See more of the story

To walk around downtown Minneapolis with lawyer, business owner and humanitarian Pierce McNally was to enter a near-magical realm where city streets felt like they were being transformed into movie sets. Random photographers would sometimes stop him, trying to capture his style and verve. Doormen and security guards would see him coming and call out to him, and he would return their greetings, hailing each by name.

A bon vivant noted for his warmth and style, McNally died Dec. 16 in Wayzata after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 71.

"Pierce always saw human beings and never looked through them," said Twin Cities attorney Lew Remele, his friend of 40 years. "That's what he gave off, and that's what people felt around him."

Trained as a lawyer, McNally made his name, and left deep impressions, through his passions. He was an adventurer who took family members heli-skiing in the Canadian Rockies. He read voraciously and smoked cigars with equal gusto. When he took up exercise later in life, it was at a similar, all-in posture. He competed in events like the three-mile Head of the Charles Regatta in Cambridge, Mass., rowing with those young enough to be his offspring.

McNally brought a similar zeal to his service on the boards of some of the organizations that make the Twin Cities an artistic, educational and cultural mecca, including the Minnesota Opera, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Historical Society.

"He was a really humble guy who would never brag about his background, but he believed deeply in treating everyone with fairness and deep respect," said his daughter Caitlin McNally Hobley, a documentary filmmaker.

That background included being born into an eminent family that included great uncle W.F. Murphy, who owned the Minneapolis Tribune before selling it to the Cowles family. His family also started WCCO. McNally's father, William J. McNally, was a marquee writer for the Tribune who also crafted plays produced on Broadway.

"He had a sense that to whom much is given, much is expected," his daughter said. "He was not judgmental, but he based his interactions with people on character, not on status."

McNally was born in New Richmond, Wis. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and Stanford University in California, where he wrote opera reviews for the student newspaper.

McNally served in the Peace Corps in Senegal after graduating from college and taught English in Saudi Arabia, things that made some people question him.

"They would always want to know if he was in the CIA," Caitlin said. He also studied at the Sorbonne before earning his law degree at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He met his wife, Debbie Zack, the first week of law school. They were married for 44 years.

After law school, McNally clerked for federal judge Earl Larson and practiced law at Oppenheimer Wolff & Donnelly and Gray Plant Mooty in Minneapolis. He also was involved with a raft of startup companies, working as counsel, board member and investor.

"Practicing law wasn't really for Pierce — it was too static, I think," Remele said. "He was a Renaissance man — so curious and always seeking out new ideas."

In addition to his wife, Deborah Zack McNally, and daughter Caitlin of Dallas, he is survived by another daughter, Mary McNally Dillow of New York City, and several grandchildren.

Private services have been held. There will be a public celebration of McNally's life at a later date.

Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390