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Longtime D.C. Developer Dick Donohoe Dies at 87

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page B06

Richard J. "Dick" Donohoe, 87, president of Washington's oldest real estate development firm, died April 16 of congestive heart failure at his vacation home in St. Michaels, Md. His primary residence was in Bethesda.

In 1945, he joined the family real estate company, John F. Donohoe & Sons, which his grandfather founded in 1884. Over the next 40 years, Mr. Donohoe transformed the firm from a small family business in Southeast Washington into one of the region's leading developers. His brother and two cousins had key roles in the company, but it was Mr. Donohoe who engineered the firm's growth as president and chief executive officer.

Richard J. Donohoe led the family real estate company based in Southeast Washington through major projects and diversification. (Donohoe Cos.)

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"He was the force and mover of the organization," said his nephew, Jim Donohoe, chief executive of the Donohoe Cos. Inc. "He was the spark plug; he was the visionary."

Under Mr. Donohoe's leadership, the company built or developed more than 1,000 projects in and around Washington. The firm entered the top tier of the area's commercial developers about 1980 with the construction of the two-block-long Federal Center Plaza in Southwest Washington, which houses the Federal Emergency Management Agency and part of the State Department and a 530-room hotel.

Mr. Donohoe also oversaw the building of Georgetown Park and Chevy Chase Pavilion shopping centers; the headquarters of Fannie Mae on Wisconsin Avenue; the Catholic University athletic center; Alumni Hall, the largest non-dormitory building at the U.S. Naval Academy; and dozens of other office buildings and hotels.

"If you want to know his legacy," said Mike Dickens, president of Hospitality Partners, which has a business partnership with Donohoe Cos., "just look around."

Mr. Donohoe, who pronounced his name "Dunna-hoo," spent at least 55 hours a week at the office and managed his company with a firm but gentle hand. Even after decades in the hard-nosed world of Washington real estate, he had few enemies and was well-respected in local business circles.

"He was absolutely first-rate, in all respects, in his reputation and his integrity," said Flo Ourisman, a real estate developer who worked on many projects over the years with Mr. Donohoe.

Ourisman recalled that, on one site visit, Mr. Donohoe was making notes on a card inscribed with the letters "D.F.O." Only when Ourisman asked what the initials stood for did Mr. Donohoe explain their meaning: "Do for others."

Richard Jenkins Donohoe was born in Washington and graduated from McKinley Technical High School. He was a 1939 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he made the dean's list. After beginning his career as an engineer with Ingersoll-Rand Co. in New Jersey, he joined the family firm in Washington in 1945.

He helped the company branch out from its original business of real estate management when he founded the Donohoe Construction Co. in 1955. With his brother, James, and his first cousins, Clarence and Frank, also working in the business, he instructed his secretary not to call him Mr. Donohoe because too many people in the office answered to that name.

In 1965, Mr. Donohoe moved the company from Pennsylvania Avenue SE to Wisconsin Avenue, where it is still headquartered. He helped organize the umbrella corporation, the Donohoe Cos., in the late 1970s. After retiring as president and chief executive in 1988, Mr. Donohoe remained on the board of directors, visiting the office often until his health began to deteriorate about three years ago. The company remains a family concern, with seven members of the fourth generation of Donohoes in top positions.

Employees and business associates uniformly describe Mr. Donohoe as kind and unassuming. At his direction, each employee of the company received a Thanksgiving turkey and a Christmas ham, even after they retired.

"He was the most genuinely friendly man I've ever known," said Kathi Hiley, who became his secretary in 1962 and still works for the company. "He treated everyone the same, from a CEO to a messenger boy. I never, in 43 years, ever heard him raise his voice."

In 1989, Regardie's magazine estimated the personal wealth of Mr. Donohoe and his cousin Frank at $75 million to $100 million. His few personal indulgences included driving Thunderbird convertibles in his younger years and traveling abroad. He made 10 trips to Africa to photograph wildlife.

He enjoyed sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, supported a variety of charities and was a member of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Virginia J. Reynolds Donohoe of Bethesda and St. Michaels.

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