Professor Donovan’s Magnificent Entanglements

One night last winter police found corporate-training guru John Donovan lying in a shot-up minivan outside his Cambridge business. That was just the latest bizarre chapter for the former MIT professor, who counts some of Boston’s most prominent figures—and his own children—on his long list of adversaries.

When the news began to circulate in early May that prosecutors had accused John Donovan Sr., the brilliant, fantastically wealthy entrepreneur and one-time MIT professor, of orchestrating his own shooting and then falsely reporting the episode as an attempted murder, the wonder, to the cluster of academics and executives stuck in Donovan’s unhappy orbit these past few decades, was that he might bother at all with such elaborate choreography when so many people would have cheerily pulled the trigger for him.

“I know a lot of people who would like to have shot him,” said local businessman Jack Rizika. MIT professor Stuart Madnick, asked if he could think of anyone with motive to harm his former business partner, quoted a colleague’s response to that very question: “Do you have a copy of the Boston phone book?” The directory, however, would have been of little use in identifying suspects in this particular shooting: The people with the fiercest loathing of Donovan are more likely to appear in the social registry, or this very magazine’s wealth rankings. They populate a world of money and privilege, and each of them has a story about Donovan—who, at 64, prefers the honorific “professor”—one almost always preceded by some variation of You are not going to believe this! They describe disastrous business ventures, spoiled real estate transactions, broken promises, and the occasional pedestrian dispute between neighbors that erupts into full-scale war. And of course, endless, wildly expensive lawsuits. “The story’s always the same,” said Gary Kaneb, whose family owns the Hood dairy company. “It’s just a matter of how far he goes.”

Until 2003 or so, these stories were told with dark humor, in the way that New Englanders endure February, or that stepping in dog waste morphs, in its repeated tellings, from the noisome to the comical. But then a new allegation began to spread, one that stunned even those conditioned through the years to believe the worst of Donovan. The man who boasted to friends of laying a foundation for the glory of future Donovan generations had been sued by four of his five children, and at the center of the dispute was the claim that John Donovan Sr. had molested one of his daughters when she was a child.

Donovan declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, but through his lawyer he vigorously denied that he staged his own shooting last winter or ever abused his daughter. As has so often been the case in the professor’s life, it may be left to the courts to determine what is true, and what is not.

ONE AFTERNOON THIS SPRING, I visited Stuart Madnick at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His third-floor office was overrun with tilting stacks of yellowed research papers, clipped articles, magazines, and books. A mountain of upturned cardboard boxes rose from one corner. He and his computers were tiny islands in a sea of clutter.

The business partnership between Madnick and Donovan spanned four companies, two books, and 20 years before dissolving in animosity. “Saying he has charisma is almost too cliché,” Madnick said. “Sometimes it seems like a religious experience.” People often describe Donovan this way, as a man with an almost mystical ability to connect with complete strangers, a trait that emerged as a major asset in 1977, when he and Madnick started what would become the Cambridge Training Center. This was a time of great anxiety for workers across the country, uncertain how their skills would translate to the emerging computer-based economy. Donovan and Madnick hit upon the idea of offering software and programming seminars, promising to cram a year’s worth of graduate-level training into two weeks. AT&T, then in the process of expanding into computers, signed on and began sending groups of employees to Cambridge. “In the first half hour,” Madnick said, “John would look 200 people in the eye and say, ‘I feel your pain.’ And they believed him.” They believed other things he told them, too. “It’s hard to separate out what John says versus what John creates an image of,” Madnick said. “He would say, ‘Welcome to the Cambridge/MIT/AT&T conference. Now this was in the general area of MIT, very close to it, in fact, but certainly not affiliated in any way with it. Of course, he’d never actually say it was. But you can understand how some might get that impression.”

