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George Macomber, 88; Olympic skier, built Faneuil Hall shops

Mr. Macomber was named to the US Ski Team for the 1948 and ’52 Olympics. He was also president of the George B.H. Macomber Co. and a philanthropist.
Mr. Macomber was named to the US Ski Team for the 1948 and ’52 Olympics. He was also president of the George B.H. Macomber Co. and a philanthropist.

George Macomber was the third generation to run the construction company founded by his grandfather, but the initial appeal of his family's business had as much to do with how much time he could spend racing down ski slopes.

In his 1997 memoir, "Plunging In," he wrote that the Macomber contracting firm "was the only company I could find that would let me take winters off! Otherwise I might never have been a builder — or a world-class skier."

He was both.

Competing in the upper echelons of both pursuits, often simultaneously, Mr. Macomber was named to the US Ski Team for the 1948 and '52 Olympics. And after succeeding his father as president at the age of 31, he led the company through major projects including Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Boston's Four Seasons Hotel, and Yale University buildings included the Center for British Art, and the hockey rink whose design inspired the Yale Whale nickname.

"My goal was to make a mark by building prestigious buildings," he wrote, adding that the company cemented a reputation as "the architects' contractor" through its can-do approach. "The George B.H. Macomber Company didn't say, 'Oh, you can't do that.' We said, 'Let's try it.' "

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Mr. Macomber, a US Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame member whose philanthropy reached from the slopes to Judge Baker Children's Center and cardiovascular research at Massachusetts General Hospital, died in his sleep Monday in his Westwood home. He was 88.

As a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, Mr. Macomber envisioned a career at companies such as Lockheed or Boeing, writing that his passion "was for all things theoretical, things mechanical." Ultimately, that formed his intellectual path into George B.H. Macomber Co.

"Figuring out problems was what drew him to his life work," his son John of Cambridge said. "For him, the construction business was about building things. He liked figuring out multidimensional problems."

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One of those dimensions was the boardroom, where proposals were conceived, bids prepared, deals sealed.

"He was one of those people who knew how to make a decision and knew how to make it stick," said Tom Cornu, a longtime friend and real estate development partner. "He was a very bright businessman. I sat in development meetings with him where he had his slide rule — before we had calculators — and he could evaluate a real estate transaction quicker than anyone else in the room. He was just brilliant at it."

Cornu, who served with Mr. Macomber on the board of trustees at Judge Baker Children's Center, added that "George was a man with a huge heart" who applied his business acumen to philanthropic ventures. "He was very careful and precise about where he chose to spend his business time and where he chose to spend his volunteer time, so not a minute was wasted. It all went in the right places for the right reasons."

Through personal example, Mr. Macomber also was an inspirational figure on and off the ski slopes, said US Representative Ann McLane Kuster, a New Hampshire Democrat and longtime friend whose father and Mr. Macomber were among the four founders of the Wildcat ski area in Pinkham Notch, next to Mount Washington.

"It was just always a thrill to be with him on the mountain and to ski with him," she said. "To be with him, you felt like a million dollars. You felt like you could do anything. I'm blessed to have known him. He was a mighty, mighty man."

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Mr. Macomber was born in 1927 on the day of the funeral of his grandfather George B.H. Macomber, who founded the family business in 1904. "This coincidence left some members of the family touched by the thought of one spirit leaving and another arriving in its place," he wrote.

He was the older of two children born to the former Jane Eaton and Charles Clark Macomber, who had been an All-American football player for Harvard College, playing offense and defense.

Mr. Macomber wrote that he was "a sickly child — asthmatic, and allergic to almost everything." Winters, free of pollen, provided a respite, and he learned to ski on the hill beside the family's Winchendon home.

He refined his skiing skills while attending Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, for which he later was a lifetime trustee, and Newton High School. His ski racing career blossomed during and after his years at MIT, from which he graduated in 1948 and where he would later endow a professorship.

Though named to successive US Olympic ski teams, he was unable to participate in either Olympiad because of injuries. Mr. Macomber won national titles, however, and the prestigious Silver Belt race at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in California. Decades later, he carried the Olympic Torch in 1984 on the leg through the Faneuil Hall Marketplace his company had built.

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In 1947, he met Ann Drummond Leonard, who attended Smith College with his sister, when Ann visited the Macomber family's vacation home in Wolfeboro, N.H. They married in May 1953.

Three years earlier, in "the summer of 1950 I got a closer look at what building was all about when I took part in the project that had a lot to do with reawakening the George B.H. Macomber Company from its wartime doldrums: Shoppers' World in Framingham."

From that beginning, through the expansion Mr. Macomber led after taking over as president, the company was the contractor for some of the most recognizable projects in Boston and elsewhere, including the MIT biology center, the Harborside Hyatt at Logan Airport, the 775-unit Mission Park affordable housing development, and Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.

Then in 1987, a week before he planned to step aside as president of the company, L'Ambiance Plaza in Bridgeport, Conn., collapsed during construction, killing 28 workers. The Macomber company was a joint venture partner in the project, and the resulting settlement cost the firm millions.

Though the tragedy was heartbreaking, "George was absolutely about personally leading the investigation into what happened and what caused this unusual structural failure — being there himself and looking at the engineering reports, standing up and saying, 'My name's on the door. This is what you do,' " his son John said.

He added that from his father's life, "the biggest lesson was: 'Here's how one should be. Here's how one should conduct oneself.' "

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In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Macomber leaves a daughter, Grace Macomber Bird of Boston; another son, George of Park City, Utah; a sister, Gail Deaver of Stuart, Fla.; and eight grandchildren.

The family will announce a public service in the spring.

"The biggest thing my father and I ever built was a reputation for absolute integrity, from the top of the company to the bottom," Mr. Macomber wrote in his memoir, but he added that he "measured success a bit differently."

"I decided early on that I was going to do my best to balance family, business, and community service — in that order of priority. I did not want to be the biggest contractor in the city, because I couldn't do that without losing sight of my priorities."


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.