Bill Haussermann, 87; lawyer donated time to charities

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 22, 2009
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Though his day job was at Ropes & Gray, where he was a senior partner, Bill Haussermann spent nearly as much time donating his legal talents to hospital boards, charities, and Trinity Church. The picture of probity, he labored behind the scenes to guide organizations on a straight path.

"He was highly ethical, but unobtrusive in his ways," said the Rev. Tom Kennedy, chairman of the board of Sherrill House, a nursing and rehabilitation center in Jamaica Plain for which Mr. Haussermann was a founding board member. "He used to tell me, 'Tom, the law is like the strings of a tennis racket. You can weave them finer and finer and finer, but all you're doing is creating more holes.' He brought that metaphor to all the things we were doing, whatever it was."

Mr. Haussermann, who also had served on the boards of New England Medical Center and Tufts-New England Medical Center, died Thursday in Sherrill House. He was 87 and his health had been failing for the past few years.

"Bill Haussermann was one of the finest human beings who ever lived," said Bill Thompson, a former executive vice president for Bank of Boston. "He was obviously a wonderful lawyer, but Bill was also a wise counselor in all ways, and to many people."

Mr. Haussermann's sister, Carol of Philadelphia, said he was "a very kind man, enormously generous, and always interested in others before himself. You go into some people's houses and they're always talking about themselves, but he always would draw people out."

Oscar William Haussermann Jr., who dispensed with formality and preferred to be called Bill, grew up in Milton. An enthusiastic athlete, he wrestled and played baseball and basketball, turning in later years to tennis and golf.

The namesake son of a successful lawyer, he graduated from Milton Academy in 1938 and from Harvard College in 1942.

"He had just a wonderful sense of humor, self-deprecating," Kennedy recalled.

That was apparent when Mr. Haussermann wrote about his military service, between Harvard and Harvard Law School, when he rose to the rank of sergeant.

"After graduation, I spent three years in the Army," he wrote for the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class. "My assumption that any graduate of Harvard automatically became an officer proved somewhat inaccurate, since I spent the three years as an enlisted man working at various specialties, including latrine orderly (later in charge of latrine maintenance), lecturer on sex hygiene, clerk-typist, poison gas handler, and drill sergeant for an illiterate battalion (no Yale men were members)."

Upon graduating in 1948 from Harvard Law School, where he was a member of the law review, Mr. Haussermann was hired by Ropes & Gray.

In 1943, he married Mary Burgess Whitney in Atlanta. Their marriage ended in divorce, and he married Jean Saltonstall in 1957.

While conceding that the Vietnam War left him distressed, he wrote in his 1967 class report that he was "not overcome by gloom at the prospects facing us today on the local, national, and international scene; rather I find that this is an exciting and challenging world to live in and I have faith in its future."

Mr. Haussermann's faith expressed itself all days of the week, through his charitable endeavors and at Trinity Church, where over the years he was a member of the vestry, a junior warden, and chancellor.

Along with his work with hospitals and Sherrill House, he served on boards for the Douglas A. Thom Clinic for Children, Federated Dorchester Settlement Houses, and Low-Cost Housing Corp., which developed affordable housing in Boston.

"He had integrity coming out of his fingertips, and there aren't many people you can say that about, sad to say," Thompson said. "Bill really was one of a kind. He cared deeply about the things that are important."

Mr. Haussermann may have spent his working hours with Boston's power brokers, but he devoted many nights and weekends to helping improve the lives of those who might never see the inside of a boardroom.

"He was a child of the establishment, but never hesitated to reach out and deal with the trials and tribulations of the outcast, whether it was in housing, or Sherrill House, or wherever," Kennedy said.

To honor the contributions of Mr. Haussermann and his wife, Kennedy said, Sherrill House has established the O.W. and Jean Haussermann Fund for Outreach.

"He personified outreach in whatever he was doing, from whatever perspective," Kennedy said. "The work he did for Sherrill House was extraordinary, very quiet, and always in the background."

Mr. Haussermann brought "a generosity and kindness to caring about people," his sister said. "He was not a snob in any way. He cared for everybody."

After retiring from Ropes & Gray in 1994, he gave full attention to his charitable work and slowed down very little, writing in his 60th anniversary report for Harvard, "My former law firm provides me with an office and a secretary which has proven invaluable, and I report for duty there almost every day in the week."

"Bill was the most generous person I ever met," said Mr. Haussermann's stepson, Ben Bradlee Jr. of Cambridge, a former deputy managing editor at the Globe. "He constantly gave of himself - to his loved ones, to friends, and to the many Boston charities he served over the years. He did this not just because he was selfless, but because it brought him happiness. He was a terrific husband to my mother for 51 years, and a devoted stepfather and mentor to me over the same period."

In addition to his wife, stepson, and sister, Mr. Haussermann leaves four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in Trinity Church in Boston. Burial will be in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.

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