Former Trustees Chair Nelson Gifford Dies

Serving on the Board of Trustees from 1978 to 1995, he helped lead the transformation of Tufts
Nelson Gifford at Tufts in 2012
Nelson Gifford “made a profound difference” to the life of the university, said Steven Manos. Here, Gifford poses with his portrait at Gifford House in 2012. Photo: Bethany Versoy
January 8, 2018

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Nelson Gifford, A52, H96, a former chair of the Board of Trustees who championed a bold strategic vision for Tufts, died December 20. He was eighty-seven.

A straight-talking and successful businessman, Gifford merged a gift for leadership with an abiding passion for civic engagement. At Tufts, his personal benchmark was often quoted: “Did I just serve or did I make a difference?” It has enduring resonance for those who remember his service on the Board of Trustees from 1978 to 1995, the last eleven years as chairman, a time of transformation for the university.

Trustees play a pivotal role in the governance of Tufts, and Gifford “made a profound difference as his dreams for Tufts aligned with those of that irrepressible entrepreneur, former President Jean Mayer,” said Steven S. Manos, H08, former executive vice president at Tufts.  

“Nelson graduated from the old Tufts, a good school for learning, but one whose ambition did not include competing with the very best,” said Manos. “A striver, Nelson had worked to pay his tuition, and he continued to like those who yanked on their own bootstraps his whole life. I’m sure he saw Jean Mayer as a striver, as indeed he was, ambitious for himself and ambitious for Tufts. He joined Jean in his belief that Tufts could be a dramatically different institution, the one we know today.  And he supported that vision, leavening dreams with fiscal prudence.”

Indeed, said Sol Gittleman, who was provost from 1981 to 2002, Gifford “was among the small group of board members who decided that, for better or worse, Jean Mayer had to stay as president when the board voted not to renew his contract after his three-year review in 1979. Without Nelson’s leadership, it wouldn’t have happened, and Tufts would be a vastly different place now—if we had survived at all. As board finance chairman and then as board chairman, Gifford allowed a creative but risk-taking Tufts president to do his thing. Nelson stayed behind the curtain; but he made it all happen, and Tufts owes him our deepest gratitude.”

Gifford’s legacy on board “was marked by a number of innovations, a result of thirty-five years of expertise in the management of organizations in the business and nonprofit sector,” noted a citation in 1996, when Tufts awarded Gifford an honorary Doctor of Business Administration degree. During his tenure, he was instrumental in raising funds from the board for the completion of Tisch Library, and introduced modern financial systems and budgeting procedures.

He was a driving force behind a series of successful fundraising campaigns crucial to Tufts dramatic evolution under Mayer’s leadership, said Gittleman, author of The Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts 1976-2002. Mayer, appointed president of Tufts in 1976, was set on establishing Tufts’ world-class status and both a veterinary school and a nutrition school. All those efforts required new financial resources, and in 1980 Tufts launched the Campaign for Tufts, the university’s first large‐scale fundraising endeavor. It succeeded in raising $145 million in five years, and was followed by the New Campaign for Tufts, which raised more than $250 million, both record amounts for the university. The 1995 launch of Tufts Tomorrow followed, which would raise a record-setting $609 million. 

Gifford’s philanthropy benefited university priorities, including donations toward Tisch Library and financial aid. He contributed to various scholarships, including the Class of 1952’s Centennial Scholarship. For many years he made his annual fund gift equivalent to the tuition for one undergraduate year. Recognizing both the symbolic and practical role that the president’s residence could have in the life of the university, Gifford also underwrote significant improvements to the 1938 Georgian residence on the Medford/Somerville campus. It was renamed Gifford House in his honor in May 1996.

Born in 1930, Gifford grew up in Waban, Massachusetts. He worked his way through Tufts, paying for tuition with a series of jobs, including delivering milk and selling flower seeds up and down the East Coast during the summer. While at Tufts, he was a varsity swimmer and played on the varsity lacrosse team. He graduated from Tufts in 1952 with a degree in economics, and went on to serve a tour of active duty in the U.S. Navy as an officer during the Korean War.

In 1954, Gifford joined Framingham-based Dennison Manufacturing Company (later Avery Dennison) as an entry level accounting clerk. He rose through the ranks to become president in 1972, chief executive officer in 1975, and chairman in 1985. He led the company until its merger with Avery International in 1990. He is credited with leading the transformation of a nineteenth century brick-and-mortar manufacturing company of stationary and office supplies into a Fortune 500 global enterprise thriving in twenty-plus countries.

Dedicated to active public service, Gifford also served on the boards of the Bank of Boston, Boston Edison, John Hancock Life Insurance, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He also was a past chairman of the Massachusetts Business Round Table. In 1985 he was appointed by Massachusetts governor Michael S. Dukakis to chair the Governor’s Health Care Task Force.

Gifford’s philanthropy extended widely, including support for such institutions as the Pine Street Inn, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, McLean Hospital, and the Joslin Diabetes Clinic.

Gifford was married to the late Elizabeth (Brow) Gifford for fifty years, and maintained a summer home in Marion, Massachusetts, where he was a member of the Beverly Yacht Club. An avid and consummate sailor, he loved long spells cruising—venturing from Nova Scotia to the Florida Keys. 

In lieu of flowers, please make contributions to Tufts University in memory of Nelson S. Gifford. To make a gift through the mail, please write your check to Trustees of Tufts College, in the subject line include “"In memory of Nelson Gifford,” addressed Tufts University, PO Box 3306, Boston, MA 02241-3306. Online gifts in his memory can be made here.  

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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