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Henry Nasella, former chair
of Northeastern Board of Trustees, remembered as ‘wonderful person’ whose contributions are ‘deep and lasting’

A successful entrepreneur and driving force behind Women Who Empower, Nasella was chair of the board from 2007 to 2012 while forming a strong partnership with Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun.

Henry Nasella speaking in front of a microphone at a podium.
“He was the best of us,” Ron Sargent, a Northeastern trustee and former CEO of Staples, said of Henry Nasella. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Henry J. Nasella, an entrepreneur who chaired Northeastern University’s Board of Trustees and was the driving force behind the university’s Women Who Empower global initiative, died on May 2. He was 77. 

“Henry Nasella’s impact on Northeastern was profound and will be felt for generations to come,” says Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern. “In every role he played at our university — especially as board chair — he was meticulous in how he approached strategic planning and financial stewardship. 

“He was an invaluable mentor to me, and working closely with him is among my most cherished experiences. He had a powerful impact on the way I think about complex organizations and empathetic leadership. Most of all, I will miss his friendship.” 

After earning an accounting degree from Northeastern in 1977, Nasella ascended to chairman and chief executive officer of Star Markets. He moved on to become the first president of Staples, driving its transformation from startup to a global leader in office supply retailing. 

In 2005 he co-founded LNK Partners, which invests in strong management teams as they build consumer and retail businesses. 

“It is very hard to imagine a world without Henry Nasella in it,” says Ron Sargent, a Northeastern trustee and former CEO of Staples. “He was the best of us.” 

As chair of the Board of Trustees from 2007 to 2012, Nasella formed a strong partnership with Aoun in the development of several important initiatives, including the global expansion of co-op and experiential learning, and the building of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex.

Helped accelerate areas of strength

Nasella’s leadership on the board helped accelerate Northeastern’s research enterprise in strategic areas of strength, including an ambitious faculty hiring agenda, and the expansion of the global university system led by Aoun. 

Neal Finnegan, who chaired the Board of Trustees for 10 years, says Nasella’s humble management style was inspiring. 

“Henry would sit in the middle of the room, not in the front of the room,” Finnegan says. “He led very effectively and there were very few of us who wouldn’t do what Henry needed. 

“He was a prince. We will miss him.”

Katherine McHugh, vice chair emerita of the Board of Trustees, says Nasella’s contributions to the university are deep and lasting.

“He was committed to promoting and encouraging women as entrepreneurs and leaders,” McHugh says. “He was careful to be sure that women were well represented in every class of incoming trustees and that women were honored and respected throughout the university. 

“He was just a wonderful person, very quiet and soft spoken, and you would never guess what a titan he had been in his professional life. He had a set of core values that were fair minded and devoted to equity and access, and he promoted that piece of Northeastern’s mission at every turn.”

Nasella made it possible for Northeastern’s Women Who Empower decade-long initiative to build a global women-led entrepreneurial ecosystem with events, scholarships, mentorship programs and entrepreneurial initiatives. 

“Henry was absolutely the driving force, the foundation, the counsel and the wisdom behind Women Who Empower,” says Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement. “Henry saw himself as responsible for being a mentor and supporter to so many people. It mattered to him to create an organization where everyone could have an opportunity. 

“He could see the imbalances and he wanted to address them.” 

The sense of balance in his life 

Apart from his influence professionally, which several colleagues referred to as life-changing, Nasella’s colleagues were struck by the sense of balance that defined their friend who somehow made time for so many people. Nothing was more important to Nasella than his family. 

“Henry was very bright and quick. He was an exceptional merchant, retailer and business person,” says John Burke, a Northeastern graduate and corporator emeritus who rose to senior vice president in a 27-year career at Staples after being hired by Nasella in 1989. “But above all of that he loved his family — his three children, his in-laws, his seven grandchildren. And then he just adored Michele, his wife, who was probably his most trusted adviser and a dynamo in her own right.  

“He worked hard, he was a no-nonsense guy, but at the end of the day he wasn’t watching the Bruins game at Punter’s Pub. He was home with his family. That’s the way he would roll.” 