Madnick likens Donovan to a televangelist. Before I left, he loaned me a copy of a 22-minute marketing video he and Donovan commissioned in 1981 to promote their company. One thing the Cambridge Training Center was really selling its skittish pupils, the tape made clear, was hope. “People who up until this time would talk to me only in passing are now more prone to stop and ask a question of me,” one graduate said of his bosses. For another student, the course’s blessings transcended the workplace. “I think the biggest thing that it does give us,” she explained, “is a feeling—an incredible feeling—of self-worth.”

Several scenes in the video have nothing at all to do with computer training. In one, a blond Donovan—vibrant and fit in khakis and a bright yellow sweater—stands at the rear of a sailboat bobbing in the Charles, the tiller in his right hand. He is firmly in control of the boat, a few of his students sitting at his feet. Later in the video, Donovan and some of his pupils hit the court for a pickup basketball game. The camera lingers on Donovan as he zips past a few defenders and completes a pretty lay-up, leaving spectators heyyyyyyyyyy-ing in admiration.

As the tape comes to a close, the professor stands at a lectern, delivering a commencement address. “You are now a part of a professional community,” he tells the graduating students. “You are a part forever of Cambridge, of Boston, and of MIT; of Harvard, of this whole community. You’ve earned that. You know you’ve earned it.” The video then cuts back to the classroom, which now features a piano. The students begin to sing, their words playing in voice-over as they line up to embrace and shake hands with Donovan and Madnick. The final lyrics come slow and reverent, each syllable punctuated by the pounding of the piano: “This is the reason I want to say thank you—because of youuuuuuuu.”

BECAUSE NONE of the family members will speak to the media, it’s difficult to characterize life for the professor’s five children growing up in the Donovan household in Ipswich. But clearly these years were not always harmonious. Donovan and his first wife, Marilyn, split in 1980. They arrived at a divorce settlement and Marilyn and the kids, then ages nine through fourteen, moved to Danvers. The settlement was soon reopened, however, because of what would be described in subsequent court transcripts as “allegations of fraud and misrepresentation and concealment of assets.” Donovan denied doing anything wrong, but agreed to pay Marilyn another $250,000. It would not be the last time he would face these kinds of accusations.

Donovan wasn’t down for long after the divorce. He remarried in 1984, wedding Mary Jo Bunker, a young woman who’d attended one of his seminars. The Cambridge Training Center, meanwhile, was proving remarkably profitable, with Donovan and Madnick signing AT&T to a series of multi-million-dollar annual contracts. Business got even better after Madnick agreed to be bought out in 1986. The man who was raised in working-class West Lynn was becoming very rich. Donovan earned $7 million between 1987 and 1989, according to court records, and by 1990 his assets had reached $100 million. He spent lavishly through the years, accumulating 500 acres of undeveloped land in the Hamilton-Ipswich area, along with a sprawling compound in Manchester-by-the-Sea, and opulent homes in Vermont and Bermuda. Evoking the grandeur of Southern gentry, the professor’s properties carried titles: Devon Glen, Seagate, Winsor House. He and Mary Jo were members at the exclusive Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, and the Mid Ocean Club in Bermuda.

But by 1990, Donovan’s personal life was again in turmoil. Mary Jo claimed Donovan had demanded she sign a “post-nuptial” agreement. “My husband’s conduct has become increasingly volatile and unpredictable,” she wrote in divorce papers alleging cruel and abusive treatment. In a counterclaim, Donovan insisted that he’d merely suggested his wife sign the agreement for her own benefit. And anyway, he wrote, she was the one guilty of abuse.

The dispute ended in a settlement—Mary Jo received the couple’s five-story townhouse at 311 Marlborough Street in Boston, as well as a payment of $1 million and another $5,000 per month—but not before a special master (a kind of court-appointed private judge) cast doubt on financial claims Donovan made during the proceedings, writing: “I do not believe the Husband’s statement that he has no income available to him at the present time.”

