By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 25, 2006
H. Donald Wilson, 82, under whose leadership the commercial database service LexisNexis introduced electronic research to law firms and news organizations, died of a heart attack Nov. 12 in front of his computer at his home in Mitchellville.
From 1969 to 1973, Mr. Wilson was the first president of Mead Data Central, which developed LexisNexis, a database of information for law firms, businesses, libraries and the news industry. More recently, he worked with a company striving to improve text-to-voice technology.
"He was essentially a practical visionary," said Paul G. Zurkowski, president of the Information Industry Association from 1969 to 1989. "At the time, the technologies were just emerging and people were focusing on the technology, but Don focused on their application to publishing."
Mr. Wilson started by developing a business plan for an engineer's invention of how to better search text for certain words or phrases. That plan became a company that started LexisNexis, now the world's largest online electronic library of legal opinions, public records, news and business information.
At first, many lawyers refused to use the software, regarding computer work as a secretarial job. In order to spur adoption of the product, Mr. Wilson gave law students almost free access to electronic files of court decisions, so that when they graduated, the young associates at law firms immediately asked their employers: "Where's your Lexis?" Zurkowski said. Mr. Wilson also realized that tax lawyers and those in other specialized fields were more likely to do their own research, and he focused the company's early efforts in those areas, said his longtime associate, Gary A. Marple, president and chief executive of Lessac Technologies Inc.
As a management consultant, Mr. Wilson helped launch a number of companies and investigated technologies that have become workaday tools for millions of people in business, academia and the professions. He was a venture capital manager for the Academic American Encyclopedia, the Oxford Analytica, which uses academic experts to analyze world problems and Toxicheck, which provides real estate buyers information on the property's pollution.
From 1993 to 1997, he was chairman of Conquest Software Inc., now part of Convera Inc. in Vienna, which sells search software to intelligence agencies and businesses. At the time of his death, Mr. Wilson was chairman of Lessac Technologies Inc., a computer software company that focuses on text-to-speech conversions.
Mr. Wilson, born in New Rochelle, N.Y., received an undergraduate degree from Yale University while serving in the Navy in the South Pacific during World War II. After the war, he received a law degree from Columbia Law School in 1948 and joined a Wall Street law firm in New York. Within two years, he left for the World Federalist movement, working as a political organizer and fundraiser. The habit of alternating work on idealistic ventures with concrete business ideas set a pattern for his life.
In 1955, Mr. Wilson returned to private law practice in New York, sharing an office with Arthur Frommer, who was finishing his first travel book. As a specialist in corporate law, Mr. Wilson worked on the legal matters around the staging of Broadway shows and such inventions as Velcro. He also worked closely with Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review.
Unhappy that he had failed to make it into the Yale Glee Club, as an adult, Mr. Wilson took voice lessons from Hollywood voice coach Arthur Lessac and persuaded him to write a book: "The Use and Training of the Human Voice," first published in 1960.
Mr. Wilson spent most of the 1960s as a management consultant for Arthur D. Little Inc. and worked on a pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair, assessed the Sony Trinitron color television technology and investigated the feasibility of containerized ships.
Recruited in 1964 as the Peace Corps' director of its 700-person program in Ethiopia, he later joked he became known as "Icebox Henry" for taking away volunteers' refrigerators to make them live as the locals did.
In 1966, he returned to management consulting. After his four years as head of Mead Data Central, he worked with the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Margaret Mead, Robert McNamara and other prominent citizens, to launch a citizens lobby on international issues called "New Directions," which worked on passage of the Panama Canal treaty.
A former board member of the Information Industry Association, Mr. Wilson won its leadership awards in 1992, 1993 and 1996.
Survivors include his wife, Mary Louise "Peter" Swan Baron Wilson of Alexandria; three children, Edith R. Wilson of Alexandria, Bice C. Wilson of White Plains, N.Y., and Anne B. Wilson of San Diego; a brother; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.