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Warren Alpert, 86; made a fortune in order to share it

Warren Alpert, a Chelsea native, founded Warren Equities Inc., one of the nation's largest private companies. Warren Alpert, a Chelsea native, founded Warren Equities Inc., one of the nation's largest private companies. (DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF file/1992)

Warren Alpert was as economical with his words as he was generous with his fortune.

"I wanted to be rich so I could give my money away," he told the Globe in 1988.

Score a win for Mr. Alpert in both columns.

His business, Warren Equities Inc., has routinely made the Forbes list of the nation's largest private companies. Meanwhile, Mr. Alpert and his philanthropic endeavor, the Warren Alpert Foundation, have given $100 million to Brown University's medical school, $20 million to Harvard Medical School, and $150,000 in annual prizes to top medical researchers.

Mr. Alpert, who grew up poor in Chelsea and always answered his own phone at work, died Saturday in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City of a heart condition. He was 86 and had lived in Manhattan's Ritz Tower until about three months ago.

"He had a tremendous zeal for life," said his nephew, Herbert Kaplan of New York City, president and chief executive officer of Warren Equities and the foundation. "He really was a character. He would go to black-tie dinners, and when everybody else wore a black tie, he wore a bright red tie and a bright red handkerchief as he sat up on the dais. When I asked him why, he said: 'When they look up, they're not going to see the chairman of this event. They're going to remember me.' He really wanted to be noticed, very much."

Based in Providence, Warren Equities is a holding company for six entities that range from the Xtramart chain of convenience stores, to a wholesale distributor of snack and tobacco products, to a regional gasoline and diesel fuel dealer.

The youngest of five children, Mr. Alpert was 13 when he started helping his father sell sheets and pillowcases from the back of an aging Buick. His parents were immigrants from Lithuania and the family lived on the second floor of a three-decker on Orange Street in Chelsea. Mr. Alpert graduated from Chelsea High School and Boston University.

"I started with nothing and worked seven days a week and commuted to BU every day," he said in the Globe interview.

He served with the US Army in World War II and was awarded a Purple Heart for an injury suffered on Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion, his nephew said.

Then came Harvard Business School and its advanced management program. MBA in hand, Mr. Alpert worked for Standard Oil of California before returning to the East in 1950 to start buying gas stations. He expanded into other areas as the decades passed. When a venture didn't work, he dropped it quickly and moved on.

"Losing money does not turn me on," he told the Globe in 1992.

Giving away money did, however, particularly to physicians and researchers. His father died of a heart condition; his mother and a sister of Alzheimer's disease.

"I want to feel that the world is better off for my having lived," he told the Globe in 1993. "Now if you are in a position to cause something to happen that you think is important, it's kind of wonderful."

That year he gave $20 million to Harvard Medical School, then the largest single donation in the history of the school, which named a building for Mr. Alpert. Since 1986, the Warren Alpert Foundation has awarded prizes to researchers and scientists who contribute to breakthroughs for curing major illnesses. In January 2007, Brown University announced it would rename its medical school for Mr. Alpert after his foundation donated $100 million.

Ruth J. Simmons, president of Brown, issued a statement expressing condolences and saying, "We are grateful for Mr. Alpert's support, which will help educate generations of young physicians at the university."

"Warren Alpert was a true friend to biomedical researchers all over the world," Joseph B. Martin, dean of Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. He added that "the scientific community has lost a friend and ally, but fortunately Warren's vision will continue through the foundation and through the continuing benefit of the gifts he made to many healthcare institutions."

Mr. Alpert, who never married, eschewed many trappings of the rich, despite living on Park Avenue in New York.

"I don't have a yacht. I don't have a plane. I don't have a chauffeur," he told the Globe.

But he did have a dream of helping researchers make life better for others, even for a short period of time.

"We're all going to die," he said. "Since it happens to everybody, wouldn't it be wonderful if you could have one better day? Imagine. One good day."

A memorial service will be held at noon today in Stanetsky Memorial Chapel in Brookline. Burial will be in Pride of Boston Cemetery in Woburn.