WHEN I FIRST CALLED Gary Kaneb at his home in Manchester-by-the-Sea to ask about Donovan, he refused to talk without first calling me back at my office. He also demanded that I send him an e-mail from my Boston magazine account. He wanted to verify that I was who I claimed to be. When it comes to John Donovan, he said, “I have gotten more calls under false pretenses than you can imagine.” Kaneb is the chief financial officer at HP Hood, and was president of Gulf Oil until his family sold that company last year.

In late 1998, Kaneb and a couple of his neighbors sued Donovan over plans to construct a 140-foot dock, the sort of ostentation that can offend patrician sensibilities. A few months after the suit was filed, Kaneb’s wife, Diane, came upon a group of Donovan employees installing speed bumps on Smith’s Point Road, a private access way Donovan’s neighbors were entitled to use. Infuriated, Diane stopped her car and told a Donovan employee, “You guys should be looking for new jobs.” That incident, along with another one involving a neighbor who also opposed the dock, led to a request for injunctions against Diane—a 5-foot-3 mother of four who weighs 110 pounds—and the other neighbor. One Donovan employee claimed in an affidavit that the hostilities had left him fearful of what might happen next. Later, Kaneb says, he started getting phone calls from other neighborhood residents. Private investigators had been knocking on doors, he told me, asking about threatening calls being made to Donovan’s daughter Maureen, who was living in a house on the family compound. The private eyes wanted to know whether anybody thought the Kanebs were behind the calls. One day, Kaneb says, Diane ran into Maureen Donovan at the supermarket. When Diane told Maureen how upset she was to have heard about the calls, Maureen said she had no idea what Diane was talking about.

Kaneb had earned his membership into an exclusive society he didn’t even know existed: the Donovan Alumni Association, which is how some who’ve tangled with the professor ruefully think of themselves. “People use me like I’m Alcoholics Anonymous,” Kaneb said with a laugh. “I’ll show up at parties and people will say, ‘You’ve dealt with Donovan?’ I nod and then they tell me their story.”

Donovan has certainly had his share of high-profile supporters through the years. Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich told the Globe that the professor “has more ideas before lunch than most people have in a year—if ever.” In the story, Albert Carnesale, Harvard’s former provost, called Donovan “very bright, very creative…very straight. He says what he believes.”

Donovan alumni, who date back decades, take a different view. Charter inductee Joseph Alsop describes their common experience as “a honeymoon of wild enthusiasm, followed by a falling out with much bitterness and acrimony.” Alsop, along with a few other partners, founded his first company with Donovan 35 years ago, but the professor was reportedly forced out of the business. In an e-mail, Alsop told me he was contacted a few years ago by a private investigator claiming to represent potential investors in a Donovan business. The private eye wanted to know Alsop’s opinion of Donovan, but wouldn’t reveal who had hired him. Alsop politely sent the man along. He was concerned about who had dispatched him.

Jack Rizika had been doing business with Donovan for 13 uneventful years before things fell apart over a complicated real estate swap. Under the deal, Rizika was supposed to have traded two properties he owned for a building to be provided by MIT, which he would then lease to Donovan. Not long after papers were signed, however, Donovan’s son John Jr. told Rizika his father was pulling out of the arrangement. Rizika later discovered that he was trying to buy the new building on his own. Rizika sued and won a $4.8 million judgment from a jury, but he had to go to court again to force Donovan to pay, eventually agreeing to a settlement.

Other people have had problems collecting from the professor. Three and a half years after Donovan bought him out of the Cambridge Training Center, Stuart Madnick sued for the $1.4 million he said was still owed to him. (The former partners settled.) Donovan and other executives from his company have also been taken to court by 10 subcontractors who claim that the professor was so eager to hire them for an important workshop for Citigroup last summer that he asked them to begin working the very day he offered them the job; in their pending case, they allege that Donovan’s company failed to pay them a total of $181,000. Donovan’s lawyers say the professor’s contract was with a consulting firm, not individual subcontractors, and that he made all required payments.

