Shea died of pulmonary fibrosis Friday at his home in San Marino, according to spokesman Aaron Curtiss.
"He's had an extraordinary record of success, and he did it under the radar screen," said William Brody, president of the Salk Institute in La Jolla and president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University.
Brody called Shea "probably the most understated, plain-speaking person I've ever met." He said he got to know Shea when the businessman invested in Brody's company that made medical imaging devices.
"He obviously had a good intuition," Brody said. "I think his operating mode was to bet on people. He wasn't betting on technology per se, but the people behind it."
Shea also was a key part of a long-running, successful family business that was started by his grandfather, a Portland, Ore., plumbing contractor, in 1881. The company also was involved in such landmark construction projects as Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay bridges.
J.F. Shea Co., which Shea founded in 1958 with his brother Peter and cousin John, built tunnels and underground stations for transit projects in San Francisco, New York and Washington.
Shea Homes, which they formed in 1974, has built and sold more than 85,000 homes in California and several other states.
Edmund Hill Shea Jr. was born Aug. 15, 1929, in Portland, Ore. He lived in the Bay Area while his father supervised construction of piers for the Golden Gate Bridge. The family moved to Los Angeles in 1935, and he graduated from Loyola High School in 1947.
He spent a year in Los Gatos as a Jesuit novice and studied at Santa Clara University before enrolling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1952, then served for two years in the Air Force.
He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Mary; two sons, Edmund H. Shea III of Charlotte, N.C., and Timothy T. Shea of Santa Barbara; four daughters, Colleen Morrissey of Pacific Palisades, Ellen Dietrick of Newport Beach, Kathleen High of San Marino and Mary McConnell of Pasadena; two brothers, Henry and Peter; two sisters, Margaret Deneher and Mary Elizabeth Callaghan; and 14 grandchildren.