Posted June 2007
Gary Comer died a rich man — and a wealthy one too. But the founder of Lands’ End never forgot where he came from.
That’s why you’ll find the Gary Comer Campus at Our Lady of Help of Christians Parish in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. It’s part of the San Miguel School community, and Comer was its leading benefactor. He provided $1.2 million in 2002 for the school to serve children in a neighborhood that has one of the highest homicide rates in Chicago and one of the leading dropout rates in all of Illinois.
Although Lands’ End grew into a giant of direct merchandising after it made a move in 1978 to Dodgeville in rural central Wisconsin, the company was founded in Chicago and Comer was a native of that city. He died Oct. 5, 2006, after selling Lands’ End to Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 2002.
His substantial gift to San Miguel Schools represents just a tiny fraction of his philanthropy. A University of Chicago dispatch on the day of his death reported:
“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 Feb. 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.”
The story quoted Comer as explaining in January 2006: "My wife Francie and I have been determined to find the most effective ways to give back to my old neighborhood. 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?"
The University of Chicago report added: “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.”
At the time, his wife, Frances had been a longtime member of the University of Chicago's Women's Board.
While Comer did much for people in Chicago — and especially children — he didn’t neglect his people at Lands’ End. He spent several million dollars of his own money building them a huge recreation center on the company’s Dodgeville campus.
The Comer Center includes basketball and racquetball courts, a 25-meter indoor swimming pool and whirlpool, and a 1/8 mile indoor track. All employees, spouses and dependent children have free access to the facilities, where a staff offers a host of fitness classes and intramural programs in basketball, soccer and volleyball.
When Lands’ End was sold to Sears, Comer used some of his personal proceeds from the sale to make sure everyone on the payroll received some sort of compensation.
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