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Philip C. Chinn was longtime vice president of Sears corporate properties. He was in charge of leasing, security and maintenance for the Sears Tower, now known as Willis Tower. | Provided photo

Philip C. Chinn dies; ran Sears Tower and lobbied for open housing

SHARE Philip C. Chinn dies; ran Sears Tower and lobbied for open housing
SHARE Philip C. Chinn dies; ran Sears Tower and lobbied for open housing

When a VIP wanted a tour of the Sears Tower, or “SpiderDan” Goodwin used window suction cups to climb it, or many of its 110 floors filled with new tenants during the Sears move to Hoffman Estates, Phil Chinn was in charge.

Mr. Chinn, 83, who rose to be a vice president of Sears corporate properties, died Saturday at the Clare senior living community. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer 23 years ago, said his stepdaughter Anne Pradzinski.

The Sears Tower became the Willis Tower in 2009, after an insurance brokerage, Willis Group Holdings, leased naming rights.

But when it opened as Sears Tower in 1973, it was the world’s tallest building, an aluminum-clad aerie where visitors could see miles of Midwest shaped by the retailer.

Phil Chinn with his wife Linda Hill-Chinn. | Provided photo

Phil Chinn with his wife Linda Hill-Chinn. | Provided photo

“Sears was the dominant retailer in the country,” Mr. Chinn said in a Sears Tower episode of “Modern Marvels” on the History Channel. “Sears’ growth was just phenomenal, but it was because after the second World War, Sears envisioned the use of the automobile and the advent of the suburbs.”

He added, “It’s become a symbol of Chicago. Almost anytime you see a picture of Chicago . . . you’re going to see the Sears Tower.”

Young Phil grew up in Royal Oak, Michigan. He was the oldest in a family of six children of Louise and Philip Charles Chinn. His father wound up getting sacked from Ford Motors because of his union organizing, according to relatives.

“As a kid,” said his wife, Linda Hill-Chinn, “he loved sneaking out of school to see the Tigers play.”

In 1955, after graduating from the University of Notre Dame, he started working at a Sears store in Flint, Michigan, as a customer service representative, according to his wife. “He kept getting promoted,” she said, landing in 1961 in Chicago.

Before they divorced, he and his first wife, Mary E. Chinn, had five children, Susan, Karen, Philip, Thomas and Lisa.

In 1982, he married Linda Hill-Chinn, who brought daughters Anne Pradzinski and Deborah Williams to the marriage.

The Chinns lived in Oak Park and downtown. They vacationed in Sawyer, Michigan, and spent winters in Naples, Florida. They also enjoyed cruises to Europe.

His job focused on tower operations, including leasing, security and maintenance. But in 1981, Goodwin — a daredevil climber known by the nickname “SpiderDan” — climbed the Sears Tower “and messed up the metal around the windows,” his wife said. “He was not a happy man that day.”

Mr. Chinn handled Sears interests on the ground and in the air. “He hired and supervised pilots and mechanics and planes and helicopters owned by Sears,” his wife said.

He ran 13 marathons, she said, often training by running “From Sears Tower down to the South Shore Country Club, or out to the end of Navy Pier and back.” After retiring in 1994, he did woodworking, including furniture for the American Girls dolls of his grandchildren.

Mr. Chinn was direct, funny and easygoing.

But “he couldn’t stand racists,” his wife said.

In 1968, when he heard about an African-American family living in an unheated garage in DuPage County, Mr. Chinn helped found HOPE (Homes of Private Enterprise), a fair housing group in Wheaton that rehabbed dilapidated homes for low-income people priced out of the market.

Phil Chinn enjoyed red wine. | Provided photo

Phil Chinn enjoyed red wine. | Provided photo

“Doing anything for low-income or African-American people in DuPage County at that time was extremely unpopular, and he was extremely unpopular,” said Bernard Kleina, a former executive director of HOPE, now HOPE Fair Housing Center.

He organized his children to march with Operation Breadbasket, a precursor to Rainbow PUSH, rewarding them for their efforts with the troll dolls popular at the time. He bought an old Volkswagen bus, painted it with flowers and peace symbols, and used it to transport lumber and low-income residents to their new HOPE homes. “Wheaton wasn’t really a welcoming community for ‘HOPEmobiles’ and hippies at that time,” said his daughter Susan Chinn.

Mr. Chinn loved the “The Godfather” movie trilogy, French food, red wine and donuts.

He is also survived by his sisters Rosemary Lewis, Patricia Newman and Sharon West; brother Dennis, 12 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. Another brother, Donald, died before him. As Mr. Chinn wished, his wife said, no services are planned.

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