October 4, 2006
Gary C. Comer, founder of the Lands' End clothing-catalogue company and long-term supporter of projects to help children, especially those on the South Side of Chicago, died today from cancer at his home in Chicago. He was 78.
"Gary Comer's extraordinary contributions to the children of Chicago, especially those on the South Side, have already improved the lives and health of thousands and will continue to so do for generations to come," said Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago. "He was a man of unparalleled vision and generosity and we are all enormously indebted to him and his memory."
Mr. Comer left a remarkable philanthropic legacy of support for children's health care, education and the study of global climate change. His primary focus over the last decade was a series of gifts totaling more than $84 million that led to the creation and expansion of the Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago.
Those gifts include a $21 million donation in 2001 to build the six-story, 242,000 square-foot Comer Children's Hospital, which opened February 19, 2005, and a $20 million gift in 2003 to add a pediatric emergency room, as well as support for other programs. In 2006 he made a $42-million donation to the University of Chicago to create the Comer Center for Children and Specialty Care -- a four-story, 122,500 square-foot facility adjoining Comer Children's Hospital -- and to recruit leading physician-scientists and build programs providing state-of-the-art care and advancing the forefront of pediatric medicine. The gift is the largest single donation ever made to the University of Chicago.
"My wife Francie and I have been determined to find the most effective ways to give back to my old neighborhood," said Comer in January, 2006. "We have chosen to do that by that focusing on fundamental needs such as children's health and education. What could be more important than that?"
Gary Campbell Comer was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from the Paul Revere School, 1010 E. 72nd Street, in 1942. An avid sailor since childhood, Comer decided at age 33 to give up a 10-year career as an advertising copywriter at Young & Rubicam to start his own company, as long as it had some connection with sailboat racing.
In the fall of 1962, he started a mail-order sailing equipment business, distributing sailing gear, rain suits, and sweaters. The first location for the company was in an apartment on North Kedzie Avenue. In the spring of 1963, Comer and five partners incorporated Lands' End Yacht Stores (the misplaced apostrophe was a typo that became part of the firm's history), and moved to a rent-free basement office on Elston Avenue.
By 1965, they had begun to make a small profit and they printed their first catalogue, which became an industry legend for its clever and tight writing. In 1978, Comer moved the warehouse and phone operations to Dodgeville, Wisconsin. In 1986, Lands' End went public. It is the second largest apparel-only mail-order business and the world's largest clothing Web site.
Comer stepped down as president of Lands' End in 1990, but remained as chairman of the board and the majority stockholder. In 2002 Sears purchased Lands' End.
Through private donations, the Comers have supported several Chicago-based projects that advance health and education, especially for children on the South Side. They have given about $50 million to the Revere School community, including $30 million to create the Gary Comer Youth Center, an activity, performance and education center for area youths, adjacent to his alma mater. He has given $7 million to the Revere School, to support a series of educational initiatives; $5 million to a neighborhood housing initiative; and about $1.5 million to the South Shore Drill Team.
At the University of Chicago Medical Center, the Comers have also supported research on a novel treatment for ovarian cancer and launched the Comer Pediatric Mobile Care program, run by University physicians, which brings comprehensive primary and preventive health care to students at South Side public schools. His wife, Frances, is a longtime member of the University of Chicago's Women's Board.
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