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Bruce Wasserstein, University alum and finance giant, dies at 61

Courtesy of Tom Copi
Bruce Wasserstein (third from right) talks with fellow Daily staffers in 1966. Buy this photo

BY NICOLE ABER
Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 14, 2009

Bruce Wasserstein, whose savvy decision-making and pragmatic disposition led him on a trail of successes from the University's campus and The Michigan Daily newsroom to the loftiest positions on Wall Street, died Wednesday at the age of 61.

Wasserstein, the chairman and CEO of Lazard, an investment bank, was first hospitalized Sunday due to an irregular heartbeat, according to the Associated Press. The cause of death is still not known.

In finance, Wasserstein is perhaps best known for developing a more aggressive strategy in mergers and acquisitions — now termed the “hostile takeover.” But for those who worked in the Daily newsroom in the mid-to-late 1960s, Wasserstein was known for his shrewd reporting, strategic and brilliant mind and jumbled appearance.

Born in Brooklyn on Dec. 25, 1947, Wasserstein — who started his career as a lawyer — quickly became a Wall Street luminary by the early 1980s. He brokered one of the biggest deals of the 20th century: Kohlberg Kravis Roberts’s takeover of RJR Nabisco, a deal canonized by the book “Barbarians at the Gate.” He also facilitated the industry-altering Morgan Stanley-Dean Witter and AOL-Time Warner mergers.

Long before his days of billion-dollar dealmaking, Wasserstein attended the University of Michigan for his undergraduate education and served as the Daily’s executive editor from 1966 to 1967.

As a reporter and editor, Wasserstein covered numerous topics during a tumultuous time on campus and at the Daily. According to Mark Killingsworth — the Daily’s editor in chief from 1966 to 1967 — Wasserstein’s most notable coverage was of the University’s response to a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee in September 1966.

That coverage, according to Killingsworth, demonstrated the underlying intelligence that would be Wasserstein’s trademark for the rest of his life.

“He was a very hard-headed, careful reporter with an eye for personal details and was, I think, very good at strategizing, scoping things out, and again, of course that’s where he made his living,” Killingsworth said in a phone conversation yesterday evening.

Many on campus were angry after the University turned over a list of names to Congress, according to Killingsworth, who is now a professor of economics at Rutgers University.

Wasserstein responded to the University’s decision by extensively interviewing members of the University’s Law School community to find out where University officials stood on the event and whether they had tried to prevent it, Killingsworth said.

“It’s eerie reading (Wasserstein’s article) and then knowing he went on to become, first of all, a great lawyer and secondly, a great deal-maker,” Killingsworth said. “All of the themes of that, I think, are clearly visible in what he did.”

Though Wasserstein was recognized by all who knew him for his remarkable smarts, he was also keenly identified by his Daily co-workers by his disheveled appearance, according to Daniel Okrent, another Daily alumnus who now writes for Time Magazine as well as other publications.

“The key things about Bruce was he was incredibly smart (and) he was a total slob in college,” Okrent said. “He meant to tuck in his shirt but he never managed to really pull it off. He was pudgy, he was amusing and he always seemed to be thinking a few steps ahead of the rest of us.”


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