Every summer, Sarah W. Fuller hosted indigenous artists at her home during Cultural Survival’s renowned crafts bazaar in Rhode Island.
A business executive who built her fortune as an entrepreneur in health care data research and consulting, Mrs. Fuller spent 20 years on board of Cultural Survival, a Cambridge-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of indigenous people. While hosting artists, she cooked swordfish for guests and sometimes stayed up late talking with flute maker Hawk Henries, a member of the Native American Nipmuc tribe, about their shared passion for fishing.
Her love of the sport came from her mother, who once wrestled a swordfish for more than four hours at sea and who imparted the secrets of trout fishing in Vermont’s beaver ponds.
“I loved those stories,” said Henries, who recalled Mrs. Fuller as someone “who was easy to sit down with and talk to. She was so generous, so warm and hospitable, as is her whole family.”
Mrs. Fuller, who was president of AMR/Arlington Medical Resources Inc. and a founder of Decisions Resources Group, was fly-fishing in Idaho with her husband, William, in September when she collapsed while on a boat on the Snake River.
Tall and athletic, Mrs. Fuller was 68 and lived in Westwood, and had enjoyed good health throughout her life, her family said. The seizure she suffered that day in Idaho led to a diagnosis of a rare blood disorder, combined with advanced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She died on Oct. 29 while in intensive care at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“She was a great visionary and leader in her support of our organization,” said Cultural Survival’s executive director Suzanne Benally, who added that Mrs. Fuller’s dedication “was reflected throughout her service as chair of the board and in her philanthropic generosity.”
Cultural Survival grew steadily with Mrs. Fuller leading the board. When she joined, the budget was $250,000 with a small staff. The organization now employs 20 people in seven countries and has a budget of $2.7 million.
“She brought a sharp mind and creative thinking,” said deputy executive director Mark Camp. “She was fearless about asking the hard questions. She could be critical, but in a constructive way, and once we arrived at a meeting of the minds, she would back the plan and see it through.”
In the boardroom, Mrs. Fuller was known for her problem-solving skills and grace under pressure. She was a vice president at Arthur D. Little in the late 1980s when she and her partners bought out a small unit of the corporation and transformed it into Decision Resources, which focused on the pharmaceutical industry.
With Mrs. Fuller as chief operating officer and president, the company grew to become a major consulting, research information, and data mining organization focused on biotech. The company was sold in 2003.
“She just had a way about her,” said attorney Paul George, one of her close colleagues at Decision Resources for more than a decade. “She was self-assured in a graceful way. She treated everyone with kindness, yet she was powerfully effective. . . . Her watch words were: ‘Perform. Be Kind. And Carry On.’ ”
Born in Boston in 1949, Mrs. Fuller was the daughter of David and Nancy Nye. Her maternal grandfather, Dr. Robert Nason Nye, had served as editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Her mother’s first husband was killed in action during World War II. They had a son William Coleman.
“My first curveball was thrown to my little sister,” Coleman said, recounting how Mrs. Fuller became his backyard catcher during his Little League days.
They were friends as well as siblings, he said. “My sister was a force to be reckoned with – whether with business, philanthropy, family, or the odd putt on the golf course,” said Coleman, who lives in Wayland. “She was exceptionally kind and generous, but she truly kept her eye on the ball.”
She became an entrepreneur as a teenager and launched a business selling crepes out of a custom-made cart, he recalled.
When her mother suffered a stroke in middle-age in the 1970s, it was Mrs. Fuller who helped coach her to walk again and learn to drive with her left foot, according to her family. Her mother lived to age 89.
Mrs. Fuller graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1971, after studying math and history, and remained devoted to her alma mater. She had served on the Board of Trustees since 2009, and recently endowed a chair.
She and her husband William, a professor emeritus at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and an author on Russian military history, met in the early 1970s in a course on Slavic languages at Harvard University, where Mrs. Fuller graduated with a master’s in Soviet studies.
“She was incredibly smart and breathtakingly beautiful. She had such vitality and energy,” her husband said, adding he was amazed when she agreed to go out with him. They married in 1973 and had two sons.
The sudden loss of his life partner, he said, “is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.”
Her sons marveled at their mother’s ability to keep her cool at all times. Major Charles Fuller, who lives in Texas and is an F-16 pilot in the Air Force, told his family that his mother would have made a good fighter pilot. Samuel, of Norwalk, Conn., recalled his trepidation years ago when he had to call his mother to tell her he was not going to graduate from engineering school.
She was “extremely understanding and reassuring,” he said, and with her encouragement, he switched to art school, studied computer graphics, and found a career in computer animation. He now does projects for Major League Baseball. “She was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known,” Sam said.
In addition to her husband, sons, and brother, Mrs. Fuller leaves her sisters, Wendy Larsen of New York City and Pam Heminway of St. Helena, Calif.; and her brother Peter Wilder of South Hamilton.
A memorial celebration will be announced. Burial will be private.
Mrs. Fuller had served as executive chairwoman of the data processing firm Millennium Prevention Inc. and was a director at Halloran Consulting, The Forbes Consulting Group, MedPanel LLC, and Cytel Inc.
In addition, she was a member of the Board of Overseers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a director of StartingBloc, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting socially responsible business practices.
Henries said that during gatherings around Mrs. Fuller’s table over the years, his family sometimes brought succotash and deer meat. A family from Zimbabwe brought a traditional dish made with oxtails. There was always lots of laughing and slurping of food off fingers.
It didn’t feel quite right, he said, to now speak of Mrs. Fuller in the past tense when her influence had such an important effect on the future of so many others. “Her legacy and the things she accomplished will continue in this life,” Henries said.J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.