Nearly 40 years ago, entrepreneur Arthur H. Nelson began designing a workplace that filled a greater range of employee needs. The modern office complex would offer child care, restaurants, convenience stores, art exhibits, green spaces, and duck ponds interlaced with recreational paths.
“Ultimately, the idea is you commute to work, and everything you need is there,” Mr. Nelson told a packed real estate seminar years later, in 1989. “It’s good for traffic, good for saving time, and good for reducing stress.”
By then, that future had already arrived at The Nelson Companies. The sprawling Prospect Hill Executive Office Park, which he began developing in Waltham off Route 128 in the late 1970s, was one of the first in the nation to offer accredited full-day kindergarten and day care. The office park would eventually offer tenants access to a high-speed fiber optic connection to NEARNet, a precursor to the Internet that was developed in the late 1980s.
A trained physicist, Mr. Nelson founded more than a dozen companies in technology and real estate while building a reputation as a chief executive who wanted to be a good corporate citizen.
Mr. Nelson died Nov. 28 in his Weston home. He was 92 and still going to his office days before his death, his family said.
He launched or helped start many nonprofits, among them the Boston Computer Society, the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, and the 128 Business Council. In 1965, he started an organization focused on improving math and science education for K-12 called Technical Education Research Centers, or TERC.
“He was such a wonderful person,” said Robert F. Tinker, a physicist and education innovator who worked with Mr. Nelson for decades at TERC. “He really believed in people and was very much in the background. He didn’t trumpet his own achievements. He just wanted to do good.”
Douglas G. Waybright, president of The Nelson Companies, said in a statement that “no one has ever set a better example of how to live a professional life that is both meaningful and successful.”
Born in Lawrence, Kan., in 1923, Mr. Nelson grew up steeped in the academic circles of the University of Kansas, where his father, Carl, led the biochemistry department, and his mother, the former Hearty Brown, was an English professor.
As a boy in the 1930s, he went to the Chicago Centennial Exposition and the New York World’s Fair. The exhibits on new and developing technologies made a major impression on him, he told his family.
He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1943 with a bachelor’s degree in physics. Mr. Nelson then became a Navy officer and was assigned to work in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Radiation Laboratory, nicknamed the Rad Lab.
At the lab he worked on what was known as Project Cadillac, developing high-powered systems for detecting low-flying enemy aircraft. He told his family he was sent to hold secret training meetings in Atlantic City with Naval officers in preparation for an invasion of Japan. World War II ended before such an invasion was launched.
According to his family, the war years helped form Mr. Nelson’s management philosophy.
“What he learned was if you get the right group of people together, you can do anything,” said his daughter Pamela of Philadelphia. “He just had that can-do attitude that he applied to everything he started after the war.”
He was ‘a social entrepreneur long before the practice was common, or the term even existed.’Douglas G. Waybright, president of The Nelson Companies
Following the war, Mr. Nelson graduated from Harvard Law School and started his first company, General Electronics Laboratories, or GEL, in Cambridge.
In 1954, he founded Associates for International Research, a company that still operates and mines data on international mobility for major corporate clients.
At a Christmas party in 1953, Mr. Nelson was introduced to Eleanor Thomas, a young Radcliffe College graduate student who had studied early childhood education. Mr. Nelson was 30 then and had never married. A friend of Eleanor’s apologized for inviting her to a gathering without any young eligible bachelors. That apology became a beloved part of Nelson family lore.
Arthur and Eleanor married in 1956. His wife’s knowledge of educating young children helped inspire his commitment to day-care centers, his family said. Eleanor, who founded the on-site day-care company Workplace Connections Inc., died in 2003.
Mr. Nelson’s daughter described him as soft-spoken, unassuming, and playful. He delighted in the small daily exchanges of his life. “A fancy dish my mother made for dinner would be cause for celebration as he rose from the table and marched with great fanfare and a twinkle in his eye to the other end of the table to give my mother a big kiss,” Pamela said.
Among Mr. Nelson’s favorite projects was preserving the history of Waltham and the role of the Boston Manufacturing Co. in starting the first textiles factory in America there.
“It was the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution,” said Wayne McCarthy, president of the Waltham Historical Society. “Arthur was always aware of that and tried to make it more well known. His contribution to preserving the history of Waltham was immense.”
Mr. Nelson’s penchant for optimism carried him through the commercial real estate downturn in Massachusetts in the early 1990s, and a subsequent bankruptcy. In 1993, he lost several properties including the Westin Waltham Hotel, which formerly was the Vista International Hotel and was designed primarily for visitors to the Prospect Place office park.
“He had steady nerves born of confidence and I think this served him well,” said Pamela, who added that “if something didn’t work out, he wasn’t overly upset and was able to quickly move on and try something else.”
The Nelson Companies recovered and eventually expanded into residential real estate. “Retire? What does that mean? I love coming here every day, trying to make things better,” Mr. Nelson told the Globe in 2004.
In addition to his daughter Pamela, Mr. Nelson leaves a son, Carl of Cambridge; another daughter, Frances McSherry of Newton; a brother, Stanley of Lawrence, Kan.; and seven grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 14 in First Parish Church of Weston. Burial will be private.
“A social entrepreneur long before the practice was common, or the term even existed, Arthur Nelson throughout his professional life applied technology and innovation to solve social problems,” Waybright said. “He did well, he did good, and in so doing he has left this world a much better place.”J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.