Whitehead remembers Alex d’Arbeloff

Photo of Alex d'Arbeloff

Whitehead Institute Board member Alex d'Arbeloff

July 10, 2008

Tags: Awards + Announcements

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (July 10, 2008)

A message from Whitehead Director David Page:

The entire Whitehead community is deeply saddened by the passing of Alex d’Arbeloff, former Chair of the Whitehead Board of Directors. We at Whitehead treasured Alex for his bold leadership, profound honesty, intellectual rigor, consistent generosity, and genuine curiosity about our science.

An immensely successful entrepreneur, Alex went on to make extraordinary contributions at many nonprofit organizations, including Whitehead. He joined our Board in 2004 and was elected Chair in December of that year.

When I became Interim Director that same month, Alex served not just as the Chair of the Board but also as my personal mentor, a role he relished. During my first year in that new position, Alex and I spoke several times a week, knowing we could call on each other at any time for any reason. Our frequent and intense interactions led to a particularly strong bond between us.

Alex was quite gifted in his ability to cut to the chase. He was wonderfully direct. He thought quickly, spoke quickly and never minced words when sharing his opinion. Alex could be famously irascible, with many perceiving him as simply prone to argument. Those who truly knew him, however, came to realize that more often than not, Alex’s challenging positions were ultimately quite constructive. When he examined an issue, one could be certain that examination would be thorough. The Board and the Institute as a whole are stronger today for having undergone the kind of introspection Alex demanded.

Susan Whitehead, Vice Chair of the Board, came to value many of these same traits.

“Alex was very smart and insightful,” she says. “He was a highly effective Chair. He came to us at a time when we needed the particular set of skills he brought, and he navigated some difficult waters. He was able to speak with everybody and to bring people together in a very productive way.”

“He could be a tough guy,” she adds. “He was not known for his soft touch. But he had one, and I’ve seen it really being effective. I had many agreements with him and many disagreements as well. I came to have great respect for him and great affection for him as well.”

Board member Peter Whitehead worked closely with Alex in overseeing Institute finances. Peter echoes our sentiments about Alex’s forthright nature.  “Alex was a very honest, straight, no-nonsense guy, and he brought a healthy dose of reality to the Institute,” he notes. “He worked hard to resolve difficult issues. I was a great admirer of his.”

Alex reveled in sharing lessons arising from his own colorful experiences. He was born in 1927 in Paris to parents who had left Russia after the revolution. His family moved nine times before he was 12. By the time he arrived in the United States in 1938, English became the fourth language he had mastered. He graduated in 1949 from MIT, and recently recalled with just a touch of humor, “The only thing I had at my tenth reunion was more jobs than anybody else. And at all these jobs I had been fired.”

Before turning him down for a job, one interviewer suggested that Alex might be better off starting his own company. In 1960 he did just that, forming Teradyne Inc., with a former MIT classmate. While Alex was chief executive, sales for the firm, which makes automated test equipment for electronic instruments, rose from $13 million to more than $1 billion.

In the late 1970s, with Teradyne well established, Alex began serving on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. He became a member of the MIT Corporation in 1988 and then Chair of the Corporation from 1997 through 2003. During that time, he played a leadership role in a major and highly successful fund-raising campaign. He also taught courses in innovation and leadership at the MIT Sloan School of Management and in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. Additionally, he and his wife, Brit, made significant donations, including one that launched the d’Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education.

Alex first came to Whitehead as a member of the Board of Associates in 1997. Whitehead intrigued him, he told us, because of “the possibilities for the future it holds.” He added, “I can enjoy the life I live now because of an arthritis drug that allows me to work and to write. I started playing tennis again once I went on that drug. And the discoveries coming out of Whitehead have gone, and will go, much, much farther than that.”

Alex was recruited to the Board by then-Director Susan Lindquist. “Alex was just a wonderful man, with a very generous spirit,” she says. “He had a transforming influence on the Board. He was impatient and he didn’t suffer fools gladly, but his heart was always in the right place. He wanted to help. He wanted to make a difference. He also was very engaged in the intellectual aspect of our work here. He loved the science that was being done, and he asked really wonderful questions.”

Alex stepped down from his Whitehead Chair duties in 2006 but continued to play an active role on the Board as recently as last month. Together, Alex and Brit were most generous to the Institute, and I’m pleased that Brit remains a valued member of our Board of Associates.

Alex died peacefully on July 8 at the age of 80. His funeral services and burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that gifts may be made to MIT’s d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education. Checks can be mailed to the MIT Office of Memorial Gifts, 600 Memorial Drive, W98, Cambridge, MA 02139.

We offer Brit and the rest of the d’Arbeloff family our deepest condolences.

David C. Page

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