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William F. Thompson, prominent banker who helped found a venture capital firm, dies at 93

William Thompson. (Handout)
William Thompson. (Handout)

William F. Thompson made no secret that he found his work life fulfilling — first as one of Boston’s top bankers and then as founding president of the Boston Ventures private equity firm.

“For one who really knew little of banking when I began my business life, I can recommend banking as a most rewarding and varied career,” he wrote in 1975, after more than two decades at First National Bank of Boston, which later became Bank of Boston.

In many ways, though, his work life was a means to an end, a way to reach a financial place where he could help others through a family foundation he and his wife, Juliana, formed, and through his volunteer roles with Trinity Church.

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“I can’t help but reflect on what a gift life is,” he wrote in 1985. “We can do with it what we wish — but isn’t it true that what we sow we will reap?”

Mr. Thompson, who helped launch Trinity Boston Foundation, which is now Trinity Boston Connects, died in his Copley Square home June 12 of complications from a fall. He was 93 and had lived for much of his retirement in Naples, Fla., and Southport, Maine.

At work and at church, “the influence that Bill had really comes from his deep grounding in his Christian faith, which he acted on demonstratively,” said the Rev. Thomas Kennedy, a retired Episcopal priest and a former associate rector at Trinity.

With a reach that extended from Boston to Hollywood, Mr. Thompson played a key role in numerous entertainment industry deals as a banker and in private equity, though his first career informed the second.

“We don’t do deals just to do deals. We think like bankers,” he told the Globe in 1984, less than a year after he and four executive colleagues resigned from Bank of Boston and formed Boston Ventures.

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By then, he had already established himself internationally as what the Los Angeles Times called “one of the world’s most influential movie bankers.”

Industry colleagues credited him with being instrumental in making Boston’s banking community a go-to destination for filmmakers seeking financing.

“He’s an extremely inventive, adventurous, creative kind of guy,” Michael Garstin, then-chief financial officer at Orion Pictures, told the Globe in 1984.

As much as possible, Mr. Thompson conducted his work out of the public eye. With the exception of the 1984 Globe interview, he and others at Boston Ventures generally declined to speak publicly about deals they made for the firm and on behalf of high-profile investors such as TV producer Norman Lear, who created sitcoms such as “All in the Family,” and News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch.

Instead, the firm concentrated on investments that ranged from films to the music and publishing industries to chains of movie theaters and television stations. One studio executive told the Lost Angeles Times that when many top industry officials were contemplating a deal, they went to Mr. Thompson first.

The older of two brothers, William Foss Thompson was born in Cleveland in 1926. His father, William Laban Thompson, was a businessman who died of appendicitis when Mr. Thompson was a teenager. His mother, Mildred Foss, had volunteered for nursing duties during World War II and after the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston.

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Mr. Thompson was young when his family returned to Greater Boston, where he grew up in Winchester and graduated from Winchester High School. He then served at the end of World War II at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, Maine.

Returning home, he graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1950 and from Harvard Business School in 1954.

After beginning graduate work, his Naval Reserve unit was called up during the Korean War. Mr. Thompson was assigned as a lieutenant to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C.

While there he met Juliana Wilson, whose father, Rear Admiral Julian D. Wilson, was in charge of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

Juliana, who had worked as a National Security Agency analyst, and Mr. Thompson married on June 12, 1954, soon after he graduated from Harvard Business School.

At First National, Mr. Thompson’s first job “was with Serge Semenenko, the ‘legendary Boston banker,’ " he wrote in the 25th anniversary report of his Harvard class.

Mr. Thompson learned the particulars of Hollywood deals from Semenenko, who later left the bank and was a co-owner of Warner Brothers Pictures.

At the bank, Mr. Thompson rose to become executive vice president in charge of the special industries division before leaving to cofound Boston Ventures.

Over the years, he served on several committees at Harvard, where a professorship in education and society is named for him and his wife, who died April 11 after contracting COVID-19.

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“Bill was just an extraordinary person in many ways,” said Neil Rudenstine, a former Harvard president.

Rudenstine said his friend was someone “very rich in spirit” who was “interested in institutions as well as individuals.”

At Trinity, Mr. Thompson had been a senior warden and was a founding board member of Sherrill House, the Jamaica Plain care facility the church launched.

With his wife he created a charitable foundation, directing much of their philanthropic efforts toward education initiatives for inner-city children.

According to a Harvard profile, Mr. and Mrs. Thompson recalled that one of their favorite quotes was from a graveyard in England: " ‘What I spent, I had; what I kept, I lost; what I gave, I have.’ When we give to education — which is the greatest moving force in this country — what we have is hope for the future.”

The Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, former rector of Trinity, said Mr. Thompson “cared passionately about the health of his community and his country all the way to the end.”

Lloyd added that “the generosity of his spirit was humbling,” and that Mr. Thompson “always wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, and he did.”

In his work and his philanthropy, Mr. Thompson “was a very driven individual,” said his son, Don, of Cambridge.

Don added that in 2010, his father self-published a memoir, “Speaking My Mind,” in which he wrote about his sense of responsibility and included favorite quotes highlighting the need to give back to society.

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Mr. Thompson’s daughter Margie, of Manchester-by-the-Sea said he believed that financial success carried an “obligation to do good in this world. He instilled within us a sense of responsibility and a desire to give back.”

In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Thompson leaves another daughter, Alexandra, of Toronto, and a grandson.

The family will announce a memorial after crowd restrictions brought about by the pandemic are eased.

Mr. Thompson died two months and a day after his wife, on the 66th anniversary of their marriage.

“He died at 6:22 p.m., which would have about the exact moment he and my mother were dancing at their wedding reception,” their son said.

Margie recalled that her parents were both avid readers who often paged through books as they sat side by side.

“They were such a lovely couple and constantly read and passed books back and forth,” she said. “They would talk about the different messages they learned from them.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.