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John H. Bryan Jr., renowned philanthropist, longtime Sara Lee CEO, dies

By Maureen O’Donnell@suntimesobits | email

The Chicago Sun Times

Mississippi native and 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 what would have been his 82nd birthday — at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago of complications from lung cancer, according to his assistant Nancy Novit.

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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.

During a visit to Chicago last October, British sculptor Anish Kapoor, the artist who created the Millennium Park sculpture known as “The Bean,” praised him as “the CEO whose incredible energy made Millennium Park happen. He took a chance on me — then still a relatively young artist with a very expensive project — and he went for it uncompromisingly. That’s a rare thing and an example of true civic commitment.”

Before the downtown park opened in the summer of 2004, Mr. Bryan likened Millennium Park to the Paris promenade that artist Georges Seurat painted in “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.”

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.

During the days of Jim Crow, Mr. Bryan “integrated his company, restrooms, water fountains and more,” according to a profile that appeared in North Shore Weekend in 2012. When West Point officials closed an African-American school in an attempt 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 North Shore Weekend, “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.

According to North Shore Weekend, he also helped give away Sara Lee’s art collection to museums around the world, “the largest corporate donation of the arts in U.S. history.”

In 2003, when a plan was 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. It was a good day.”

Mr. Bryan and his wife Neville lived at Crab Tree Farm in Lake Bluff.

John H. Bryan Jr. (right), chairman and chief executive officer of Sara Lee Corporation, and the Art Institute’s Junes N. Wood admire French painter Edouard Vuillard’s "Portrait of Mme. Guerin,” donated to the museum in memory of Nathan Cummings, Sara Lee’s. founder.

John H. Bryan Jr. (right), chairman and chief executive officer of Sara Lee Corporation, and the Art Institute’s Junes N. Wood admire French painter Edouard Vuillard’s “Portrait of Mme. Guerin,” donated to the museum in memory of Nathan Cummings, Sara Lee’s. founder. | Sun-Times files

Illinois recognized him with the state’s s highest honor, the Order of Lincoln Medallion.

He also served on the boards of General Motors, British Petroleum, Goldman Sachs and Bank One, according to a biography from the 2012 Chicago NATO host committee.

For all his influence, his preferred nickname for Millennium Park’s famed sculpture didn’t stick.

“The Bean? I prefer the Millennium Arch,” or the Kapoor, he said in 2004. “That’s such a nice, crisp name.”

Mr. Bryan’s survivors include his four children, John H. Bryan III, Margaret Bryan French, Elizabeth Bryan Seebeck and Charles F. Bryan.

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