Dick Gamble; soap heir championed reproductive choice

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

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Family planning was as much a part of Dick Gamble’s life as his family name - he was a descendant of James Gamble, the Irish immigrant soap maker who cofounded Procter & Gamble. More important for Mr. Gamble’s life work, though, his father had worked with birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger to make contraceptives legal and available.

“I knew about birth control before I knew about sex,’’ Mr. Gamble told the Globe in 1995, probably punctuating that observation with the chuckle he used to put people at ease, from wealthy donors at Nantucket fund-raisers to the poorest of women in Third World countries.

An entrepreneur who devoted most of his life to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and Pathfinder International, the agency his father founded to advocate family planning in developing nations, he also took unheralded roles in Boston as he supported The Learning Project Elementary School in the Back Bay and served on the board of the Boston Lyric Opera.

Mr. Gamble, who used his family fortune to back women’s reproductive rights while spending decades working diligently and cheerfully behind the scenes, died Oct. 6 in his Boston home of cancer. He was 81 and also lived on Nantucket.

“Dick never claimed credit for his work,’’ Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition in New York City, wrote in an e-mail. “His reward came from bolstering the work of others. His devotion, his compassion for women, and his modest style of leadership helped set the international population field on a track suited for the 21st century - one based on human rights and aimed to meet the needs of women and girls, not only to control their childbearing, but also to deliver wanted babies safely, free of violence, disease, and discrimination.’’

As a young man, often trailing in the shadow of his physician father, Clarence, Mr. Gamble learned to carry on the family legacy of establishing and encouraging the opportunities for women to make choices about reproduction.

“So much of my dad’s world was about giving women tools to redefine their own lives, to empower themselves personally, intimately, or societally, so they had the tools to choose when and if they had children,’’ said Mr. Gamble’s son Ian of Yarmouth, Maine.

“He was a passionate and committed feminist way before it was popular for men,’’ said Nicki Nichols Gamble, who married Mr. Gamble in November 1976 while she was head of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “Dick had, I think, a very special passion and sensitivity to the barriers that women face in all cultures, including our own, and was really dedicated to breaking those obstacles down.’’

From assisting his father in the 1950s during a 12-nation trip to promote family planning, to leading Pathfinder International in Watertown, to serving on the boards of Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts and the International Women’s Health Coalition, Mr. Gamble spent about a half century working on women’s reproductive issues worldwide.

“He’s been a real pioneering leader in the family planning and reproductive health field,’’ said Elizabeth Maguire, president and chief executive of Ipas, an international women’s reproductive health organization based in Chapel Hill, N.C. “He’s given so much to so many people through the years that he’s really left an indelible impression. And he was a man of extraordinary intellect and warmth and compassion and generosity.’’

Richard B. Gamble was born in Philadelphia, but hewed to the Brahmin roots of his mother, Sarah Bradley Gamble, and always considered himself a Bostonian. His family moved to Milton when he was young, and he graduated from Milton Academy in 1946.

At Princeton University, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1950, Mr. Gamble studied public and international affairs, a foundation for the following two decades.

He served two years in the Army, mostly in Frankfurt, and then traveled with his father to Bangladesh, Egypt, Japan, and nine other countries, sometimes as the first delegation to promote family planning. Mr. Gamble also traveled with the Experiment in International Living, leading groups in Finland, Norway, and Nigeria.

After receiving a master’s in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1961, he returned to Africa, spending about a decade in Nigeria developing businesses such as a publishing company.

In 1971, Mr. Gamble resumed spending most of his time with family planning organizations, including a dozen years as executive director, president, and board chairman of the Pathfinder Fund, which became Pathfinder International. He also spent about 30 years on the board of the Learning Project, a private school in the Back Bay.

“He was a person of international stature, but he chose to be interested in a little school that he saw capable of doing big things for children,’’ said Michael McCord, the school’s head- master.

Mr. Gamble’s first marriage, to Frances Dickinson Potter, ended in divorce. They had four children, to whom Mr. Gamble passed along a devotion to causes and treating others with respect.

“He was always thinking about how the other person in a particular situation would feel,’’ Ian said. “I still remember the car ride when he taught me about the importance and the methods of helping others save face.’’

At his Nantucket home, Mr. Gamble would hand squeeze orange juice, using eight oranges for each guest. Because his guests often included someone from a foreign land, he assembled a collection of flags so he could fly the colors of any visitor.

“He also loved corn on the cob, which he liked to eat with old-fashioned corn scrapers,’’ his wife said. “When it was in season on Nantucket, he ate it three meals a day, three or four ears at a time, when it was really fresh and right off the stalks.’’

The estate on Nantucket was a testament to the family fortune, but Mr. Gamble made sure his life honored what he saw as his family’s more important legacy of bettering the world.

“In Dick’s mind, there was never any pretense that he wasn’t a Procter and Gamble heir,’’ his wife said. “It was something he never took for granted. He had money that was inherited, and he was humbled by that. But that privilege made it possible for him to do things that some people don’t have the choice to do.’’

Said his son: “He was a very passionate man for doing right, for fostering the good not just in society, but in individuals.’’

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Gamble leaves another son, Lincoln of Cambridge; two daughters, Thalia Kidder of Oxford, England, and Martha of Cambridge, Vt.; two sisters, Sally Gamble Epstein of Washington, D.C., and Judy Kahrl of Arrowsic, Maine; two brothers, Walter of Brookline and Robert of Poznan, Poland; and six grandchildren.

A service will be announced.