Philanthropist Willard Hackerman, who transformed a small construction firm into a national giant with $5 billion in annual billings and was instrumental in erecting Maryland landmarks such as Harborplace, died Monday of unknown causes at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 95.
His firm, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., completed the new University of Baltimore School of Law last year and built the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the National Aquarium and M&T Bank Stadium, among countless other projects around the city and state. He counted Target, IBM and Unilever, as well as Yale and Stanford universities and the Cleveland Clinic, as his clients. His firm also renovated the Hippodrome Theatre.
Friends said Mr. Hackerman preferred to work behind the scenes. Better known were his bright orange construction signs.
"Willard Hackerman is irreplaceable from the standpoint of being a giant in the community," said Donald Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "It seems there's not a single project or philanthropic cause that Whiting-Turner wasn't connected with. His help to colleges and universities was enormous."
Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said, "I've never known anyone like him. He was larger than life … a giant in industry, in philanthropy, and in love of family and community. Everyone and everything that came in contact with Willard Hackerman was better because of him. He was principled, a man of conviction, compassion and resolve. Our community suffers a huge loss today."
Mr. Hackerman was appointed to the Whiting-Turner board in 1946, according to a biography supplied by his family, and became the firm's president and CEO in 1955.
"He established an incredible corporate culture within Whiting-Turner," said Baltimore architect Adam Gross, with whom he often worked. "When I was with him, I felt a toughness and a love. He cared so much about his people. He just had a quality of character."
Mr. Gross recalled accompanying Mr. Hackerman through a newly completed project at the Bryn Mawr School.
"He said to the headmistress, 'How many women are you graduating into engineering?' A few days later, she got a sizable check for scholarships for women in engineering. He was like that. He did deeds that nobody knew about," he said.
Engineering News Record ranked his business as the fourth-largest domestic general builder in the U.S. It has its headquarters in Towson and 33 regional offices.
"Clients wanted Whiting-Turner to build for them," Mr. Gross said. "They liked its quality of character and the energetic, tough old guy who ran the place."
Mr. Hackerman, the son of a factory manager and homemaker, grew up in Forest Park, according to his biography.
"When his parents moved to Hanover, Pa., for work, Mr. Hackerman, just 16, remained in Baltimore, boarding with relatives until he finished high school at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. He then attended the Johns Hopkins University, graduating from the School of Engineering at the age of 19. His connection to Hopkins remained strong throughout his lifetime," the biography said.
"Willard Hackerman was a fiercely proud alumnus who had a profound impact on our School of Engineering and our entire university," Johns Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said in a statement. "The integrity, humility, excellence, and humanity that were hallmarks of his leadership at Whiting-Turner also steered his work at Johns Hopkins. Our campus landscape and our academic mission both bear his fingerprints, and for that we are ever grateful."
Mr. Daniels recalled that Mr. Hackerman headed an ad hoc trustee committee about 40 years ago that led to the opening of the first named school at Johns Hopkins.
"The Whiting School of Engineering, named for Willard's mentor, G.W.C. Whiting, still carries the tireless, passionate, and entrepreneurial spirit that fueled Willard's work," said Mr. Daniels. "He created a scholarship program to bolster future generations of engineers, dedicated himself to our mission as a trustee of the university, and served as a confidante to university leaders, including five presidents, as we wrestled with challenging problems.
"When, in 2010, we carved his name on Hackerman Hall, it was just one more recognition of the rich influence he had exerted across our School of Engineering," Mr. Daniels said.
Mr. Hackerman's first job after graduating from Hopkins was at Whiting-Turner, then a small firm on South Gay Street. His first duty was the supervision of an $187,000 drawbridge over Cambridge Creek on the Eastern Shore.
"There is no way to overstate what Willard Hackerman has meant to Whiting-Turner," said Tim Regan, who was named the firm's third president Monday. "He always played down his own contributions and gave all of the credit to Mr. Whiting and to our employees. He is universally and unconditionally loved by everyone in the company. Thanks to Mr. Hackerman's vision and foresight, his beloved Whiting-Turner will be strong and independent for generations to come."
Whiting-Turner has been a "major benefactor" to Notre Dame of Maryland University, helping to "transform the face" of its campus, said school spokesman John Rivera.
Mr. Hackerman also donated $250,000, the largest gift in the history of the Baltimore City Community College Foundation, in December 2001. The money helps finance no-interest student loans.
Mr. Hackerman earned a reputation for his broad ambitions for Baltimore.
His philanthropy included the Hackerman House, which houses the Walters Art Museum's Asian collection.
"He had a true civic vision for Baltimore," said the Walters director, Julia Marciari Alexander. "His personal ethics showed themselves in the quality and excellence of his works."
Neil Meltzer, president of LifeBridge Health, said that Mr. Hackerman assisted the Sinai Hospital campus with a residence for children being treated for serious ailments. The home, the Hackerman-Patz House, allows parents to stay with young patients.
"He was one of the most generous donors in the history of LifeBridge," Mr. Meltzer said.
"His motto was God, then family, then Whiting-Turner," said his daughter, Nancy Lois Hackerman of Pikesville.
He kept offices in Towson and housed his collection of rare U.S. maps in a room at an East Pratt Street office building.
Mr. Fry said one of Mr. Hackerman's dreams — rebuilding a new civic arena in the Inner Harbor with a hotel and enlarged convention center — proved elusive.
"He hoped he could find a private-sector contributor for the arena part of the project. He was consistently looking for someone," Mr. Fry said. "His challenge was how to get that private-sector piece."
Others recalled his role in the state.
"He certainly was Maryland's 20th-century industrial giant and philanthropist," said Helen D. Bentley, a former member of Congress.
Mr. Hackerman was influential in political circles as well. He was a close political ally of William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor and governor.
Winning a series of contracts, Mr. Hackerman's firm teamed with then-Mayor Schaefer to help transform Baltimore, including building the Convention Center, Harborplace and the aquarium.
And when plans to honor Mr. Schaefer at Harborplace with a statue were in jeopardy, Mr. Hackerman stepped in to pay for the memorial.
In 2004, Mr. Hackerman became embroiled in a controversy when then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wanted to sell him state-preserved forestland in a secret deal that would have netted him millions of dollars in tax breaks. Mr. Hackerman later said it was not his idea to keep his identity secret and that he had planned to partially develop the land.
"One would never be aware of Mr. Hackerman's financial and political power in his role as my patient 45 years ago at Sinai Hospital," said Herschel Budlow, a physical therapist. "He could not have been nicer to all in the rehabilitation center — from the janitor, the receptionist, the technicians. ... He could be described as courtly, but better to say — he was a true mensch ... despite being in considerable discomfort. There was always a smile on his face, and he had time for everyone."
Services will be held at noon Tuesday at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, 3300 Old Court Road in Pikesville.
The family will also receive visitors from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, also at Beth Tfiloh.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Hackerman is survived by his wife of 72 years, the former Lillian Patz; a son, Steven Alan Mordecai Hackerman; five grandchildren; and 23 great-grandchildren.
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.
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