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"I have lived my entire life in one area, I have been happily married for 45 years, and I have been in one business field," observed Ralph Lowell '12 in the fiftieth anniversary report of his Harvard class. "That is, I suppose, a picture of a 'Proper Bostonian.'" But Lowell, who also looked the part, was not just another cardboard figure out of Cleveland Amory's 1947 book of that title. By the early 1960s, Lowell was widely hailed as "Mr. Boston" for his service as a trustee of almost every important charitable, civic, and cultural institution in his native city. In 1973, Lowell was one of seven citizens officially recognized as "Grand Bostonians" for lives that "mirrored the spirit and dignity that have made [Boston] and its people so extraordinary."
Lowell's embrace of the canon that the title character of John P. Marquand's The Late George Apley sought to pass on to his son, to "think of one's self as a steward who owes the community a definite debt," came naturally. Ever since 1776, when a sixth-generation Massachusetts Lowell left Newburyport for Boston, family members had helped shape the city's history. Ralph Lowell's career as a bank executive would never match the pioneering achievements of industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell; his contributions to Boston's cultural scene as a foundation trustee were negligible alongside those of literary giants James Russell Lowell and Robert Lowell; and his role in guiding Harvard as a two-term Overseer paled in comparison to that of President A. Lawrence Lowell; nonetheless, he played an important part in the making of a "New Boston" during the mid twentieth century. Harvard's honorary degree citation in 1952 neatly summed up his life: "Worthy bearer of a famous name; a public-spirited Bostonian devoted to the welfare of his community and his College."
Lowell lacked the wealth to be a major philanthropist, but he did earn a reputation as a champion fundraiser, beginning as an undergraduate. Finding his aspiration to become first baseman on the freshman nine blocked by the batting talents of classmate Joseph P. Kennedy, Lowell turned his love for sports in the direction of managing the crew. The ability to drum up contributions to the team treasury was a major requirement for the job; Lowell passed with flying colors, and his four years of toil were rewarded with the coveted "H." His subsequent fundraising efforts emphasized the personal touch: he made it a well-publicized practice to sign each and every one of his requests for funds himself, to give the recipient the "courtesy of a genuine signature."
Although Lowell branched out from the usual good works identified with his family, he was most closely associated with the Lowell Institute, founded in 1839 to provide free public lectures on the arts, sciences, and religion. For a century the institute offered Bostonians an impressive array of speakers, but attendance at lectures declined as other forms of enlightenment and entertainment proliferated. When Lowell became sole trustee, in 1943, he was open to suggestions for changing the institute's approach.
Harvard president James Bryant Conant offered him such an idea in 1945. The two men spearheaded creation of the Lowell Institute Cooperative Broadcasting Council (LICBC), which linked Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, and Tufts in producing educational programs for commercial radio stations. In 1951 LICBC launched its own radio outlet, WGBH-FM, and in 1955 WGBH-TV went on the air. Most of the funding for the expensive television operation came from Filene family trusts and the Ford Foundation, but when this proved insufficient, Lowell used Lowell Institute money to keep Channel 2 running. By the time fire destroyed the television studios in 1961, WGBH was recognized as one of the best educational stations in the nation and considered a local treasure. Donations raised by theater benefits, penny sales, auctions, card parties, concerts, and athletic contests flowed into Channel 2's coffers--an unusual display of civic spirit lit by Ralph Lowell's own tireless public appeals for support. The new studios, built behind the Harvard Business School on land leased to WGBH for a dollar a year by the University, were named in his honor.
Lowell's many directorships, the Boston Globe concluded in the mid 1960s, "attest to the validity of the maxim that if you want to get a job done, bring it to the busiest man in town." To "accomplish his monumental daily schedule," Life reported in a 1957 article about his clan, "he lives quietly, entertains rarely, insists on punctuality." The Lowells were long known for "frostiness," and those who had limited contact with him usually saw a stern individual who went straight to the point and bristled at long-windedness. Yet he could also be warm, understanding, and funny. Lowell, noted a non-Bostonian who served with him on a national board, was "the kind of Boston Brahmin who proves anything but forbidding as you get to know him." In the 1960s, he was asked to recommend someone who could be "a 'Lowell' for New York" and head the campaign for an educational television station there. The man who refused to fly, never learned to drive, and walked to many appointments replied, "A Ralph Lowell could not exist in New York City because the pace is too fast."
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