John C. “Jack” Fontaine was a brilliant lawyer and business leader, with impeccable judgment and an open mind, who gave opportunities to women and young attorneys before it was common to do so.
Fontaine, who led the prominent New York law firm Hughes Hubbard for many years, and served as an executive — and ultimately president — of Miami-based Knight-Ridder in the 1980s and 1990s, died Monday of complications from pancreatic cancer.
He was 81, and lived in New York and West Stockbridge, Mass. He died at his weekend home in the Berkshires.
Fontaine spent much of his time in Miami, beginning in 1980, when he served as Knight-Ridder’s general counsel. In 1987, in addition to continuing as managing partner of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, he became a senior vice president of Knight-Ridder, later becoming Knight-Ridder’s full time executive vice president and then president.
“John was politeness personified. But if you misjudged that for softness, you lost,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president and chief executive of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and a former publisher of the Miami Herald. “Behind the manners was a brilliant and insightful mind, and a chess master’s sense of strategic opportunities. He had a businessman’s sense of the practical and an artist’s sense of the possible.”
After retiring from Knight-Ridder in 1997, Fontaine returned to Hughes Hubbard & Reed as partner. In 2000 he retired as the firm’s partner and served as counsel to the firm, until his death.
“He was fabulous,” said Candace K. Beinecke, chair of the law firm, who met Fontaine 43 years ago, when she was a young associate. “His intellectual gifts were astonishing, and he paired that intellect with impeccable judgment.”
Founded in 1888, Hughes Hubbard & Reed has 400 lawyers in New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Miami, Los Angeles, and Kansas City; as well as in Paris and Tokyo. For the past five years, the firm has been ranked as one of the top three law firms on The American Lawyer’s “A-List” of elite law firms in the United States.
“One of the most impressive things about Jack is he thought outside of the box,” Beinecke added. “He created opportunities for me and for so many others at a time when people were not open to women.”
Fontaine had joined Hughes Hubbard in 1956 after graduating Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law School, where he was a member of the Law Review. He became a partner in 1964, then chairman of the firm’s Corporate Department, and later managing partner of the firm.
Over the years, Fontaine also gave of his time to lead many arts and not-for-profit organizations, including serving as chairman of the late Florida Philharmonic, the National Gallery of Art, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
“Everyone who came in contact with Jack recognized him as a leader and wanted to make him the head of their organization,” Beinecke said.
In fact, the Florida Philharmonic would not have lasted as long as it did had it not been for Fontaine, Ibargüen said. “He raised the money and recruited the necessary people to keep it going.”
Fontaine is survived by his wife of 58 years, the former Elizabeth Ellis (Betty); daughters Lizanne (Robert Buckholz), Amy (Mete Kok) and Alison Engel (Peter); eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild; his brother, Edward Fontaine; his sister, Anne Marie Fontaine; and his brother’s widow, Carole Fontaine.
On Saturday, there will be a gathering in his honor from 4p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Reception Room at Plymouth Church, 75 Hicks Street, Brooklyn, N.Y. On Dec. 9, there will be a memorial service at the Cosmopolitan Club, 122 East 66th St., in New York.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Fontaine Family Fund, Berkshire Taconic Foundation ( www.berkshiretaconic.org) or the Berkshire Medical Center (www.berkshirehealth systems.org/bmc), in gratitude to Dr. Jeffrey St. John.