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Helen Spaulding, 88, volunteer whose leadership shaped Boston institutions

Helen Spaulding.
Helen Spaulding.Handout

“I love my city,” Helen Spaulding told the Globe a couple of years after joining the board of the Boston Foundation, an institution she helped reshape while chairing its board.

“There are terrible problems, of course,” she continued in that 1994 interview, “but the way for me to grow and to find out all the wonderful things that are happening is through volunteering.”

Mrs. Spaulding, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Nov. 5 in the Falmouth By The Sea skilled rehabilitation center in Falmouth, Maine, had a far-reaching impact on some of Greater Boston’s enduring institutions through her decades as a volunteer. She was 88.

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Serving on numerous boards, she was among the principal founders of the New England Aquarium, which rose on Boston’s waterfront due in no small part to her fund-raising. “Along with the other founders, she really made the aquarium happen,” said Nigella Hillgarth, the aquarium’s president and CEO. “She really broadened the reach of donors. We owe her a huge debt of gratitude.”

At the Boston Foundation, meanwhile, Mrs. Spaulding helped change the organization’s structure from the trust form of its early-1900s beginnings to a charitable corporation, which gave the board greater control over governance and finances.

“The biggest impact was her commitment to really allowing the Boston Foundation to become the dynamic engine of philanthropy it has become,” said the Rev. Ray Hammond, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, who succeeded Mrs. Spaulding as chairman of the foundation’s board. “And to that end, she really mentored a younger generation of leadership coming behind her, including myself. For all of that we are deeply grateful.”

Paul Grogan, who became the foundation’s president during Mrs. Spaulding’s last year chairing the board, said she also helped lead the organization into a more public role. “Doing good quietly” had been the guiding principle, he said, but she asked: “Why can’t we play a larger role beyond grant-making to help this community face up to its challenges and act on them?” That led, for example, to the community forums the foundation holds to engage in public policy.

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“She really felt we could get more out of this institution and that it could carry a heavier load — that civic leadership could be as important as the other roles we play,” Grogan said.

A longtime political activist, Mrs. Spaulding had campaigned for her husband, Josiah A. Spaulding, a former state Republican Party chairman who ran for state attorney general and challenged US Senator Edward M. Kennedy in the early 1970s. After her husband died of a heart attack at 60 in 1983, Mrs. Spaulding shifted her political work to Democrats and raised funds for the presidential campaigns of Michael S. Dukakis and Bill Clinton.

“I can’t remember a time when Helen wasn’t deeply involved in important issues — national, state, and local,” Dukakis said. “That’s the best form of citizenship, and she really was a great citizen.”

The second of three children, Helen Hamilton Bowdoin was born in New York City, a daughter of George Temple Bowdoin, who worked in finance for J.P. Morgan & Co., and the former Emily Ligon, who was from Montgomery, Ala.

A descendant of James Bowdoin, the second Massachusetts governor and for whom Bowdoin College is named, and of Alexander Hamilton, the first US Treasury secretary, Mrs. Spaulding grew up in New York and Washington, D.C. She graduated from the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Va., and attended Holton-Arms Junior College in Washington.

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Mrs. Spaulding also was a stepdaughter of Edward Foley, a treasury undersecretary in the Truman administration who chaired John F. Kennedy’s inaugural committee. A longtime friend of Jacqueline Bouvier, Mrs. Spaulding was a bridal attendant at the Kennedys’ wedding in 1953.

Four years earlier, she had married Josiah Augustus Spaulding, who was known as Si, in St. Mary’s Chapel of Washington National Cathedral. A former Marine lieutenant colonel and a decorated pilot, he was a partner in the Boston law firm Bingham, Dana & Gould, and was president of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. The family lived in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

“She was committed to something that she and my dad introduced to their children, and that was that you have a responsibility in this world to give back,” said their oldest son, Joe, who lives in Charlestown and is president and CEO of the Boch Center for the performing arts.

“Mom lived up to that in a huge way,” he added. “At each one of the institutions she served, she was a leader and in some cases the founder to create a better world for all.”

Mrs. Spaulding joined the aquarium’s board in 1967 and was the board president from 1979 to 1983. She chaired the Boston Foundation’s board for the last five years of her tenure, which ran from 1992 to 2002. Among about 30 other boards she served were those for Georgetown University, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science, the Conservation Law Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

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When Mrs. Spaulding began serving on boards, she often was the only woman in the room, and those early years brought some frustrations. “It makes me mad when I run into some professional who makes me feel I’m not really worthy of going on the board,” she said in the 1994 Globe interview, and added: “I’m not going to retreat. It’s my personality. I’m too interested in what makes the world go around.”

Mrs. Spaulding “was formidable, but absolutely a great delight,” Grogan said. “She was well-informed, she had opinions, and she was, I would say, very direct. She didn’t sneak up on things — she said what was on her mind. On the other hand, she was also a very good listener, which is critical to being a board leader.”

Dukakis recalled that Mrs. Spaulding “felt strongly about things and not only expressed those feelings, but acted on them, and nobody appreciated that more than I do.”

Just as active away from boardrooms, she traveled to destinations as distant as Papua New Guinea and the Galapagos Islands, and she frequently sailed with her husband along the coast of Maine, where the family kept an island home on Vinalhaven.

In addition to her son Joe, Mrs. Spaulding leaves two other sons, Jeb of Montpelier, Vt., and Sandy of Portland, Maine; two sisters, Aileen Train and Judy Murray, both of Hobe Sound, Fla.; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 3 in Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown.

Politics were a perpetual topic at the dinners Mrs. Spaulding held for family or friends, and the invitation list for her dinner parties could run to 40 guests, who gathered around three or four tables. “She saved a book that had a listing of every single dinner party she did for 40 years, and the seating chart of every single one as well,” Joe said.

In keeping with her belief that people should spend their lives learning something new, he added, “at two or three occasions at each party she would stand and ask the person to your right to move two chairs to the right and start another conversation.”


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