William Beinecke, Patron of Central Park and Yale, Dies at 103

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William S. Beinecke waged a decades-long but successful campaign to persuade Yale University to create a business school. Credit Yale School of Management

When William S. Beinecke and his wife, Betty, moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan in 1979, they were shocked by the dilapidated state of Central Park. Far from the emerald jewel that Mr. Beinecke recalled from childhood visits to his grandparents’ New York apartment, the park had become strewn with litter, its buildings covered with graffiti, its gardens full of weeds and its benches broken and rusting.

“It bothered us to see the park in such a state of disrepair and decay,” Mr. Beinecke wrote in a memoir years later, “but we weren’t sure what to do about it.”

They didn’t wait long to find out. In the spring of 1980, the Beineckes stopped by the city’s Parks Department to ask how they could help. Unbeknown to them, the parks commissioner at the time, Gordon J. Davis, and a colleague were establishing a partnership to support the park. They had the support of Mayor Edward I. Koch but had struck out recruiting a chairman who could tap into the city’s business community. Mr. Beinecke, newly retired from a successful corporate career, was the ideal candidate.

“He literally just walked in the door,” Mr. Davis recalled.

Mr. Beinecke (pronounced BUY-neh-key) agreed to serve as the first chairman of what became the Central Park Conservancy, and quickly recruited to the board many of the same corporate leaders who had previously turned Mr. Davis down. The conservancy is widely credited with helping to revitalize the park, and has served as a model for similar public-private partnerships across the country.

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Mr. Beinecke died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 103.

Mr. Beinecke lived in New Jersey for much of his life — he grew up in Cranford and raised his family in Summit — but he had a lifelong connection to New York. His paternal grandfather, Bernhard Beinecke, was a German immigrant and entrepreneur who built the Plaza Hotel, at the southeast corner of Central Park. Mr. Beinecke wrote that one of his earliest memories was of watching from his family’s 12th-floor suite at the Plaza as returning veterans from World War I paraded up Fifth Avenue.

His professional life likewise had a family connection. Mr. Beinecke spent his career at the Sperry & Hutchinson Company, which his maternal grandfather, William Sperry Miller, founded with a partner in 1896. The company became well-known for its Green Stamps, which customers earned by shopping at participating gasoline stations and grocery stores and could trade in for rewards.

S & H, as the company was known, benefited greatly from the rise of the suburban middle class after World War II. Mr. Beinecke, who served as the company’s chairman and chief executive in the 1960s and ′70s, took the company public in 1966 and diversified its holdings into furniture and other businesses.

Mr. Beinecke saw his business and philanthropic endeavors as sharing a common purpose, and embraced the idea of corporate social responsibility long before that phrase became fashionable. That impulse led him to wage a decades-long campaign to persuade Yale University to create a business school, which he saw as a way for the university to engage with — and help shape — the rise of corporations as a force in American civic life.

The proposal initially faced opposition from some at the university, who saw it as a distraction from Yale’s core liberal arts mission. But Mr. Beinecke and his allies eventually prevailed, and the Yale School of Management opened in 1976, with the Beineckes as major benefactors.

“In my 30-odd years in business, few things have surprised and disappointed me more than the attitude many businessmen have about the world beyond their business and their careers,” Mr. Beinecke said in a speech in 1983 commemorating the founding of the school. “Even men of the highest capacity will, without regret, limit themselves to a two-course curriculum — they major in bottom-line and minor in golf.”

William Sperry Beinecke was born on May 22, 1914, in New York City, to Frederick W. Beinecke and the former Carrie Sperry.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, in economics, from Yale and a law degree from Columbia University, he joined the Navy as the United States was preparing to enter World War II. He went on to serve on destroyers in the Atlantic and Pacific, and left the Navy as a lieutenant commander.

Weeks before he was called to active duty in 1941, Mr. Beinecke married the former Elizabeth Gillespie. She died in 2009. Mr. Beinecke is survived by two sons, Frederick and John; two daughters, Frances Beinecke and Sarah Beinecke Richardson; seven grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

When he returned from the war, Mr. Beinecke briefly practiced law before joining Sperry & Hutchinson as general counsel in 1951. At S & H, he helped fight efforts in several states to restrict or ban Green Stamps and similar rewards programs as anticompetitive.

He retired in 1980 and embarked on what amounted to a second career in philanthropy. Besides his work for Central Park and Yale, where Mr. Beinecke was a trustee, he was the founding chairman of the Hudson River Foundation and served on the boards of the New York Botanical Garden and the American Museum of Natural History. The Prospect Hill Foundation, which Mr. and Mrs. Beinecke created in 1959, has supported programs in the environment and nuclear nonproliferation, among other causes.

Active until the end of his life, Mr. Beinecke had lunch the week before his death with recipients of a scholarship he endowed at Columbia Law School; he had a series of social engagements planned for the following week. His daughter Frances said that on the day he died, Mr. Beinecke had a bow tie selected for his weekly bridge game at the Yale Club.

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