John H. Bryan Jr., renowned Chicago philanthropist, longtime Sara Lee CEO, dies
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Former Sara Lee Corporation chief executive officer John H. Bryan Jr., who was long one of Chicago’s leading patrons of the arts and a stunningly effective philanthropist and fundraiser, has died at 81.
Mr. Bryan died Monday night — four days shy of his 82nd birthday — at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago of complications from lung cancer, according to his assistant Nancy Novit.
He is credited with having raised hundreds of millions of dollars for philanthropic projects including Millennium Park and the Modern Wing of the Art Institute, renovations to Chicago’s Lyric Opera House and Orchestra Hall and protecting Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s landmark Farnsworth House in Plano.
In a 2012 list of the 100 most powerful Chicagoans, Chicago magazine said that, without Mr. Bryan, “who corralled more than $220 million in private contributions, Millennium Park wouldn’t exist.”
He was “a titan in our field,” according to Stephanie Meeks, chief executive officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for which he was a past chairman.
British sculptor Anish Kapoor, the artist who created the Millennium Park sculpture known as “The Bean,” praised him as “a true and great Chicagoan.
“I remember that we once had a problem with the budget for the work, and John was faced with having to find the extra funds or to ask me to scale down the work,” Kapoor said from London. “He sat on the problem for a few days, and then, in his very clear way, he told me that a reduction of size would do the wrong thing to the sculpture. He would find a way. He did.”
Before the downtown park opened in the summer of 2004, Mr. Bryan likened Millennium Park to the French promenade that artist Georges Seurat painted in “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”
“One hundred 20 years later, people will be strolling Millennium Park,” he said.
And he promised, “I think this is going to be the place people come for their wedding pictures.”
“John Bryan’s high standards and profoundly ethical orientation to the world were especially evident in his leadership and philanthropy,” said James Rondeau, president of the Art Institute of Chicago. “His generosity and vision during a time of transformative growth for both the Art Institute and the city of Chicago forever changed the cultural landscape of our community.”
“I fear that he is irreplaceable,” said Elizabeth Hurley, chief development officer of the Lyric Opera. “He understood the power of the arts to make our communities. . . . He pulled the corporate leadership of the city together, and he was a generous philanthropist in his own right.”
Courtly yet approachable, he was a native of West Point, Mississippi. He grew up near Bryan Foods, the family meatpacking company co-founded by his father, and studied business at Rhodes College in Memphis, where he met his future wife Neville.
During the days of Jim Crow, Mr. Bryan “integrated his company, restrooms, water fountains and more,” according to a profile in North Shore Weekend in 2012. When West Point-area officials closed an African-American school to avoid integration — and also shut down a pool used by African-Americans — he “raised funds to build a new black pool and fought the school board. Once the black school reopened, Bryan stunned the town by sending his own children there.”
“I was reasonably protected from retaliation because of our position in town,” he told the publication, “but I also had some deep convictions.”
He eventually arranged the sale of Bryan Foods to Consolidated Foods, becoming CEO in 1975. It evolved into Sara Lee, of which he was CEO from 1975 to 2000.
A Harvard Business School biography noted that he expanded Sara Lee from a $2.5 billion dollar conglomerate to a $20 billion enterprise that included Hanes Corporation, Coach, Playtex and Hillshire Farm.
He also helped give away Sara Lee’s art collection to museums around the world.
In 2003, when plans were afoot to buy the Farnsworth House and move it out of state, he and art collector Richard Gray raised the money to keep Mies’ famed glass box in Plano.
“Once the bidding went past $7.5 million,” Mr. Bryan once told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I turned to [Gray] and, ‘You’re on your own, my friend.’ Then, the hammer fell, and he made up the difference.”
Mr. Bryan and his wife lived at Crab Tree Farm in Lake Bluff.
For all of his influence, the nickname he preferred for Millennium Park’s famed sculpture didn’t stick.
“The Bean? I prefer the Millennium Arch,” or possibly, the Kapoor, he said in 2004. “That’s such a nice, crisp name.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Bryan’s survivors include his four children, John H. Bryan III, Margaret Bryan French, Elizabeth Bryan Seebeck and Charles F. Bryan, 13 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. A memorial service is planned Nov. 3 at the Art Institute.