David Lilly, a founder of the modern-day Toro Co. who also served the University of Minnesota in two executive posts, died last week at the age of 96.

After serving in World War II, Lilly invested in Toro with two partners. The company was a weapons-parts manufacturer during the war, but they refocused and expanded its business in lawn mowers and landscaping.

Lilly was president of Toro for nearly 30 years before retiring in 1978. He also served a term during the 1970s as a governor of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C.

After his retirement from Toro, Lilly became dean of what is now the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and also served the university as vice president of finance and operations, a job he said was one of his favorites, before retiring in 1992 at age 75.

“He was successful in business, and he took great pride in serving the University of Minnesota,” said Tom Swain, a retired St. Paul businessman who worked with Lilly on many public and civic projects over the course of 50 years.

“He took a bit of a public beating during one administration’s controversy over there [in the 1980s], but it never really fazed him. He continued to help that organization. And he and his wife, Perrin, were very generous over the years through their family foundation.”

Lilly, the son of Richard Lilly, a longtime president of the former First National Bank of St. Paul, graduated from Dartmouth College in 1939, worked in the U.S. Treasury in Washington, then joined the Army. He served three-plus years in the South Pacific.

Lilly, a lover of gardens and a conservationist, had a university garden named for him on what once was a parking lot. He donated acres of family land in West St. Paul that is now part of the Dodge Nature Center in honor of his mother, and he and his wife spearheaded funding for the gardens around St. Paul’s Landmark Center.

Guiding the riverfront renaissance

About 20 years ago, Lilly was an original director of St. Paul’s River­front Corp., which sought to restore the prominence and splendor of the Mississippi through downtown St. Paul.

And a family foundation that was started by his father, Richard Lilly, then funded by David and Perrin, and now overseen by their children, quietly has donated millions over the years to St. Paul, environmental and other causes.

“My dad told my brother, my sister and me, as we’d sit around the table, that it’s OK to inherit money, but not so much that you won’t have to be productive in your own life,” recalled son Bruce Lilly. “And he said you’ll have this foundation and a lot of fun, researching and giving money away. And to this day we have no administrative support. We give to organizations that we know and have contact with. Dad loved open spaces, gardens, and everything he did seemed out of his love for St. Paul.

“Dad used a technique of ‘priming the pump.’ He would put his money in first generally, just to get things going,” Bruce Lilly said. “Sometimes $5,000 to give a project legs and sometimes much more. The Landmark Plaza was an example of that. He always wanted to accomplish something measurable and then move on.”

Lilly was active in state Republican politics for years, but he and his wife supported Democrats over the past decade as the Republican Party swung farther to the right, Swain said.

Lilly is survived by his wife of 68 years, Perrin Brown Lilly; children David Jr., Bruce and Susanne; and six grandchildren. A memorial reception is planned for 4 p.m. March 31 in the main lobby of the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.