A. Donald Arsem, 90, electrical engineer, former Wurlitzer CEO - The Buffalo News
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A. Donald Arsem, 90, electrical engineer, former Wurlitzer CEO

July 3, 1923 – Jan. 2, 2014

A. Donald Arsem, chief executive officer at the Wurlitzer Co. in the 1970s, died Jan. 2 in Deutsches Altenheim German Centre for Extended Care, West Roxbury, Mass., after a lengthy illness. He was 90.

Born Alvan Donald Arsem in Schenectady, the son of a pioneering General Electric researcher, he made movies in high school and experimented with special effects. In 1939, he assisted his father in tests of experimental color photography.

He interrupted his studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for military service during World War II and earned his degree in electrical engineering from MIT in 1945. He later did graduate work at Syracuse University and the University of Buffalo.

He worked on radar technology and guidance systems at RCA, was manager of advanced product development at GE and manager of the Engineering-Electronics Division at Stewart-Warner before joining the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co. in 1958. One of his first contributions was a transistor circuit design that could generate a tempered scale for organs.

Mr. Arsem became vice president of research in 1962, executive vice president in 1968 and was elected a director of the company in 1972. In 1974, he was elected chairman of the board and CEO and moved from his home in Clarence to Winnetka, Ill., near Wurlitzer’s Dekalb, Ill., headquarters.

During his four-year tenure at the head of the company, he was credited with restoring it to profitability. He retired in 1978 but stayed on as a director, serving again as chairman in the 1980s.

After receiving his master of business administration degree from Northwestern University in 1978, he returned to the Buffalo area and served for nearly 15 years as an associate professor of management science and systems and director of corporate relations in UB’s School of Management. Known for his humor, he often opened his classes with a joke.

The holder of many patents, he continued to use his engineering knowledge to solve problems in retirement. When diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he began developing ideas for how to ease its effects, including designs for specialized eyeglasses to help in walking.

In retirement, he and his wife divided their time between their winter home in Amherst and a summer home on Christmas Cove, South Bristol, Maine.

A sailing enthusiast, he took his boat, the Alden Challenger, from Lake Ontario to Maine to cruise the Atlantic coast.

He was a member of several professional organizations, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He was a founder and president of the Niagara Frontier Association of Research and Development Directors.

He was a longtime member of Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst. In Maine, he helped establish the South Bristol Historical Society.

He was a pianist and organ player since childhood. His music talents also included melodic whistling. A ham radio operator, he had a general class license with the call letters KF2QZ.

Survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Katharine Brooks; three daughters, Nancy Osborn, Marilyn and Beverly; a son, Harold; a sister, Ann B. Clark; a brother, Collins; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held in Maine this summer.

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