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.