“It makes me feel good talking about Henry,” Burke adds after a long pause. “It’s a way of saying, ‘I love you, Henry.’” 

His friends say Nasella had the ability to recognize potential and talent in people, often before they saw it in themselves.   

The traits that made him successful in business were applied by Nasella to Northeastern in his roles as a leader, as a visionary, as a mentor and as a supporter who, according to MacGillivray, gave generously to the university — especially in support of student scholarships. 

“Henry and I were products of the same generation at Northeastern, the local kids who owe our careers to an opportunity —  careers we might not have had if not for Northeastern,” says Rich D’Amore, chair of the Board of Trustees. “I always felt a real camaraderie with him because of the way Northeastern made us what we were. And that’s what inspired us both to give back to the university. 

“Northeastern shaped so many of us who are now giving back to the school.” 

Six weeks ago, at Nasella’s invitation, Sargent met his former boss for lunch. Nasella had lost weight in his extended battle with cancer.  

“I didn’t realize at the time that Henry might have been saying goodbye to me,” Sargent says. 

Henry J. Nasella, wearing regalia, speaks at a podium after receiving an award.
Nasella delivered a speech after receiving the university’s top honor, the Presidential Medallion, in 2019. Photos by Adam Glanzman and Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

‘It was never about him’

Sargent received a phone call informing him that Nasella had passed away one hour earlier. It turned out that Nasella had assigned certain people in his life to make calls to his friends.  

“I think he knew what the future held,” Sargent says. “Typical Henry, incredibly organized, he made a list, got his affairs in order, said everything he wanted to say to everybody and also gave people assignments for who to call, what to do, how to manage this. He didn’t leave anything to happenstance. He wanted to make sure that he was doing it right and properly and with detail and with care.” 

Nasella did not want a large public funeral, his friends say.  

“It was never about him,” D’Amore says. “It was about his family, it was about the causes he was working on, it was about the companies he invested in.”

Nasella succeeded Sy Sternberg as chair of the Board of Trustees. 

“Henry was a very good person. And we’re really going to miss him a lot,” Sternberg says. “Henry was very thoughtful and very sensitive.” 

Sternberg says Nasella was an outstanding leader. 

“He presented Northeastern in the best possible terms, ensuring that Northeastern would be a university that would attract top faculty and top students,” Sternberg says. “He sustained the image of the university in an extraordinarily positive way.” 

The making of Staples 

Nasella grew up bagging groceries before enrolling at Northeastern, Burke says.  

“He had an amazing work ethic and an infectious personality,” says Burke, who referred to Nasella as “Hank.” “There’s an old saying: ‘As you go up the ladder of life, pull someone up with you.’ He really had the ability to do that. I always admired his ability to motivate people.” 

Burke and Sargent credited Nasella with changing their lives by bringing them to Staples. 

“He certainly touched thousands and thousands of people in his life,” Sargent says. “His manner was soft, very smooth, but he had incredibly high expectations. And I think because he had such high expectations of everyone around him, it made you want to be the best version of yourself.” 

Honesty was crucial to Nasella’s approach. 

“He would often start a statement with, ‘No offense, but …’” Sargent recalls. “When he said, ‘No offense, but…’ you knew he was going to share some very direct feedback with you while trying to soften the blow. He was just a wonderful human being.” 

These were the defining days of Nasella’s business career as he built Staples alongside its founder and CEO Thomas Stemberg.

“Tom was a brilliant marketer, a brilliant strategy guy, a brilliant growth guy,” Sargent says. “But I think Tom realized that he needed a partner who was an outstanding operator. Because Tom would know where the trains were supposed to go but he had no idea about how to get the train there. And Henry was the guy who pulled the operations together in a cohesive way and set the framework for us to go public.

“It couldn’t have happened without the guiding hand that Henry brought as a great judge of people. Henry hired outstanding people who grew as the company grew. He was the kind of guy you want to work for.”

Nasella is survived by his wife Michele (Maguire) Nasella, children Melisa Nasella, Lauren Degoes and Joshua Nasella, and several grandchildren.