Friends say James Colville was a critical thinker and problem solver who used his business background to help raise more than $1.2 billion for local charities.

Colville died March 1 at age 73.

Colville worked 40 years for the United Way and was most proud of making reality the combining of the Minneapolis and St. Paul branches of the organization.

The United Way of Minneapolis Area was founded in 1915 and United Way of the St. Paul Area in 1920. They operated more or less independently until the two officially became one on Feb. 22, 2001. The combined Greater Twin Cities United Way became the fifth-largest United Way organization in the United States.

Colville was born and raised in Mississippi and graduated from Texas Christian University with a business degree and intent on working in retail. A friend recruited him to work for United Way in Fort Worth believing his business background was needed in the nonprofit sector.

After several years working in Fort Worth and Houston United Ways, he was hired as the executive director of United Way of Minneapolis in 1978. For 27 years, he cultivated contacts in the Twin Cities business community to help raise money and support community programs. He retired in 2004.

Jim Campbell, a former Wells Fargo Minnesota executive and former chairman of the United Way board, said he learned how the United Way worked firsthand from Colville. Campbell was one of six members of a committee that looked at combining the two agencies.

“He was an immensely gracious guy, always willing to do what was right for the community,” Campbell said. “He assured there was a smooth transition from two organizations to one.”

Lauren Segal, who was head of the United Way of St. Paul at the time of the combination and the eventual successor to Colville, said they worked hard to make it seamless.

“We went from pretty fierce competitors when two United Ways were separate, to colleagues and good friends,” Segal said. “I would say he was my mentor. By far, he did more for me professionally and personally than anyone else in my career.”

The move saved expenses by combining the back-office operations but also increased the efficiency of the organization and its capacity to partner with more corporations and support more programs. The move also helped to foster a greater sense of the Twin Cities as one region.

The combination proved to be a model of success for other Minneapolis and St. Paul organizations. Soon after, local Boy Scout, Girl Scout, Red Cross and YMCA groups also consolidated.

“The merger was really an example of living out the United Way philosophy,” said Sarah Caruso, the current president and CEO of Greater Twin Cities United Way. Fifteen years after the merger, the combined organization is now the second largest United Way agency in the nation and the third largest in the world.

While Colville had the business acumen to run a large organization and was a prolific fundraiser, he cared deeply about the programing. He was especially proud of the Success by 6 program, an early childhood development program that was started here in 1988 and is now in place in more than 350 communities across the country.

Colville is survived by his wife of 55 years, Sarah, three children and five grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at Wayzata Community Church at 1 p.m. Monday.