Globe staff photo by John Tlumacki
Ray Tye was one of Boston's biggest philanthropists, but he didn't much care for the title, and he was even less interested in drawing public attention to his private donations.
The chairman emeritus of United Liquors gave away millions, often covering the medical expenses of people described in news stories as unable to afford life-saving care.
"He always did this quietly," said his wife, Eileen. "He never wanted his name chiseled into a hospital facade or put on a plaque."
He agreed to be the public face of the Ray Tye Medical Aid Foundation, established in his honor by his wife and friends, only because it might prompt others to contribute to the goodwill he saw as his life's work.
Mr. Tye died in his Cambridge home today of cancer. He was 87.
"Ray Tye was a great Bostonian and an even greater source of inspiration," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement. "He did so much for so many, always offering help to those that needed it the most. His legacy of helping children have a better life no matter what the circumstance -- whether they were from young people in Roxbury to kids in Afghanistan -- will not be forgotten. Ray cannot be replaced, but we can honor him by helping those in need. He always ended every conversation with, 'What can I do for you?' "
Among those who sought Mr. Tye's assistance was Dr. Larry Ronan of Massachusetts General Hospital, whose patients included Rakan Hassan, a 12-year-old boy accidentally shot by US troops in Iraq and critically injured in 2005. Mr. Tye paid the cost of bringing him to Boston for treatment.
Doctors turn to Boston's wealthiest when such cases arise, and Mr. Tye "certainly had to be the king of those people," Ronan said.
"His generosity was one of spirit, not just of pocketbook," Ronan said. "It wasn't just a charity for him, it had to be a relationship, and that's unique. He was deeply involved in the cases, he wanted to know about the patents and make sure their families were taken care of properly. And he would come to the hospital. He knew how to comfort people."
While many philanthropists prefer to work through intermediaries, Mr. Tye's approach was disarmingly personal, and often with no fanfare.
"With Ray, there was no bureaucracy or paperwork," Ronan said. "I never filled out any paperwork for the Ray Tye Medical Aid Foundation to get funds -- nothing."
Thus when a stray bullet killed 10-year-old Trina Persad in Dorchester in 2002, Mr. Tye quietly stepped in to pay for her funeral. And when he read that conjoined twins from Egypt were preparing to leave the United States because no money was available for surgery to separate them, he wrote a check for $100,000 the next day.
"They were going to be sent home to die," Mr. Tye told the Globe in 2007, a few years after the surgery that saved the boys. "I'm so proud to be able to say we helped."
"Ray Tye never stopped caring," John Fernandez, president and CEO of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, said in a statement. "Thanks to his generosity, in 2003 a young man from Ecuador who sustained a gun shot wound to his face received treatment here at Mass Eye and Ear to restore his ability to eat, drink, and speak. Since then, Mr. Tye enabled more than 25 patients to receive advanced treatment that they would not have been able to obtain elsewhere. He used to say, 'When you save a life, you save a future.' Ray Tye saved many futures."
Mr. Tye's money also helped ensure the future of Boston institutions. Last year, he gave the Boston Public Library, which he served as a trustee, $27,500 so the main branch at Copley Square wouldn't have to close its doors for five Sundays in a budget-cutting move. And when the Boston Celtics couldn't make payroll in the team's early years, Mr. Tye helped his friend Red Auerbach cover that bill, too.
"In the Jewish tradition, we say about someone who has passed away, 'May his memory be a blessing,' " said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. "This man's presence was a blessing to the Jewish community and the general community every day of his life."
A. Raymond Tye was born in Haverhill, the second of three children. His father, an immigrant from Kosovo, made shoes, and the family changed its last name from Tikotsky to Tye at his mother's behest.
Mr. Tye, who went by Ray since childhood, began his charitable giving when he lived in a three-decker apartment house with his family.
"He talked about how they'd go up the back stairs and there would be little boxes for charity and he'd put change in," said his son Mark of Aspen, Colo.
Mr. Tye graduated from Haverhill High School and went to what was then Tufts College, where he planned to study to become a social worker.
"I worked my way through a portion of college living in Norfolk House, which was a settlement house," he told the Boston Herald in 1985. Children from broken homes came for occupational therapy and recreation, he recalled in that interview.
World War II intervened, and Mr. Tye joined the Army, serving as a first lieutenant in the military police and as an adjutant to General George S. Patton. He was wounded during the war, and after returning home he worked for his family before taking a job with United Liquors, which then was a small operation in Boston with three trucks and 30 workers.
Mr. Tye rose from warehouse worker to salesman, sales manager, general sales manager, and, in 1957, president of the company.
He became chairman emeritus of United Liquors when the company was sold to the Martignetti family in October 2006.
"An extension of our family was the United Liquors family," said his son James of Rio de Janeiro. "He never said no to anybody."
If a worker was sick or had an ill relative, he said, Mr. Tye would arrange for the best medical care and often cover the cost of treatment. A natural extension was helping those outside his families at home and at work.
"I said to him, 'Ray, you did become a social worker, your goals have been met,' " his wife said.
"He did everything without any publicity or any acknowledgement," Ronan said. "That wasn't important to him. What was important was that the patients got taken care of."
Mr. Tye was awarded an honorary doctorate from St. Joseph's College in Standish, Maine. In 1994, the 50th anniversary of the college class Mr. Tye left to serve in the Army, Tufts awarded him a bachelor of arts degree.
His first marriage, to Rosalyne Burg, ended in divorce. Their son Michael, a winemaker who also worked for United Liquors, died in 2003 of multiple myeloma.
For about a decade, he was chairman of Boston's Water and Sewer Commission. A life member of the NAACP, Mr. Tye served on the boards of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston Medical Center, Schepens Eye Research Institute, and Tufts Medical Center.
Mr. Tye married Eileen O'Toole 21 years ago, and a couple of years before his 80th birthday, she wanted to do "something that would keep his generous heart and his generous helping hands open to future generations." Seeking assistance and $2 million in financial contributions from family and friends, she created the Ray Tye Medical Aid Foundation as an 80th birthday present.
"My philosophy," Mr. Tye told the Herald in 1985, "is what you take out of this world you put back in."
"He really changed the world, and there's not a lot of people you can say that about," said his son Mark. "He really did change the world."
In addition to his wife and two sons, Mr. Tye leaves two other children from his first marriage, his daughters Carol Rose of Lakewood, Colo., and Randy O'Brien of North Easton; a stepdaughter, Lauren Cronin of Wellesley; and five grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday in Congregation Mishkan Teflia in Chestnut Hill. Burial will be in Children of Israel Cemetery in Haverhill.
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