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William M. E. Clarkson, 91, headed Graphic Controls, shaped downtown development

Sept. 19, 1926 – May 1, 2018

Will Clarkson headed a company that was a beacon of success during Buffalo’s dark economic days – Graphic Controls Corp.

When The Buffalo News honored him as a Citizen of the Year for 1981, however, it was for a far different accomplishment.

He led the group that brought about the publication of “Buffalo Architecture: A Guide,” the first comprehensive appreciation of the city’s rich heritage of landmark buildings, which at the time was little recognized.

He told The News that the book was intended “to help us learn more about what we have, to look at it with understanding and to hold up our heads with pride. Knowing what we have today will enable us to envision what we could have tomorrow.”

Mr. Clarkson also played a key role in shaping a prominent development in downtown Buffalo as chairman of the Main-Genesee Urban Design Task Group, which in the 1980s coordinated the construction of the major office buildings which surround Fountain Plaza and integrated them with the Metro Rail project and the Main Street pedestrian mall.

He died Tuesday in his Buffalo home after a period of declining health. He was 91.

Born in England, William Melbourne Elliott Clarkson was one of seven children and spent his most of his childhood in London. His father played on the British ice hockey team that won the Bronze Medal in the 1924 Winter Olympics. His mother came from a family of steel manufacturers with Central European roots.

After his father witnessed the effects of Nazism during a business trip to Vienna in 1938, the family moved from London to a farm outside Toronto.

Mr. Clarkson finished high school at St. Andrew’s College in 1943 and enrolled in Trinity College at the University of Toronto, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He was a varsity soccer and hockey player and captained the championship 1946-47 soccer team.

He turned down an offer to play hockey professionally and went instead to the Chrysler Institute of Engineering in Detroit, where he earned a master’s degree in 1949.

Attending a meeting of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, he caught the attention of Elisabeth Ann “Nan” Hudnut, the daughter of a leading Presbyterian minister in Detroit, who asked the chairman to find the man “with the British accent who asked such good questions.”

After they were married in 1950, he left a job as an engineer for Chrysler and moved to Buffalo, where Mr. Clarkson’s parents had a subsidiary of their Canadian business, Technical Charts Inc., that made charts for industrial and medical recording instruments.

They had turned over management of the company, which became Graphic Controls, to his older brother, Max, in 1947. He served as vice president and executive vice president, helped take the company public in 1965 and became president five years later. When his brother retired in 1975, he also became chairman of the board of directors.

Mr. Clarkson embraced his brother’s policy of decentralizing authority and using consensus management techniques, welcoming independent input from employees. Management guru Warren Bennis, former provost at the University at Buffalo, was one of his advisers. The company posted record earnings annually.

When Graphic Controls became the target of a hostile takeover, he fended it off by arranging its acquisition in 1978 by the Times Mirror Corp., a Los Angeles-based media conglomerate. He remained with the company for five more years as president, chief executive officer and chairman.

After serving as president of the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation from 1978 to 1983, he was a candidate to head the Erie County Industrial Development Agency and succeed William J. Donohue, who left to become state commerce commissioner. Instead, he accepted an invitation from Gov. Mario Cuomo to go to Albany as Donohue’s deputy commissioner. He served there for more than two years.

He began teaching as an adjunct professor in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning in 1980 and since 1989 was a management consultant to numerous companies and nonprofit agencies, notably “The Road Less Traveled” author M. Scott Peck’s Foundation for Community Encouragement. He wrote numerous articles on management. He also took part in a program that mentored inmates in state prisons.

He and his wife endowed the William and Elisabeth Clarkson Visiting Chair at the UB architecture school, which provides a residency for distinguished visiting scholars. In 2011, they donated a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed art glass window to the Martin House Restoration Corp. for display in the reconstructed carriage house at the Martin House complex.

He worked with a Wright pupil, Arthur Carrara, on a number of projects, including a log house he and his wife built at her family’s retreat in the Adirondacks.

Active in many organizations, he served on the boards of the Shaw Festival, Artpark, the Park School, Swarthmore College, the University at Buffalo Foundation, the Preservation League of the State of New York, Westminster Community House and the Presbyterian Foundation.

He and his brother, Max, shared the 1994 Red Jacket Award from the Buffalo History Museum. Mayor James Griffin honored him as a Buffalonian of the Year in 1993. He received the Walter P. Cooke Award from the UB Alumni Association in 1992.

A member of Westminster Presbyterian Church, he was an elder and co-chairman of the 1993 capital campaign. He also was a referee for several years for the Western New York Junior Soccer League.

In addition to his wife, survivors include a daughter, Alison H.; two sons, David B. and Andrew E.; a brother, Austin; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at a later date.

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