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Bernard Rothwell, at 81; ran family's milling company

Bernard J. Rothwell, who went from sweeping floors in the family business to molding Bay State Milling Co. into one of the nation's top flour producers, died Thursday at his home in Vero Beach, Fla. The former Weston resident was 81.

 

Mr. Rothwell "was a mensch," longtime friend and colleague Richard Young of Wellesley Hills said yesterday. But while he was a philanthropist, Mr. Rothwell's contributions were always made with little fanfare, and usually anonymously.

When the Lynn native's grandfather arrived in the United States from his native Ireland during the "No Irish Need Apply" era, a Jewish businessman helped him get on his feet.

That gesture "really was the influence in my father's life," said his son, Brian G., of Weston.

That grandfather, also Bernard J. Rothwell, bought a bankrupt flour mill in Winona, Minn., and Mr. Rothwell, as was his family tradition, worked his way up "one job at a time," his son Brian said.

After sweeping floors and cleaning out parts of the machinery for a few years, he advanced to regional sales manager, working out of the Boston office, in 1953. A year later, he became national sales manager.

As he earned a master's degree from Harvard Business School in 1955, he watched the economic trends and capitalized on the deregulation of the railroad industry by expanding the business to sites closer to consumer markets. Divisions of Bay State Mill Co. eventually sprung up in Kansas, Colorado, Florida, Northern California, New Jersey, and Arizona.

He also shifted the company's focus to specialty grains, such as rye and whole wheat.

In the mid-1960s, having taken over the presidency from his father, Mr. Rothwell moved the company's headquarters from Minnesota to Boston, and later to Quincy.

Living mostly out of a suitcase, "He was an early 100,000-mile flier," his son said. Like most business leaders, he traveled from site to site, quelling the inevitable internal squabbles and smoothing out whatever problems arose.

"He had just enormous patience and just tried to always put himself in the shoes of the other person," his son said.

Mr. Rothwell "was extremely capable of delegating and letting the people do a lot on their own," Young said. "He gave the moral and ethical guidance that was needed."

He stepped back from the presidency in the 1970s but stayed on to advise and help with long-term planning.

His sons Brian and Bernard III of Norfolk took over the business in the mid-1980s.

The industry changed dramatically over the years, with the size of mills shrinking from eight-to-10 stories to three- or four-story structures. But Mr. Rothwell stayed on top of technological improvements and kept the company malleable enough to change with the times.

At least one thing never changed: Mr. Rothwell's eating habits. He had peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches, day in and day out. And that casual style helped set the tone for his company.

"That kind of a lifestyle also was a good role model, because it makes people concentrate on the important things and not the fluff," Young said.

As his work with the company tapered off, he stepped up his charitable efforts, giving out grants to Boston College and the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, among other organizations.

Enlisting the help of friends he made while studying at Dartmouth College, he founded the Trinitas Foundation, which recently gave a boost to Jewish students at Dartmouth by funding a permanent rabbi position for the campus, in memory of Michael Steinberg, a friend from his Dartmouth years. Mr. Rothwell had attended Dartmouth for a few years in the 1940s and left to serve in the Army stateside during World War II. He went into the family business when he was discharged in 1945.

At Dartmouth he ran track and was a national intercollegiate champion in the 120-yard high hurdles. In addition to his two sons, Mr. Rothwell leaves his wife, Patricia (Whittner); three daughters, Bonnie R. Walsh of Duxbury, Brenda R. Prescott of Medfield, and Barbara R. Hagan of Dover; five stepdaughters, Kathleen Norris of Plymouth, N.H., Patricia Brockman of Cincinnati, Kristin Shannon of the United Kingdom, Jeannette Gibbons of Reading, Pa., and Ann Norris of Orlando, Fla.; a sister, Joan Moor of Cambridge; 26 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. today in St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley Hills. Burial will be in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.

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