Then there’s John Jr., who had worked for his father for years—even joining him as a defendant in lawsuits brought by unhappy Donovan alumni—by the time he loaned him $4.8 million. When John Jr. took legal action to force repayment, Donovan claimed he owed him nothing. An arbitrator in the case, a former federal judge, ordered Donovan to repay the loan. “I find that John Jr. was a truthful and credible witness,” he wrote, “and I find the testimony of Professor Donovan to be unworthy of belief and false in all material respects.”

The old-time alumni still exchange phone calls and rounds of e-mail with each new story by Steve Bailey in the Globe about the latest Donovan lawsuit or failed project. The details are rarely of interest anymore, seeping, as they do, from one case to the next; rather, it’s Donovan himself who continues to fascinate. How does he do it? they ask one another, returning always to his almost supernatural powers of persuasion. “He captivates,” Kaneb told me. “He’s like a sorcerer.”

Beset by lawsuits and now twice-divorced, Donovan shifted an enormous amount of his personal fortune into two Bermuda-based trust funds in 1992 and 1996, naming his children as the sole beneficiaries. These funds were to be run by independent trustees who, consistent with trust and estate law, had final say over how to invest the cash and securities.

Donovan’s lawyers say the funds were intended, as is often the case, to serve as tax shelters and an element of his estate planning. Even though he didn’t set the funds up as such, Donovan’s lawyers say he always expected that a percentage of the assets would benefit various charities and the preservation of open space. As it happened, the independent trustees decided that a portion of the funds’ assets should be invested in purchasing some of Donovan’s real estate, essentially transferring his homes and properties to his kids. While the children’s trust funds now owned the real estate, their lawyers say that Donovan—whose money had funded the trusts that purchased his properties from him—continued to live on those properties as though they were his own.

IN DECEMBER 2002, John Jr. and his sister Rebecca summoned their father to a lawyer’s office in Boston. Donovan had kept his children close in the years since establishing the trust funds. He sometimes flew them, and the grandkids, to family gatherings at Winsor House, his home in Tucker’s Town, Bermuda. He hosted smaller get-togethers at the New England properties as well. When Donovan married his third wife, Linda, the children attended the small ceremony. His eldest son, James—a 39-year-old managing director at Goldman Sachs with law and business degrees from Harvard and MIT—moved to Hamilton, where his wife had grown up, buying a home less than a mile down the road from his father’s, and joining him as a member of the Myopia Hunt Club. Donovan liked to brag that his progeny were destined for the kind of limitless success enjoyed by another distinguished Massachusetts family. “He believes he’s Joe Kennedy,” said an acquaintance. “That is what he thinks. He’s expressed it to us—that he was creating this empire.”

But now, in the lawyer’s office, that empire was about to be shattered. John Jr. and Rebecca told their father that they had learned of Maureen’s sex abuse allegations. They informed Donovan that they wanted nothing more to do with him. They ordered the professor out of the home in Hamilton, declaring that he was no longer the owner of the property, nor any of the others purchased by their trust funds. They also demanded he give up his membership at the Hunt Club.

Donovan strenuously denied molesting his daughter—to his children, to social acquaintances, to the press. He refused to move off the properties and accused his children of plundering the trusts he had established in their names. According to the Wall Street Journal, $29 million from the trusts was disbursed to the children shortly before they confronted Donovan about the abuse allegations. Donovan’s attorney, Barry Klickstein, says some of the funds’ assets were intended to benefit “Harvard University and other charitable organizations. As a result of the activity that has taken place, that whole legacy has been destroyed.” Donovan has repeatedly said that he commissioned, and passed, a lie detector test that proved his innocence, and insisted that his children were using the sex abuse accusation as a weapon to blackmail him. And behind it all, he was certain, was his son James.

