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Andrew R. Towl, 101, business school innovator

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 15, 2012
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In the 1940s through the mid-’70s, when journeys to less developed nations could involve discomfort or danger, Andrew R. Towl brought the message of Harvard Business School’s case study ­method to places as distant as Africa and India.

“He was a vigorous advocate and maybe even an evangelist, for the case method,” said Stephen A. Greyser, the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Marketing at the business school. “He was like a missionary to other schools in other parts in world.”

Visiting 37 countries, some of them as many as 15 times, Mr. Towl bore in mind that his role was to help others grasp the strengths and subtleties of Harvard’s approach.

“For the past 22 years, I’ve had the title of director of case development,” he told the Harvard Business School Bulletin in 1975, the year he retired. “The duties have carried budget responsibilities, but the primary task has been to facilitate the work of others.”

Mr. Towl, a longtime Quaker whose gentle demeanor was always apparent at home or at Harvard, died of congestive heart failure June 6 in the Cadbury Commons assisted-living facility in ­Cambridge. He was 101 and had lived in Lexington for many years before moving to Cambridge in his late 80s.

“His specialty was basically, ‘How do you get a group of people to consider a problem and come up with a number of solutions,’ ” said the youngest of his four sons, Ken of Tyngsborough. “He got along with people and facilitated discussions, which was his expertise his entire career.”

Mr. Towl was director of case development at Harvard Business School and director of the inter­collegiate case clearinghouse, and he was just as much a facilitator through his work with the Friends Meeting at Cambridge, the American Friends Service Committee, and other Quaker organizations.

He had met Merrilie McAfee through a social event for young Quakers. They married in 1938.

“Both Mom and Dad were very much involved with Friends Meeting,” their son said. “They worked on the yearly meeting, on the business committees, on volunteer committees. Dad served on a number of boards. Mom, in particular, was the secretary of the meeting, which involves ‘turning hours into minutes,’ as she said.”

Born in Bellevue, Neb., Mr. Towl was one of three children. Their father, who became mayor of ­Omaha, was a surveyor who designed a farm to demonstrate how to preserve topsoil during Missouri River flooding.

Mr. Towl graduated in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1952.

He taught college in Nebraska for a couple of years before going to Columbia University in New York, from which he graduated in 1932 with a master’s degree.

Recruited to Harvard Business School, Mr. Towl started as a research assistant and graduated with a master’s in business administration in 1936.

Moving to Philadelphia, he worked in banking for eight years at Provident Trust. Philadelphia was also where he met McAfee, who had grown up in Boulder, Colo., tucked against the Rocky Mountains.

“As she wrote on a card that we’ve seen, ‘Finally, I’ve met a man to match my mountains,’ ” their son said.

Mrs. Towl died in 1989, after 51 years of marriage.

“We never heard a word of anger between my father and mother,” their son said.

After her death, Mr. Towl wore both their wedding rings the rest of his life.

“His own ring was on his ring finger,” their son said. “Mother’s was smaller, so it was on his little finger.”

Except when work took him out of the country, Mr. Towl spent as much time as possible with his family, even at the expense of time away from consulting opportunities.

“He was an immensely patient person,” his son said. “He spent Saturdays with us doing chores around the house or making toys. They weren’t purchased. They were made from nuts and bolts and hardware down in the basement.”

Though he spent most of his career at Harvard Business School, Mr. Towl “wasn’t a businessman, certainly not with a profit motive,” his son said. “We were not focused on money growing up. It was not an important thing.”

Mr. Towl, he added, “was a father figure who was present to us. It was only in later years that it ­became apparent that he was a father figure to a huge number of other people.”

When Mr. Towl died, his son “found some 1,100 e-mails unanswered on his computer. All around the world were people who considered him a special person who touched their lives.”

A service will be announced for Mr. Towl, who, in addition to his son, leaves three other sons, Bruce of Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, Ralph of Bisbee, Ariz., and Roy of South Omaha; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

As part of his year-end message to family and friends in 2010, Mr. Towl wrote about the promise the New Year held for all.

“I sense more and more the infinity of BEING — and how that essence goes on beyond what words can define,” he wrote.

In his final days, Mr. Towl felt gratitude for a life that had lasted longer and taken him farther than he could have imagined in his Nebraska boyhood, repeating the words “thank you, thank you” as long as his voice allowed.

“His last words were, ‘I have to go,’ and I was able to tell him, ‘It’s OK; your job here is done,’ ” Ken said, “and he smiled.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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