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A celebration of Alex d'Arbeloff

Friends of Alexander V. d'Arbeloff '49 gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate the life of the late visionary entrepreneur who co-founded Boston-based high-tech company Teradyne before becoming the eighth chairman of the MIT Corporation.

Through a mix of heartfelt and humorous anecdotes, speaker after speaker at Friday's gathering in Kresge Auditorium recalled d'Arbeloff's dynamic nature, his relentless pursuit of excellence, his passion for innovation and his devotion to family and to the Institute.

"Alex was nuts about MIT," said Brit d'Arbeloff SM '61, his wife of 46 years. "He loved being chairman. He loved everything about it because he had the opportunity to work with a lot of smart, opinionated people and tried to convince them that his ideas were more important."

Several speakers, including MIT President Susan Hockfield, spoke of the importance of the d'Arbeloff Fund for Excellence in Education, which Alex and Brit established in 1999 to support innovations in teaching and curriculum design at the Institute.

"By any measure, Alex's contributions to the Institute were distinctly non-trivial, and we continue to benefit from them today," Hockfield said. "Yet in the end ... the priceless gift that Alex gave to MIT was actually his spirit -- the intrepid, unstoppable, brilliantly creative spirit of the chronic entrepreneur."

Dana Mead, who succeeded d'Arbeloff as chairman of MIT's governing body in 2003, said d'Arbeloff "relentlessly sought intellectual engagement in his life and work" while animating the experience of anyone who came in contact with him.

"We're all familiar with that frisson -- what one feels at the advent of a great idea or a meeting of the minds," Mead added. "Alex, as we all know, admitted no impediment to his pursuit of that spark, and he lit our imaginations along with his own."

President Emeritus Charles M. Vest recalled the "boundless energy and enthusiasm" with which d'Arbeloff threw himself into his work at MIT -- qualities Vest got to know only too well during their standing weekly meetings.

"The mental picture of him that I retain is dominated by his slightly shy, winsome grin when something amused or delighted him," Vest said. "He cared deeply for this Institution, and together with our wonderful alumna, Brit, he left a great legacy in our minds, in our classrooms and laboratories, in our sports facilities and, above all, in our educational excellence."

Earlier this month, in a resolution expressing its sorrow and deep sense of loss, the MIT Corporation praised d'Arbeloff as a "force of nature" who brought "remarkable leadership, deep devotion and magnificent generosity" to MIT.

"We all experienced his laser-like intellect, his wry wit, his insatiable curiosity, his amazing ability to engage, cajole, persuade, educate and enlighten those with whom he came in contact," the resolution stated.

Other speakers at Friday's celebration were: William C. Morris '60, chairman of J. & W. Seligman & Company, Inc.; Diana Henderson, professor of literature and dean for curricula and faculty support; Gregory Mark '03, SM '05, founder of Aeromotion; Richard Dyck, president of TCS-Japan and East Asia Connector Services, Inc.; Barrie Zesiger HM '07, founding partners and managing director of Zesiger Capital Group LLC and a member of the MIT Corporation; and Gururaj "Desh" Deshpande HM '07, founder and chairman of Sycamore Networks and a member of the MIT Corporation.

While the list of speakers was limited to 10, tributes have poured forth from scores of MIT community members who knew d'Arbeloff.

"Alex was always asking why we did things this way or that, or -- more often -- simply pronouncing that there was a better way," said former Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation Kathryn Willmore. "But just because he saw the world differently from many, perhaps most, of us in the university, this in no way lessened his devotion to this place. He was fiercely interested in everything and everyone he met, and once he took on a challenge, that was it. He certainly took on MIT -- to our great benefit.

"An encounter with Alex wasn't always comfortable, but it was often fun, and it was always worthwhile," she added.

Mary Boyce, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, said d'Arbeloff "was a source of wisdom, inspiration and guidance" to the Institute and to her department, where he taught as a professor of the practice after he stepped down as chairman in 2003.

"His connection with faculty and students at MIT was truly genuine and personal because his story was and is the MIT story -- always thinking of or challenging that new discovery, that next innovation, that next new technology and then working to make it happen," she said. "Alex d'Arbeloff will be missed.

Richard Schmalensee, the John C Head III Dean, Emeritus, of the MIT Sloan School of Management, said d'Arbeloff "was a source of wise counsel to me as dean" who "pushed all of us to be serious about advancing management education.

An archived video of the celebration is available here.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 2008 (download PDF).

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