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Alex d'Arbeloff, former MIT Corporation chairman, dies at 80

Alex d'Arbeloff
Alex d'Arbeloff
Photo / Donna Coveney

Alexander Vladimir d'Arbeloff '49, a visionary entrepreneur who co-founded Boston-based high-tech company Teradyne before becoming the eighth chairman of the MIT Corporation, died peacefully on Tuesday, July 8, surrounded by family. He was 80.

As chairman of the MIT Corporation, d'Arbeloff provided crucial leadership for the Calculated Risks, Creative Revolutions fundraising campaign, which had a transformative effect on the Institute--from the physical campus to its research agenda. The campaign ushered in cutting-edge facilities such as the Al and Barrie Zesiger Sports and Fitness Center and the Ray and Maria Stata Center and also sparked a new emphasis on the intersection between the life sciences and engineering at MIT.

With his wife, Brit SM '61, d'Arbeloff created the Fund for Excellence in MIT Education to support teaching innovations in science and engineering. The pair also supported a professorship in the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering and established the d'Arbeloff Lab in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

"All of us privileged to know Alex are deeply saddened by his loss," said MIT President Susan Hockfield. "MIT has lost an extraordinary friend who paired his passionate devotion to the Institute with a brilliantly dispassionate, clear-eyed view of how it could grow even stronger. Through the d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in MIT Education, among many other gifts, Alex and Brit tapped a deep vein of creativity that has transformed MIT. We will sorely miss his warmth, charm, humor and remarkable gift for framing complex problems and inspiring visionary solutions."

D'Arbeloff was born in 1927 in Paris to parents who had fled the Russian Revolution a decade earlier, and his family led a nomadic existence during his adolescence. As the clouds of war gathered in Europe, the d'Arbeloffs moved to South America in 1936, to New York two years later and to Los Angeles the following year, before returning to New York in 1940.

After graduating from MIT with a bachelor's in management, d'Arbeloff found that his can-do attitude didn't always sit well with superiors. In later years he was proud to note that he was fired from three jobs during a 10-year period, and that while serving in the U.S. Army reserves, his commanding officer berated him for having "antagonized every officer" at their post.

"I didn't feel I had," d'Arbeloff told an interviewer in 1997, recalling the episode. "I didn't do it on purpose. I just wanted to do more than they were willing to do."

In 1960, d'Arbeloff co-founded Teradyne Inc. with Nick DeWolf--a former MIT classmate whom he had met when they had to line up alphabetically during an ROTC class. During his tenure as president and CEO of Teradyne, which manufactures automatic test equipment and interconnection systems for the electronics and telecommunications industries, the company's annual sales rose from $13 million to more than $1 billion.

In 1997, he was named chairman of the MIT Corporation, having served as a member since 1989. At the time, he said he was aware of the differences between academia and the business world but preferred to focus on the common ground they shared.

"You begin, in both cases, with talented people. Then you have to develop an effective organization and instill a sense of mission. You have to strive to win. And, ultimately, you have to provide something of value to society," he said.

"MIT is a great institution, with great impact on the nation and the world. I am truly honored to have been given this opportunity to serve as MIT's chairman and to contribute to an institution of this level of excellence, this magnitude, and one that has such an impact on society."

D'Arbeloff became honorary chairman of the Corporation after stepping down as chairman in 2003. As a professor of the practice, he taught at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Department of Mechanical Engineering. D'Arbeloff also served on the board of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.

Friends and colleagues recalled his humor, his thoughtfulness, his dedication to his family and his devotion to MIT.

President Emeritus Charles M. Vest characterized d'Arbeloff as a dynamic personality who constantly strove for improvement and who possessed "one of the most active minds" he had ever seen.

"As chairman of the MIT Corporation, Alex properly and productively challenged the ways in which academia functions. His rethinking of MIT's budgeting processes was invaluable," Vest said. "He radiated energy, loved to challenge ideas, and was as at home in a classroom as in his board room. He left a great legacy in Boston and MIT."

Paul Gray, president emeritus and professor of electrical engineering and computer science, emeritus, recalled how d'Arbeloff spoke about the importance of the years that followed his graduation from MIT.

"When we first met he told me about his early post-MIT career experiences which included several tough reviews and dismissals. These led to his decision--brilliant in hindsight--to start his own company, which has been a genuine success, validating his management style," Gray said.

"He has always been, in my experience, a person who 'thought otherwise'--who brought different perspectives, fresh insights and creative solutions to problems, here at MIT and elsewhere," continued Gray, who preceded d'Arbeloff as chairman of the Corporation. "His leadership of the Corporation and the creative philanthropy that he and Brit demonstrated and engendered in others will bring lasting benefit to this special place."

D'Arbeloff was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and a director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He also served on the boards of several corporations and on the board of the Whitehead Institute, which he chaired from 2004 to 2006.

He is survived by his wife, Brit; daughters, Katherine and Alexandra; sons, Eric and Matthew; and six grandchildren.

Funeral services and burial will be private. The family has said that in lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to MIT for the d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education. Checks should be mailed to the Office of Memorial Gifts, 600 Memorial Drive, W98, Cambridge, MA 02139-4307. For more information, please contact Bonny Kellermann, director of memorial gifts, at or 617-253-9722.

The MIT Alumni Association has set up a comment board for those wishing to share their memories of Alex d'Arbeloff.

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