Remembering Herb Gleason

BHT1Herbert “Herb” Parsons Gleason, the city’s former corporation counsel and a Beacon Hill resident since the 1950s, died at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center on Dec. 9, 2013. He was 85.

Born on Oct. 22, 1928, Mr. Gleason was raised in Cohasset, Mass., as the youngest of four children born to Hollis Tidd Gleason, a banker, and the former Emily Blanchard Clapp, a women’s rights activist. He graduated magna cum laude in history from Harvard College in 1950 and earned his law degree from Harvard Law School eight years later.

Mr. Gleason practiced law in Boston from 1958 onwards and served as the city’s corporation counsel from 1968 to 1979. He became involved in the development of community health centers during his tenure with the city and remained committed to the cause after he left the public sector, serving as director of Boston’s non-profit Neighborhood Health Plan from 1987 to 1998, as well as director and vice president of the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium and a trustee of Brigham & Women’s Hospital.

Unofficially known as the “Municipal Crusader,” Mr. Gleason was instrumental in successful efforts to save Fenway Park, and to block the proposed redevelopment of Two Financial Center, which included plans for a 205-foot spire. He also encouraged citizens to take part in urban renewal as a director and president of United South End Settlements.

Mr. Gleason’s countless other achievements included founding and organizing the Lawyer’s Alliance for World Security, which advocated for the containment of  nuclear weapons via international law, and serving on the State Ethics Commission and the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission.

“Herb will be remembered as a reformer,” said Tom Kershaw, owner of the Hampshire House Corporation. “All throughout his life, he was committed to doing things a little differently than they had been done before, and in most cases, this improved the situation.”

Mr. Gleason was called the “fourth founder” of Salzburg Global Seminar – a non-profit that sponsors conferences on a wide range of topics, including healthcare and education, culture and economics, geopolitics and philanthropy. He came to the organization in 1949 as one of six Harvard students selected in a university-wide competition to administer the third season of Salzburg Seminar in American Studies summer program. Besides providing legal counsel to Salzburg, he served as its acting president, as well as treasurer and secretary of its board of directors. Mr. Gleason was awarded the Salzburg Cup for his distinguished service to the organization in 1994, and was named co-chair of the Salzburg Global Fellowship in 2011. Last June, the organization unveiled a statue of Mr. Gleason during its annual Board Weekend.

“Herb Gleason has been the heart and soul of the Seminar from our earliest years to the present,” wrote Heather Sturt Haaga, chair of the organization’s board of directors, in a tribute to Mr. Gleason posted on the Salzburg Web site. “He has always been a believer in our mission, which is to provide a nexus for conversation between young, emerging leaders and experienced, elder statesmen in every field possible.”

A longtime parishioner of the Arlington Street Church, Mr. Gleason served for many years as its pro bono counsel and moderator. The church, in turn, dedicated a pulpit to Mr. Gleason on his 80th birthday and held a memorial service for him on Jan. 11, which drew around 800 guests.

“Herb was extraordinary gentleman,” said the Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, the church’s senior minister. “He as interested in everything and everyone, and worked every day to make the world a better and more just place. He never ceased to amaze me.”

Mr. Gleason also served as a director at Beacon Hill Seminars and taught classes on a wide range of topics, including Boston architecture and the most recent mayor’s race.

“He saw both the fragility of civil society, and how to preserve it,” Mr. Gleason’s son David wrote in a eulogy for his late father. “He endlessly sought to quell certain threats to civility: power mongering, greed, brute force, corruption and, especially, apathy.”

Besides David, his wife Sonia and their children Christopher and Matteo of Jamaica Plain, Mr. Gleason is survived by a daughter, Alice Gleason, and her husband, Stephen Lane, of New York City and a sister, Eleanor Bleakie, of Scituate.

Mr. Gleason was pre-deceased by his wife of 55 years, Nancy Aub Gleason, who died on June 5 of last year at age 79.

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