Princeton, N.J.—The following is a statement from Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF).
The loss yesterday of Ralph Larsen is felt deeply by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and by all of us who knew him so well. Ralph was one of my heroes. He joined the Board just as I became CEO. I was new to my job, and I particularly appreciated and valued his guidance.
I valued Ralph most for four qualities: his integrity, his generosity, his wisdom and his toughness. He was all about integrity—about doing the right thing. Whether the issue was advertising to children or not promoting alcohol he would always say, “We have to be on the side of the angels here.” He was tremendously generous with his time. He gave of himself. On a Board site visit I remember Ralph crammed into a small school chair reading to a six year old and coaxing a huge smile from the boy when he said, “You know, you’ve got a really big brain. I know you’ll use it well!”
At Board meetings he would weigh in with clear, incisive comments that turned a conversation around or sealed a decision in the right way for the Foundation. And when he had to be tough, he could certainly be that. He’d tell his colleagues “We have to do this!” His was a cultivated gruffness—used for positive effect. When Ralph spoke, Trustees listened.
Importantly, Ralph championed the Foundation’s legacy. He helped to keep our founder’s flame alive both by urging us to remember organizations focused on the health and well-being of the most vulnerable among us, especially during difficult economic times, and by practicing his own quiet generosity.
As our Board Chair Roger Fine said of Ralph, “Of all his great and endearing qualities, Ralph Larsen was an extremely modest man. I personally saw how he imbued the business and people of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) with the moral imperatives of its famous Credo and how he brought its values to bear at the Board of Trustees of the Foundation where he served as a fountain of wisdom, good judgment and common sense. He always said that he could not imagine a more noble way of spending one’s life than working to bring health to the world’s people. Literally millions of people owe him a debt of gratitude for enhancing their health and prolonging their lives and those of their loved ones.”
Ralph was born in Brooklyn. His father was a first-generation immigrant from Norway. A graduate of Hofstra University, he also was a veteran, having served two years in the U.S. Navy.
He joined J&J as a manufacturing trainee in 1962, advancing through a series of increasingly responsible assignments. Except for a two-year stint as president of Becton Dickinson’s Consumer Products Division, his career was at J&J. He was elected to the J&J board of directors in 1987, and was named chairman of the board and chief executive officer in 1989. He retired in 2002.
Ralph was elected to our board in September 2002 and served through 2012. As an RWJF Trustee, Ralph championed making decisions for the long term, taking intelligent risks, and not fearing failure. He was always prepared and consistently asked respectful but probing questions of his Board colleagues and Foundation staff. He had an uncanny ability to get to the heart of the matter at hand.