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.

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.  “A striver, Nelson had worked to pay his tuition, and he continued to like those who yanked on their own bootstraps his whole life. 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.”

Nelson Gifford

Photo: Bethany Versoy

Gifford helped keep Mayer as president after the board voted not to renew his contract, said Sol Gittleman, who was provost from 1981 to 2002. “Without Nelson’s leadership, Tufts would be a vastly different place now—if we had survived at all,” he said. “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 the 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 he introduced modern financial systems and budgeting procedures.

He was a driving force behind the university’s first large-scale fundraising efforts, which brought in a record-breaking $145 million, $250 million, and $609 million, respectively. These campaigns helped Tufts create veterinary and nutrition schools and attain world-class status under Mayer’s leadership, said Gittleman. He donated to Tisch Library, financial aid, scholarships including the Class of 1952’s Centennial Scholarship, and for many years, an annual fund gift equal to the tuition for one undergraduate year. Recognizing the symbolic and practical role of the president’s residence 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 paid his Tufts tuition with a series of jobs, including delivering milk and selling flower seeds up and down the East Coast during the summer. A varsity swimmer and varsity lacrosse team player, he graduated with a degree in economics, and went on to serve a tour of active duty in the US 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 stationery 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 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.

Portrait of Laura Ferguson

Laura Ferguson, senior writer at Tufts and regular Tufts Now contributor, can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.