called out to let them in,” Mr. Chapin wrote in a family memoir.
Making a quick tactical decision, Mr. Chapin and his secretary, Ruth Fritz, abandoned the office, forcing their way out the front door with Peckham’s help.
“The quickness and purposefulness of our exodus surprised the incoming crowd. Their tactics, having failed, the office was soon evacuated,” Mr. Chapin wrote. Years later, the school’s trustees heralded him for bringing the college through a violent time “with humor, with gentleness, but with firmness.”
Mr. Chapin, who was president of Emerson from 1967 to 1975 after spending 17 years as assistant dean at Harvard Business School, died of kidney failure July 11 in his Georgetown, Maine, home. He was 89.
“Yours was the leadership of a great teacher,” Emerson College’s trustees said in a statement when Mr. Chapin finished his tenure. “You taught others to discover their potential for leadership and creativity. With wisdom and courage you gave them the freedom to exercise this potential and in so doing, you made Emerson stronger and more highly esteemed among American colleges and universities.”
During his presidency, Mr. Chapin backed creation of the faculty assembly and new requirements for undergraduate degrees, according to the college.
He also invited luminaries in the arts and communications to campus, including “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling, who received an honorary degree in 1971.
Mr. Chapin’s oldest son, Aldus of Boston, recalled that Serling and others visited the family home in Cambridge for dinner parties, which usually ended with his mother playing piano for sing-alongs. “I remember Rod Serling teaching me my first card tricks,” Aldus said.
Another of Mr. Chapin’s dinner guests found Aldus, then 10, watching the police show “Adam-12” one night and asked if he had ever watched “Star Trek.” Aldus had never heard of the show. “I never saw him again, but I later learned his name was Gene Roddenberry and that he was the creator of ‘Star Trek,’ ” Aldus recalled.
Mr. Chapin’s comments about television news during a 1971 speech received widespread media coverage. He announced the college’s plans to hold conferences devoted to better television programs, and he criticized the networks for shallow coverage of the Vietnam War.
“America got into the war,” he said, “but most Americans don’t know how.”
Born in Boston on Christmas Day in 1923, Mr. Chapin was the son of Vinton Chapin and the former Elizabeth Brosius Higgins. One of his great-grandfathers was a founder of the Norton Co. in Worcester, which pioneered precision grinding wheels for manufacturing in the late 19th century. His grandfather Aldus was president of Norton and a major influence in his life after his parents divorced when he was a child, according to his family.
Mr. Chapin graduated from Milton Academy and earned a degree from Harvard in 1946. He served in the Navy, and received a master’s in business administration from Harvard in 1949.
After leaving Emerson, he became an arbitrator for the New York Stock Exchange and the National Association of Security Dealers. He also served on the boards of many nonprofits and institutions, including those for Wheelock College, the United Fund, the Society for the Prevention of Blindness, and Tufts Medical Center.
In the summer of 1956, friends introduced Mr. Chapin to Maryan Fox and they married that November.
“We agreed on so many things,” she said. “We had a huge respect for each other, and we could see right off the bat this was going to work. We were very lucky to have such a long, wonderful time together.”
For the 50th anniversary report of his Harvard class, Mr. Chapin wrote that his wife “is still everything to me, wife, mentor, sailing companion, mother, musician, restorer of old homes.”
In 1962, the couple adopted Aldus, their first child. The night before they took him home, Maryan was nervous about motherhood. “You are not in this alone,” Mr. Chapin reassured her.
When the Chapins heard about other children needing homes, they adopted two daughters and their youngest son, Richard.
“One of the reasons my parents were so wonderful is they had no preconceived notions about who we were and who we were supposed to be,” said Aldus, who is now CEO of Distinctive Apparel Inc., which owns the Chadwicks of Boston women’s clothing brand.
Mr. Chapin’s daughter Margery Chapin Carr of Hingham said their parents “just let us grow into the people we wanted to be.”
Even-tempered and thoughtful, Mr. Chapin “had these engaging, sparkling blue eyes,” Aldus said. “You got the sense he was always thinking about something.”
Mr. Chapin spent long hours in his workshop, where he built furniture and designed boats. In his lifetime, he had many boats christened Alestra, a name suggested by his wife, and was passionate about the proper method to set anchor. He taught his children how to swim, sail, and find the best mussels along the Maine coast.
In addition to his wife, two sons, and daughter, Mr. Chapin leaves another daughter, Marya Chapin Lundgren of Fairfax, Va.; another son, Richard of Scituate; a half-brother, Christopher Angell of New York; a half-sister, Abigail Canfield of New York; and eight grandchildren.
A service has been held.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Chapin and his wife moved to Maine, where he served on the board of Bigelow Laboratory in East Boothbay and the Maine Maritime Museum.
His family said he kept his positive attitude through a serious skin infection that led to the loss of part of his right leg a few years ago. He taught one of his nurses, Matthew Greany, who spoke at his memorial service, how to sail. Mr. Chapin also enjoyed writing columns for the Times Record in Bath. He titled his family memoir, “Anecdotes from a Wonderful Life.”
“He was one of those people who thought his life never peaked,” Aldus said. “It just kept getting better and better.”