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Francis Hunnewell, 71; entrepreneur traveled world

FRANCIS O. HUNNEWELL FRANCIS O. HUNNEWELL
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / February 3, 2010

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Though he was descended from a family whose expansive estates gave name to Wellesley and its college, Francis Oakes Hunnewell cut a unique path in the world of business that took him continents away from the Boston boardrooms that were his birthright.

Seeking one business deal in the mid-1970s, he established a rapport with Salem bin Laden (a half-brother of Osama) during a dune buggy ride in the deserts of Saudi Arabia that went comically awry and became a tale bin Laden told for years.

Mr. Hunnewell also liked to purchase unconventional mementos abroad. Back home, his wife would get calls from shipping lines to retrieve a life-sized portrait from China, a ceremonial picnic basket from Japan, or a Thai elephant saddle.

“What was unique about Frank was that he was the ultimate Yankee entrepreneur who goes abroad to find his fortune,’’ said Mike Pochna, who went to Harvard with Mr. Hunnewell and was his partner in several business deals, including with bin Laden. “Frank loved to go to unusual places, he loved unusual people, and he himself was unusual in that respect. Most people are prisoners of their own personality. Frank was someone for whom everything is possible.’’

Mr. Hunnewell, who also had been the first chief executive and was the only one to serve as trustees chairman of “From the Top,’’ which showcases talented young musicians on National Public Radio and public television, died Jan. 24 of a pulmonary embolism while on a business trip to Tbilisi, Georgia. He was 71 and lived in Wellesley.

Standing a few inches above 6 feet, he left the impression that he was taller, given his fondness for cowboy hats. In the Victorian in Wellesley that had been in his family for generations, Mr. Hunnewell liked to get blazes roaring in every fireplace, fueled by wood he cut and split on his land.

“Then he would suddenly emerge wearing black velvet pants and those sort of old fashioned tuxedo slippers and a beautiful shirt with a wild, silk Chinese tie and this gold disco jacket that I had given to him,’’ said his daughter, Susannah Hunnewell Weiss of New York City. Mr. Hunnewell might be the only one who could pull off such an outfit, she said, adding that on him, “It’s actually rather chic; it’s rather fabulous.’’

Just as colorful were his adventures in business, which did not quite take him everywhere, but almost. After finishing his master’s degree at Harvard Business School in 1965, he headed to Costa Rica and launched a business raising chickens to supply restaurants. A few years later, he moved to Paris and founded Lansdowne, an investment firm.

Among his subsequent ventures were companies that were based or did business in New York City, Hong Kong, Mexico, Russia, the Caucasus, and, to keep his hand in at home, the Charlestown Navy Yard.

“Life just never stopped with him,’’ said Irakli Rukhadze, a partner in Mr. Hunnewell’s latest venture, a real estate investment company called Eljan that is based in Tbilisi. “He was just extremely inspiring, very courageous, and very adventurous. One thing you could never do is get bored with Frank.’’

Mr. Hunnewell was born in Boston and grew up in Wellesley. The town’s name was taken from what an ancestor called his estate. Horatio Hollis Hunnewell coined Wellesley from his wife’s maiden name, Welles.

Mr. Hunnewell, on the other hand, went by the less grand nickname Butch. He graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., in 1956, and from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in 1960. Then he spent three years in the Navy and was a navigation officer on the USS Kitty Hawk when he visited a friend in San Francisco and met Elizabeth Milton, a young woman from Virginia.

“He asked me to marry him as we slid our trays past the Jell-O salads in the Crown Zellerbach cafeteria,’’ she wrote in a Globe column in 1989.

Before they married in 1963, he asked her mother’s permission in a poem that ran a page and a half, single-spaced, and included the couplet:

Boston born and Boston bred,
I need her to revitalize my family’s bed.

“This was a 24-year-old writing to my mother,’’ his wife said. “She loved him.’’ So did so many others who found themselves in his ever-expanding universe. He was also deeply involved with schools and organizations devoted to the arts.

In addition to helping lead “From the Top,’’ Mr. Hunnewell’s roles included chairing the Boston Philharmonic board of trustees for a dozen years and serving on the boards of the Walnut Hill School for the arts in Natick and the New England Conservatory.

“I think he occupied an absolutely unique position in this community,’’ said Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic. “He worked like a passionate gardener, making all these things grow, and he ended up with everything flowering around him. I watched Frank at work with awe.’’

Betsy McClendon, who chairs the trustees at the Walnut Hill School, said: “The best part about Frank is that he absolutely adored the students and was a constant attendee at as many performances at the school as possible. Frank was always there, and he has always been a sponsor of a couple of students to make sure some of those less fortunate are able to attend the school.’’

Said Ted Raymond, a former business partner, “When you look at Frank’s life in terms of giving back, he did that in the truest way. It was not just checkbook philanthropy. He became deeply involved in organizations.’’

Mr. Hunnewell may have moved comfortably in the refined world of the arts, but he was at his best getting his hands dirty in the literal sense. He secured a partnership to set up the Saudi Arabian telecommunications system when Salem bin Laden took him on a bone-rattling ride in the desert. When a wheel fell off, Mr. Hunnewell lifted the dune buggy while others reattached it.

“Salem was impressed,’’ Steve Coll recounted in his book “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.’’ “For years later he would tell the story about how Hunnewell had lifted up the car like a superhero.’’

On his estate, Mr. Hunnewell traded pinstripes for work clothes, a hard hat, and goggles. Hefting a chainsaw, he split up to 20 cords of wood a year and left some visitors initially thinking he was hired help, a misapprehension that never fazed him.

“He had amazing confidence in himself that never wavered,’’ his wife said. “He gave the impression of being so self-confident that he could go anywhere.’’

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Hunnewell leaves a son, Francis Jr. of Wellesley; another daughter, Lee Hunnewell Alphen of Paris; a brother, H. Hollis of Nahant; a sister, Lisa Hunnewell von Clemm of London; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Friday in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.