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William Eustis, inventor, entrepreneur, environmentalist

By Amanda Cedrone
Globe Correspondent / October 29, 2011

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An entrepreneur and inventor, William Ellery Channing Eustis wrote in an anniversary report for his Harvard class that he had “been through a number of jostling shifts in what we jokingly call my method of making a living.’’

Though he founded a company that helped create the Eustis Chair line of hardwood chairs, he also worked at a copper mine and in the data processing field, ran a sporting goods store, and patented a process of making snow for ski areas.

“My father was a very curious man,’’ said his son Fred of Cambridge. “He focused on big problems that were hard to solve. . . . The minute you presented him with something that couldn’t be done, he would try to do it. That was sort of his nature.’’

Mr. Eustis, who long advocated for the protection and reforestation of woodlands, died of complications of prostate cancer Oct. 17 in the Elizabeth Evarts de Rham Hospice Home in Cambridge. He was 91.

More likely to talk about longleaf pines than his latest round of golf, Mr. Eustis counted among his accomplishments helping keep intact the Scraggy Neck woods that were his longtime summer destination in Cataumet.

A skier who enjoyed going with his family to North Conway, N.H., on winter weekends, Mr. Eustis began devoting time in the late 1960s to creating a more efficient way to make snow at ski resorts.

Along with two others, he founded Hedco, a firm that produced snow-making machines using a method that he patented. He later sold the company.

His son was with him during the first test run of the snowmaking.

“We made a quarter-inch of snow with a model airplane propeller, a fog nozzle, and sulfur dioxide in a cold storage room,’’ his son said. “It was pretty exciting.’’

One of six children, Mr. Eustis was born in Milton and attended Milton Academy.

His parents sent him to Fountain Valley School of Colorado, in Colorado Springs during his senior year, and he graduated in 1938. He graduated in 1942 from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in history.

Unable to enlist in the military during World War II because the vision in one of his eyes was limited, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a civilian for the US Navy.

“He would have served if he could have,’’ his son said. “He was proud of the fact he served in the war effort, but as a civilian.’’

During the war years he began dating Mary Armstrong, and they married in 1944.

After the war, they moved to South Strafford, Vt., where Mr. Eustis worked in a copper mine as a chemical engineer, trying to “recover even a small value’’ from the tons of iron ore discarded as part of the mining process, he wrote in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

A few years later, when the mine closed, the family moved to Cambridge, where Mr. Eustis worked in the data processing field, first selling electronic instruments, then as a sales applications engineer.

Tiring of long business trips, he joined with other investors to found and manage Sports Shop of the Stars in Belmont.

He also built and managed two ice skating rinks in Greater Boston. Because of the rinks, he became interested in how to make refrigeration plants run more efficiently, which led to his work on snowmaking machines.

Through the years, he also looked into ways to disperse fog at airports and researched forest-management approaches such as sustainable logging practices.

As their four children finished high school and went on to college, Mr. Eustis and his wife moved from Cambridge to Milton and then to Hudson, N.H., and Nashua over a period from the late 1960s into the ’80s.

In the mid-1980s, he acquired a furniture manufacturing plant in Ashburnham, running it as part of Eustis Enterprises. His son became a partner in 1993. On one business trip, they visited representatives of the Stickley furniture company, based in Manlius, N.Y.

“He convinced the Stickley company he could build chairs for them, which was interesting because he’d never built a chair in his life,’’ Fred said. “My father would charm everybody that needed to be charmed, and I’d walk behind him with all the details.’’

The relationship with Stickley formed the foundation for Eustis Chair, which designs and manufactures hardwood chairs for libraries, dining halls, clubs, and other high-use spaces.

William Ware of Cataumet was one of Mr. Eustis’s good friends and is a director of the Eustis family’s company. Ware recalled Mr. Eustis as someone who was always inventing new ways of doing things and did not want to give up on anything.

“One thing I think he will be remembered for is that all the chairs in Memorial Hall at Harvard were built by him and created by his company,’’ he said.

Mr. Eustis retired in 1997, selling the company to his son. He stayed for three years as a consultant and remained a board member.

“He would say he never retired,’’ his son said. “He never really stopped pursuing new ways to do things.’’

After his wife died in 2000, Mr. Eustis sold his house in New Hampshire and split his time between Scraggy Neck in Cataumet and Venice, Fla.

During retirement, he was especially interested in waste-water management and reversing deforestation in the United States and Brazil.

“He just lived for those projects he was pursuing that were exciting to him,’’ his son said.

Mr. Eustis enjoyed sailing and playing golf and tennis. He was a descendent of William Ellery, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, his family said.

In addition to his son, Mr. Eustis leaves two daughters, Elspeth Taylor of Cambridge and Polly of New York City; another son, Augustus of Boston; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at noon today in First Parish, a Unitarian Universalist church in Milton.

Amanda Cedrone can be reached at