Despite the discord, the two sides managed to arrive at a deal in early 2003: The children would let Donovan use the properties for the rest of his life in exchange for a payment of $6 million and an acknowledgment that he was not the owner. But the settlement collapsed when Donovan claimed he’d only signed under pressure. So the dispute landed in Superior Court, with James and Maureen, along with younger sisters Rebecca and Carolyn, suing their father. John Jr., who has fashioned himself as something of a peacemaker, was also named in the suit, but his siblings are not actively pursuing claims against him.

The feuding parties eventually agreed to turn the case over to a mediator, who helped frame a new settlement. On June 11, 2004, the family gathered in a downtown Boston courtroom to swear under oath that they had voluntarily agreed to the terms of this new deal. Donovan stood before Superior Court Judge Allan van Gestel and declared, “My name is professor John Donovan. I agree with the settlement, and I did not sexually molest my daughter.” Two years later, and now on his sixth law firm since the suit was filed, that agreement has yet to be finalized.

Donovan has, however, remained convinced that James is out to get him. Since the children filed their lawsuit, John and Linda Donovan have, between them, taken out two restraining orders and filed a harassment suit against James. In testimony, Linda claimed that James menaced her while she was on skis in Vermont, on horseback in Hamilton, and in a coatroom at the Hunt Club—accusations that James’s lawyers deny. Linda also claimed that she was hassled by one of James’s employees, the same man, incidentally, who attested to the fear Diane Kaneb had put into him while he installed speed bumps for Donovan. One of the restraining orders was dropped; the other remains in place until January.

In October 2003, Donovan called the police to his home in Hamilton, reporting that someone had fired what appeared to be bullets into his home. “I am fearful that I or my wife Linda could be hurt or killed,” he wrote in an affidavit, “and believe I am in imminent danger.”

WHEN DONOVAN called 9-1-1 on the night of December 16, 2005, to report that he’d been shot in the parking lot of his Cambridge business, he spent 11 minutes on the line with the dispatcher. Two men had opened fire on him, he told the operator during the rambling conversation, and his son James was surely behind the attack. The police needed to get to his home in Hamilton immediately to protect his wife. “Tell Linda I love her,” he said. His wife was in danger because she knew James had stolen $180 million from a Donovan trust and laundered the money through Goldman Sachs, he later explained to an officer. His attackers had gotten close enough to put a rifle to his abdomen and let off two rounds, he told the cop, but his belt buckle had, thankfully, deflected the bullets.

The police began to doubt Donovan’s story almost immediately, according to a lengthy “statement of the case” filed by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office. His belt buckle may have displayed the sort of damage you’d expect from a shooting, but apart from a flesh wound, his body did not. And given the sequence of events he’d laid out for investigators, a piece of shattered window glass removed by doctors appeared to have entered the wrong ear canal. Just as damning were the notes jotted on an Algonquin Club menu recovered from the sport jacket Donovan was wearing. Prosecutors describe the notes, which include such entries as “Glass gun?” “Where shot where?” and “Belt,” as a to-do list for the shooting. When police examined video from a surveillance camera trained on the parking lot, they watched Donovan reach up and reposition the camera so that it was pointed toward the ceiling. He has since been charged with filing a false police report.

“John Donovan repeatedly set out to ‘frame’ his son,” Assistant District Attorney Adrienne Lynch alleged in her court filing, an effort “to take revenge on his son, James, and attempt to gain an advantage in ongoing litigation…” If that’s proven true—and Donovan’s lawyer insists he had nothing whatsoever to do with the shooting—it’s still difficult to believe that anyone, even a man with Donovan’s extraordinary ability to charm and persuade, could somehow imagine he’d be able to convince the authorities to buy this convoluted plot. Then again, to Donovan alumni, nothing really surprises anymore.

“Even though I probably know John as well as anyone, I could never crawl inside his mind,” Stuart Madnick said when I asked whether he had ever managed to figure the professor out during the decades he worked alongside him. “A good salesman sells himself. I don’t think he even really knew what was real.”