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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ECB's First President Dies

BERLIN -- Willem Duisenberg, the blunt-spoken Dutch central banker who oversaw the introduction of the euro as the first president of the European Central Bank, was found dead on Sunday in a swimming pool at his villa in the south of France, the French government said. He was 70.

An autopsy showed that Duisenberg drowned after unspecified heart trouble. He "died a natural death, due to drowning, after a cardiac problem," said Jean-Fran?ois Sanpieri, a state official near the village of Faucon, where Duisenberg had his villa.

A tall, snowy-haired man with a dry wit and a gravelly voice, Duisenberg became the human face of a new currency after he presided over an epic money transfer on Jan. 1, 2002, when 305 million Europeans turned in their francs, marks, lira and other currencies for euros.

As president of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Duisenberg steered the euro through its first unsteady years -- a time when it plummeted to record low levels against the dollar.

He also fended off calls for the European bank to lower interest rates during the recession of 2001, which gave the fledgling institution credibility at a crucial stage in its development. "I hear, but I don't listen," Duisenberg once said of the pleas of public officials to cut rates.

The euro bounced back, and by last year it had hit a record high against the dollar, which is now viewed as the weaker currency. As the euro demonstrates its stability, it is gaining popularity as a reserve currency, alongside the dollar, in the world's central banks.

Jean-Claude Trichet, who succeeded Duisenberg as the bank's president in 2003, said his death was a "terrible loss." "He played a decisive role in setting up the monetary institutions in Europe," Trichet said in a statement.

Duisenberg's early days were not without gaffes, some of which grew out of his penchant for candor. In October 2000, he said the bank would not intervene in the currency markets to shore up the euro. That led speculators to drive the euro down to record lows.

While the currency changeover went smoothly, Duisenberg faced complaints from Europeans that the euro had driven up the price of everyday items, like haircuts and cups of coffee.

He was also occasionally buffeted by criticism of his wife, Gretta, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights. The Dutch government objected in 2003 when she visited Yasir Arafat in the West Bank while traveling on a diplomatic passport. Duisenberg staunchly defended her.

By the time Duisenberg was put forward as a candidate to head the European Central Bank, he had already made his name as a former Dutch finance minister and long-time head of the Dutch central bank. Germany, in particular, backed him because of his credentials as an inflation fighter.

Yet his candidacy was bitterly opposed by France, which wanted to name the governor of its own central bank, Trichet. To break the deadlock, Duisenberg pledged not to serve his full eight-year term -- a decision that put him in the awkward position of having to deflect regular questions about his retirement plans at the bank's monthly news conference.