Robert Saltonstall, 97; pursued teaching, travel, philanthropy

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 28, 2008

Robert Saltonstall may have felt his life was too strictly mapped out: Milton Academy, Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard, and the world of business. So with his wife's encouragement, he steered a different course.

"There was a real adventuresome streak in both parents," said their son James of Carlisle. "And I think in many ways my mother may have gotten the cattle prod out from time to time and said, 'Don't go to Harvard Business School, go to Stanford. . . . We have the opportunity to live in Italy for two years - let's do it.' "

Heeding his wife's counsel, Mr. Saltonstall stepped away from his career track at 45 to teach abroad. By career's end he was dispensing grants to nonprofit organizations back in Boston, and in retirement lent his expertise to an environmental organization.

Mr. Saltonstall died of pneumonia March 10 in Carleton-Willard Village, an assisted-living residence in Bedford, where he moved in 1994 after many years in Wayland and North Andover. At 97, he had outlived by three years his wife, Hannah, to whom he was married for 70 years.

"There was a wonderful closeness between my mom and my dad," their son said. "I think we all felt it very deeply."

Born in 1910, Mr. Saltonstall was a distant cousin of Leverett A. Saltonstall, a former Massachusetts governor and US senator. He grew up in a part of Hyde Park at a time when his family name, distinctive looks, and Harvard accomplishments drew notice from newspapers.

"Robert Saltonstall Jr., of Readville, the platinum blond of Harvard hockey, was yesterday elected to lead the Crimson ice forces in their 1932-'33 campaign," the Boston Post reported in March 1932. At 6-feet-2 and 185 pounds, he was hard to miss on the ice or on the Charles River, where he rowed crew.

"He always had blond hair, cut quite short, pink cheeks," his son said. "And in the summertime back then, nobody knew much about suntan oil, so he was always sunburned. He loved to sail, which only made the sunburn worse. And he had very big hands, which would be rather typical of oarsmen at the time."

Elected first marshal of his Harvard class, Mr. Saltonstall graduated in 1933 and married Hannah G. Ayer the following year.

At first he worked at the National Shawmut Bank in Boston and then moved with his wife across the country, receiving a master's from Stanford Graduate School of Business. Mr. Saltonstall was assistant agent for personnel and labor relations at Arlington Mills in Lawrence before and after his service in the US Navy during World War II, when he was stationed in Boston and in Washington, D.C.

In 1949, he joined the faculty of Harvard Business School and became an assistant dean before he and his wife decided it was time to step away from his Harvard roots. Then, Mr. Saltonstall taught at a graduate school in Turin, Italy, helped start a business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and wrote "Human Relations in Administration, Text and Cases."

Returning to the United States after four years abroad, he became director of personnel at Boston Safe Deposit and Trust in 1960. Five years later, he became a vice president, coordinating the company's grants to charitable trusts, foundations, and nonprofits.

"I think that was an area where he took significant pride in what he was doing," his son said. "He was in touch with all of the innovative things going on in the city of Boston and brought a real kind of professionalism to that area of business that I think had been lacking."

Retiring a decade later in 1975, Mr. Saltonstall became a volunteer consultant to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, work in which his affinities for business and the outdoors meshed. He and his wife moved to Wayland to be closer to the organization's offices in Lincoln.

In retirement, they were freer to travel, visiting remote places such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Nepal. On each trip, Mr. Saltonstall captured his impressions of faraway places with brushes and paints.

"For some people, it might be keeping a diary; for others it might be photography," his son said. "In my dad's case, it was trying to represent on a piece of paper what they were seeing. It also meant that my dad looked carefully at what was around him, because in order to paint he had to notice things."

Mr. Saltonstall and his wife preferred to notice details in the countryside, rather than along the streets of foreign cities.

"They much preferred to visit the country, as opposed to the city, and so these painting trips played right into that," their son said. "It's not that they didn't visit a museum or a cathedral or two, but both of them liked to be outdoors; both of them liked to walk. I think the painting provided a focus for those trips and in some ways an excuse: We haven't been there before, let's go check it out."

In addition to his son James, Mr. Saltonstall leaves another son, Robert of Rancho Mirage, Calif.; two daughters, Suzannah Schroeder of Belvidere Center, Vt., and Natalie Forbes of Concord; nine granddaughters; six grandsons; 15 great-granddaughters; and seven great-grandsons.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. on April 4 in Carleton-Willard Village in Bedford.

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