By Bill Hewitt
April 22, 1996 12:00 PM

EVEN AFTER THEY KNEW THAT Don Terner was aboard Commerce Secretary Ron Brown’s plane that crashed near Dubrovnik two weeks ago, his family was sure he would survive. “There was a real sense that this was going to have a happy ending,” says his daughter Rebecca, 31. Sitting in the living room of the family’s townhouse in San Francisco last week, her stepbrother Jonah Cave, 24, agrees, “I had visions of Don getting passed over by a helicopter rescue party, then swimming back to Dubrovnik, meeting the rescue people and giving tips on how to give first aid.”

Sadly, that wasn’t the case; Terner perished with 32 Americans and two Croats aboard the plane. But it is easy to see why his family clung to their optimism. Even in the company of a dozen highly accomplished business executives, Don Terner was one of a kind. Says a friend: “It’s hard to comprehend he’s not in motion anymore.” As head of Bridge Housing Corp., Terner presided over the largest nonprofit construction company in the U.S. More than that, he was widely regarded as a visionary in the field of low-cost housing, preaching the self-help doctrine of owner-built units and private-sector investment. His trip to the Balkans, where he was assessing the damage wrought by nearly four years of civil war, concerned only the latest in a series of rebuilding projects. “Don drove himself,” says his third wife, Deirdre English, a former editor-in-chief of Mother Jones magazine. “He wanted to live so fully. He couldn’t bear to let any experience slip past him. He was constantly trying to put three pounds in a two-pound bag.”

He largely succeeded. Born in Newark, N.J., Terner studied architecture at Harvard, then traveled to Venezuela, Peru and Argentina, working with governments struggling to cope with the vast shantytowns caused by surging migration from rural areas. Between projects, he drove race cars and even played professional soccer in Colombia. An assistant professor at Harvard’s School of Design from 1965 to 1968, Terner was in Vietnam in 1970, overseeing work on refugee housing projects, when he was injured by a grenade explosion that shattered a window, sending slivers of glass into his hip and side.

Returning to Harvard to earn a doctorate in city and regional planning, Terner went on to teach at MIT and Berkeley. Then, in 1978, he was appointed director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development. Five years later, Terner formed Bridge with an anonymous grant of $660,000 and began to push his notion of building small-scale, attractive housing in relatively prosperous areas where low-income residents can feel a part of mainstream society. “He wasn’t interested in building high-rises made from concrete blocks,” says Bridge vice president Carol Galante, “but in developing something people could be proud of.”

Despite the time and effort expended building Bridge, which now has nearly 7,000 housing units in California, Terner, who left four grown children, and English managed to find time for the ballet, opera and symphony. An avid sportsman, he also jogged, skied and loved scuba diving. “We were constantly trying to teach Don to mellow out,” says his stepson Jonah. “When we went on vacation, we had to take turns babysitting him because of his energy.” At his death, Terner had just broken ground on his most ambitious project, 355-unit Marin City, a low-income development in California’s wealthiest county. Through such efforts, Terner had a direct impact on thousands of people. Patricia Wilks, 30, a resident manager at another Terner development, California’s Richmond City Center, where she lives in a three-bedroom apartment with her five children, attests to his legacy. “He changed my life completely. He moved me from a slumlord to affordable housing,” she says. “He always made me feel I could accomplish anything.”


JOHNNY DODD in San Francisco