Published February 6, 2014
A. (Alvan) Donald Arsem, a longtime School of Management faculty member whose easygoing demeanor and good humor made him an admired figure in the corporate boardroom, the university classroom and beyond, died Jan. 2 in West Roxbury, Mass., after a long illness. He was 90.
Arsem’s life was one of diverse professional and personal interests, ranging from science and technology to the arts and humanities. His daughter, Nancy Arsem Osborn, says he liked to think of himself as “a visionary, someone who could see what was not yet formed and bring these ideas into existence. His innate creativity and analytical approach to problem-solving served him well through his engineering projects, his corporate governance and his work as a UB faculty member.”
A native of Schenectady — where his father was among the early research pioneers of General Electric Company — Arsem developed a broad range of hobbies and interests, among them science and technology, magic tricks, radios, printing processes, music — he played both violin and piano — painting, poetry and photography, both still and motion picture.
He interrupted his studies at MIT to serve in the military during World War II. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT, Arsem held a series of research and development positions at RCA, GE and Stewart-Warner, working on radar technology and guidance systems. He switched career paths in 1958, joining the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, where he could combine his early expertise in transistor technology with his love of pianos and music. One of his first contributions was a transistor circuit design that could generate a tempered scale for organs.
Arsem rose through the ranks at Wurlitzer, being named vice president of research in 1958 and executive vice president in 1968. He was elected a director of the company in 1972, and chairman of the board and chief executive officer in 1974. During his tenure as CEO, he was credited with returning the 123-year-old company to profitability.
Arsem retired from Wurlitzer in 1978, remaining a director, and served again as chairman from 1982-86.
After his retirement from Wurlitzer, he again changed career paths, obtaining an MBA from Northwestern University in 1978 and that same year joining the faculty of the UB School of Management as an associate professor. He also served as the school’s director of corporate relations.
Arsem often said 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.
While at UB, he also developed the original plan and proposal for the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership in 1984 and participated in the first year’s sessions. In 1986, he prepared, with industrial engineering professor Colin Drury, a proposal for the Center for Industrial Effectiveness, now known as TCIE. He also was co-director of the management school’s International Executive Program in Management and English language from 1980-82, and served on the program’s administrative staff from 1983-86.
Arsem retired from UB in 1993, and he and his wife divided their time between their winter home in Amherst and a summer home in Christmas Cove, South Bristol, Maine.
He enjoyed sailing, and when not on his sailboat, he often could be found at his piano, testing a new Wurlitzer organ or just playing for family. He also was a ham radio operator and had a general class license, call sign KF2QZ.
Arsem was a long-time member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, as well as a number of professional organizations, including the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). He received the Corporate Leadership Award from MIT's Sloan School of Management in 1976.
A private family service will take place this summer in Maine. Donations in Arsem’s memory may be made to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, 1359 Broadway, Suite 1509, New York, N.Y., 10018, or to a charity of the donor's choice.