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UPDATED: July 22, 2015, at 1:28 a.m.
James F. Rothenberg ’68 finished his last class at Harvard in 1970, but for the next 45 years he was never far away. As an active alumnus, and then Harvard’s treasurer and a member of the Harvard Corporation, he remained intimately connected to the university he loved, advising its leaders and helping manage its money, until his death Tuesday. He was 69.
Rothenberg’s death, reportedly of a heart attack, was unexpected. As recently as Sunday he had spoken with Corporation Senior Fellow William F. Lee ’72 about University business. On Tuesday afternoon, Rothenberg’s many friends across the University were reeling at the news.
“He had an enormous institutional history.… He had a completely unique combination of experience, historical perspective, intellect, and judgment,” Lee said. “You can never replace him.”
Rothenberg worked particularly closely with a small crop of Harvard’s top leaders, including Lee, the CEOs of Harvard Management Company during his time as treasurer, and University President Drew G. Faust.
“Jim was one of the best friends Harvard has ever had, and his selfless leadership, gentle wisdom, humane spirit, and boundless generosity in service of Harvard will live on always,” Faust said in a statement Tuesday. “We will miss Jim more than I can say.”
Lawrence H. Summers, who in the latter part of his Harvard presidency worked closely with Rothenberg, remembered his “surpassing decency, honor, and goodness,” in a statement on Tuesday.
In 2004, Rothenberg was named Harvard’s treasurer, a position he held until 2014. He helped lead Harvard through the turbulence of the 2008 recession and waves of tough decisions about the financial future of the University.
“He played a big role in helping to stabilize Harvard’s finances in a period of huge challenges,” said Susan L. Graham ’64, a member of the Harvard Corporation. “His guidance was essential, and he did it in a very constructive way, very collaborative way.”
Also in 2004, Rothenberg took one of seven seats on the Corporation, Harvard’s highest governing body.
His colleagues on that board, including Paul J. Finnegan ’75, looked to him for guidance.
“Jim was devoted to Harvard and selfless in his time energy,” said Finnegan, who called Rothenberg a mentor and who replaced him as treasurer last year. “We will all remember him as an individual, and also we’ll remember his many contributions to the Corporation and to the University as a whole.”
At his regular meetings on campus, colleagues could count on Rothenberg for well-placed humor and a distinct chuckle. Jessica T. Mathews ’67, Rothenberg’s colleague on the Corporation, said he was someone she liked to sit next to—he would say things under his breath.
Graham called Rothenberg “one of the sparks, one of the people that made it fun to work hard.”
Rothenberg wore many hats at Harvard. He chaired Harvard Management Company’s board of directors from 2004 until his death, and he co-chaired the ongoing University-wide $6.5 billion capital campaign. He was also a member of the Committee on University Resources, an elite group of Harvard donors.
In those roles, Rothenberg was often tasked with communicating University positions and developments. He patiently and politely listened to questions from a generation of reporters, but he was always a determined representative of Harvard, as one 2006 quotation makes clear.
“When the Corporation wants to communicate with The Crimson about that topic, it will,” he told a Crimson reporter who had asked about the future of then-University President Lawrence H. Summers.
After Summers resigned, Rothenberg was a member of the search committee that eventually chose Faust. Lee, who joined Rothenberg in that select group, fondly remembered evading enterprising reporters with his friend before the final interview with then-Radcliffe Institute Dean Faust by stopping in at Daedelus on Mt. Auburn Street.
“There are so many things that we went through together,” Lee said of his relationship with Rothenberg.
After graduating from the College with a degree in English, Rothenberg attended Harvard Business School and graduated in 1970. Despite landing in Allston, though, he had studied English at the College and said in 2007 that he viewed his liberal arts background as an advantage in his career at the Los Angeles-based investment management firm Capital Group Companies.
“The deeper one gets into studying literature, the more one sees there’s no single right answer to a problem the way there is in mathematics or the sciences,” he told the University-run Harvard Gazette. “The creativity one exercises in analyzing works of literature and drawing conclusions about them is very valuable in the investment world where one is constantly faced with the task of making investment decisions based on imperfect knowledge.”
He went on to support research in the humanities through a fund that provides up to $200,000 annually for three years. Rothenberg was also one of six donors who contributed to the University-wide $50 million Challenge Fund that helps create new professorships. The University called him a “philanthropist of extraordinary generosity.”
Rothenberg is survived by his wife, Anne; three children, Catherine Rothenberg Wei, Erin Rothenberg Baker, and Daniel H. Rothenberg ’04; and six grandchildren.
—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Mariel A. Klein can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariel_klein.
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