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Harvard Overseer, Well-Known Corporate Defector, Dies at 83

By Laura L. Krug, Crimson Staff Writer

Walter N. Rothschild Jr. ’42, a two-term Harvard overseer who stepped down as head of a chain of New York department stores to lead a life of public service, died June 20 in Long Island, N.Y. of complications from abdominal surgery. He was 83.

After graduating from Harvard, Rothschild joined the army as an artillery officer and eventually rose to the level of captain.

He then got his start in the retail industry with a four-year stint at Bloomingdale’s.

Soon he joined the family business—first as an employee and later as president—at the New York-based department store chain Abraham and Straus, an institution founded by his great grandfather which has since been converted into branches of other department stores.

His decision to leave Abraham and Straus in 1970 came as a surprise to colleagues. Close friend Roswell B. Perkins ’47 said Rothschild felt a need to leave the corporate world behind—a compulsion rare at the time—to spend the remainder of his career working in the public sector.

“Truly, he must have felt that he’d contributed what he could to the business and wanted to devote the remainder of his time to public service,” said Perkins.

To this end, he was a trustee of St. Luke’s Hospital Center from 1964 to 2000, serving for a time as chairman of the board.

In the 1970s his interest in urban problems led him to chair the New York Urban Coalition and the National Urban Coalition, according to his son Trip Rothschild ’76, who is also a Crimson editor.

He was a trustee of many other corporations, from banks to airlines, in the last decades of his life.

He gave back to his alma mater, serving as alumni director of the College for three years and chairman of the Harvard College Fund for two years. He was a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers for two terms, spanning nearly a decade.

His legacy, according to his son, is contained in his contributions to the school in his capacity as a fundraiser of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

He was also a trustee of Radcliffe College and was president of the Harvard Club of New York in the late 1970s.

His tenure at the Harvard Club followed his service as vice-president while Perkins was president.

“He was an enormously successful president and was a very loyal and effective vice president,” Perkins said. “He did anything and everything that I either suggested or asked and did it extremely well,” said Perkins.

Rothschild was awarded the Harvard medal for distinguished service in 1989.

Perkins recalled taking sailing trips with Rothschild and both their wives on Rothschild’s yacht, the Moonbeam. Together, they took sea trips to places like Halifax and Scandinavia.

“I sailed with him and cruised with him and he was a superb skipper and a most genial companion,” Perkins said.

He was also commodore of the Cruising Club of America in 1988 and 1989—“a post any sailor would be greatly honored to hold,” Perkins said.

Rothschild is survived by wife Virginia, sisters Carol Noyes and Phyllis Farley, children Trip, Suzanne, Jane and Nina, and 10 grandchildren.

—Staff writer Laura L. Krug can be reached at

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