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Hank Spaulding, developer with vision, character; at 84

 HANK SPAULDING
HANK SPAULDINGMIT photo

Guiding projects that defined the city’s skyline and suburbs, Hank Spaulding learned how to be one of Boston’s best developers, but he knew there was more to know.

“Most in our business,’’ he told the Globe in 1985, “are ill-prepared by training or experience.’’

So when he retired in his 50s, Mr. Spaulding went to his alma mater, MIT, with a proposal both simple and groundbreaking: Create the first graduate program to train real estate developers.

“It was a very, very radical idea at the time because real estate was considered almost beneath a first-rate institution,’’ said Lawrence S. Bacow, a president emeritus of Tufts University who, in the early 1980s, was the young faculty member the Massachusetts Institute of Technology assigned to turn Mr. Spaulding’s plan into reality.

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Mr. Spaulding, who founded MIT’s Center for Real Estate, which inspired a host of similar graduate programs around the world, died Thanksgiving morning of pulmonary fibrosis in Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough, Maine. He was 84 and lived in Kennebunk, Maine.

To sense the visionary within, those who met Mr. Spaulding had only to look into his startlingly blue eyes.

“In many ways, Hank’s eyes were his most remarkable feature because Hank had the capacity to see the world not as it was, but as it should be,’’ Bacow said in a eulogy at a memorial service on Wednesday. “He could look at a gravel pit on Route 128 and see New England Executive Park. He could look up the hill at a piece of raw land and imagine a gleaming new hospital, the Lahey Clinic.’’

Mr. Spaulding also could look at an academic landscape barren of training for those in his field and see citadels of learning rise. To persuade MIT to grant the first master’s degree in real estate development, he donated money to launch the venture, pointed out the important role real estate plays in the economy, and explained the need for an all-encompassing program.

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Developers, he noted, emerge from specialized schools of architecture, business, or civil engineering but lack comprehensive education in all aspects of getting projects built, including finance, regulations, politics, and negotiating with neighbors.

“Hank thought that to really be a sophisticated developer, you needed to understand all these facets,’’ Bacow said.

MIT’s Center for Real Estate opened in 1984, though Mr. Spaulding thought that a century earlier might have been a more appropriate time to begin. “If, 100 years ago, universities had taught development, and government had poured the dollars into research, we could now be building homes our kids could afford,’’ he told the Globe in 1985.

Charles Henry Spaulding was born in Manchester, N.H., and grew up in Derry, N.H., the oldest of three children. As a boy, he staffed the soda fountain counter at his father’s business, Spaulding Family Drug.

He graduated from Pinkerton Academy in Derry and, after postgraduate studies at Phillips Exeter Academy, he went to MIT, from which he graduated in 1951 with a bachelor’s in civil engineering.

In 1954, Mr. Spaulding married Ann Emerson, a schoolteacher he met on a blind date.

After several years at Parsons Brinckerhoff, he landed a job interview with Gerald W. Blakeley, now president of Blakeley Investment Co. and then chairman and principal owner of the powerful development firm Cabot, Cabot & Forbes.

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When Blakeley asked applicants what they wanted in life, most offered answers tailored to appease their would-be boss. Not Mr. Spaulding.

“He looked me right in the eye with those bright blue eyes and said, ‘I’d like to have my own business someday, so I’d like to get some real estate experience with a business like yours and then start my own,’ ’’ Blakeley recalled. “I said, ‘Hank, we’d love to have you at Cabot, Cabot & Forbes. You’re the first person who answered that question honestly.’ That was just symbolic of Hank Spaulding. He was so truthful.’’

Mr. Spaulding “went by simple credos and aphorisms, and had real Yankee Northeast roots that came through,’’ said his son Rob, of Kennebunk.

Unusual in the development world, Mr. Spaulding preferred brokering deals in which he would feel comfortable on either side of the table.

“He always wanted people on both sides to win at the end of the day,’’ said his son Andy, of Andover. “He felt that if we both win, there are more deals in the future.’’

Mr. Spaulding left Cabot, Cabot & Forbes to cofound the development firm Spaulding & Slye with George Slye in 1966.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Spaulding retired from Spaulding & Slye. Along with helping establish MIT’s Center for Real Estate, he launched Spaulding Investment, an asset management company, and served on boards including the MIT Corporation.

Among the projects Mr. Spaulding and his firm brought to fruition was One Washington Mall in downtown Boston. He also developed commercial properties along Route 128, bringing to Burlington the New England Executive Park offices and Lahey Clinic medical complex.

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Mr. Spaulding did so with a business approach that set him apart.

“He had that winning smile, and he always listened to people,’’ Blakeley said. “A lot of developers are egomaniacs and do all the talking. Hank was wonderful about listening.’’

Mort Zuckerman, chairman and chief executive of Boston Properties, worked with Mr. Spaulding when they were both young developers at Cabot, Cabot & Forbes.

“What he had was an innate character of gentleness and thoughtfulness, and everybody knew it, so everybody wanted to work with him, and rightly so,’’ said Zuckerman, who publishes the New York Daily News and is chairman and editor in chief of US News & World Report. “You didn’t have to spend five minutes with him to know he was a man with a gentle heart. He could have been a minister.’’

In addition to his wife and two sons, Mr. Spaulding leaves three other sons, Scott of Newburyport, Jack of Portsmouth, N.H., and Tom of Kensington, N.H.; two daughters, Sue of California and Jane Spaulding Breiby of Lexington; a sister, Jean Rand of Willimantic, Conn.; a brother, Richard of Lexington; and eight grandchildren.

At casual gatherings, Mr. Spaulding could be counted on to seat himself at the piano and play familiar tunes or holiday music.

And though generous with his time and money at MIT and in Kennebunk, he didn’t leave his name behind as a reminder that programs or buildings exist through his efforts.

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“Hank gave MIT millions and he didn’t want his name put on anything,’’ Bacow said. “That was not his style. He was unbelievably modest, and if you met him, in a million years you wouldn’t know this was someone of immense accomplishment or wealth, for that matter.’’

During Wednesday’s memorial service, Rob Spaulding said his father’s “core convictions were simple and ran deep: Never forget those who’ve helped you along the way, always be willing to pitch in, don’t complain, be grateful, and always have something you’re shooting for, something to look forward to.’’

Mr. Spaulding, he added, “truly lived a life of possibility. On his worst days the glass was half full, and most of the time it was damn near full to the brim.’’


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.