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Tuesday, May 3, 2016 Serving Maine and Lincoln County for over a century. Volume 141 Issue 17


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1/27/2014 2:44:00 PM
A. (Alvan) Donald Arsem

A. (Alvan) Donald Arsem, 90, whose easygoing demeanor and endless good humor made him an admired figure in the corporate boardroom, the university classroom and beyond, died on Jan. 2.

He most recently resided at Deutsches Altenheim German Centre for Extended Care in West Roxbury, Mass. Prior to moving to Boston four years ago, he had homes in Buffalo, N.Y., and Christmas Cove.

Arsem's life was one of diverse professional and personal interests, which ranged from science and technology to the arts and humanities. He liked to think of himself as a visionary, someone who could see what was not yet formed, and to bring these ideas into existence. His innate creativity and his analytical approach to problem solving served him well through his engineering projects, his corporate governance, and his work as a professor at the State University of Buffalo.

Born and raised in Schenectady, N.Y., where his father was among the early research pioneers of General Electric Company, he enjoyed a progressive upbringing among the families living in GE's Realty Plot. This enabled Arsem to develop a broad range of hobbies and interests early in life - science and technology, certainly, but also magic tricks, radios, printing processes, music (he played both violin and piano), painting, poetry and even melodic whistling.

One of his prime interests was photography, both still and motion picture. In eighth grade, he began experiments using special photographic effects for motion pictures. He also made sound movies. During the summer of 1939, he assisted his father with tests of experimental color photography. These experiences, among others, ensured that photography remained a lifelong passion.

As was the case for many other young men of the WWII generation, he interrupted his studies at MIT for military service during WWII. Following commencement from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1945 with his degree in electrical engineering, Arsem worked on radar technology and guidance systems. He held a series of research and development positions at RCA, GE and Stewart-Warner. Then, taking a big risk, he moved out of the contract engineering field, and joined The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in 1958 where he could combine his early expertise in transistor technology with his love of pianos, and of music. He was very proud of his early contribution of a transistor circuit design that could generate a tempered scale.

Within a decade, he was named vice president of research. He was elected a director of the company in 1972, to fill the vacancy created by the death of Farny Wurlitzer. In 1974, he was elected chairman of the board of directors and chief executive officer. During his tenure as chief executive, Arsem was credited with returning the 123-year-old company to profitability and a stronger financial condition, through his innovative use of dynamic financial modeling of corporate operations.

In December 1976, he was honored with a Corporate Leadership Award from MIT's Sloan School of Management, given to alumni who "as heads of their companies mark them as exceptional contributors to the strength and well being of [the] nation."

He retired from Wurlitzer in 1978, remaining a director, and served again between 1982 and 1986 in the role of chairman, during another leadership transition. His experience overseeing a complex, multi-national manufacturing company, along with his interests in financial and strategic planning, led to a number of consulting roles for large and small firms in the Buffalo area, as well as for the State of New York.

It also prompted a second career, as he obtained his MBA degree from Northwestern University in 1978, and for nearly 15 years was an associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Management, as well as the Director of Corporate Relations.

Arsem often said that his teaching, mentoring, and consulting roles at UB were among the most satisfying of his professional career. Tall and commanding, yet soft-spoken, he often started his class with a joke to gain the attention of his students and to ease the atmosphere.

During the entire course of this adult life, Arsem seemingly never stopped thinking about ways of using his engineering know-how to grapple with complex problems. He was a holder of many domestic and international patents. When diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, for example, he immediately began to develop ideas for using technology to ease the effects of the debilitating ailment, including designs for specialized eyeglasses to aid walking.

Though recognized as an accomplished electrical engineer, inventor, businessman, and teacher, his true passions were often found elsewhere. This was perhaps most obvious when he reminisced about sailing trips with friends and family, especially on his cherished Alden Challenger. He loved nothing better than to be out on the water whether there was wind to sail or not. When his sailing days ended, he enjoyed sitting on the porch of his home in Maine, looking out at the ocean and the boat traffic in the harbor.

And when not on his sailboat, he could often be found at his piano, perhaps testing a new Wurlitzer organ or just playing for family. Every night upon returning from the office, Arsem would sit down to relax by playing either the piano or organ. With a combination of reading music, and playing by ear, he would spin out old standards from the 30s, 40s and 50s. Arsem also enjoyed being a Ham radio operator and had a General Class license, call sign KF2QZ.

At the age of 70, Arsem and his wife bought a summer house in South Bristol on Christmas Cove. They would arrive in early April and leave in late October, to winter in Buffalo. They brought their sailboat from Lake Ontario and began cruising the Maine coast, and the house was continually full of friends and family. Always outgoing and active in their communities, they helped establish the South Bristol Historical Society, and joined the Mid-Coast Maine Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship, acquiring a whole new set of friends in Maine.

Besides the Mid-Coast Fellowship, Arsem was a long-time member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, N.Y., as well as a number of professional organizations, including the IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

But above all, Arsem was devoted to his family. A week following his graduation from MIT, he married his high school sweetheart, Katharine Brooks Arsem, who survives him. He also is survived by children, Nancy Osborn (Jim Mazza) of Ithaca, N.Y., Marilyn Arsem of Jamaica Plain, Mass., Harold Arsem (Nirmela) of San Francisco, Cal., and Beverly Arsem (Thomas O'Malley) of Jamaica Plain, Mass.; sister, Ann B. Clark of Platteville, Col.; brother, Collins Arsem (Ruth) of Silver Spring, Md.; five grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; two nieces; and a nephew. He was also the beloved son of the late William C. and Helen Moran Arsem and father-in-law to the late Robert Raymond.

Humor was his trademark, along with an optimism about life and people. He was a loving and supportive husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and uncle. He quietly nurtured the creative side of all his children and supported them in any and all of their life endeavors. Throughout their marriage he admired, respected and supported his wife's community service and political activities as well as her fundraising efforts for Russell Sage College, her alma mater. For those who were his family, friends and caregivers, it was his gentleness and consideration of others that defined his true spirit until the very end.

During his last days, while listening to his daughter Beverly play a small electric piano that had been brought into his room at the nursing home, Arsem decided to join the act. Confined to his bed and at times unable to speak, he did something that seemed improbable if not impossible: he pursed his lips and ever-so-quietly whistled along.

A private family service will take place in Maine later this summer.

Donations in his memory may be made to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation (PDF), 1359 Broadway, Suite 1509, New York, NY 10018 or to a charity of your choice.

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