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Gary C. Comer was one of the nation's leading entrepreneurs and philanthropists. With the same energy and vision he brought to founding Lands' End, Comer and his wife, Frances, helped advance children's health care by funding state-of-the-art pediatric facilities and programs.
In 2001, the Comers made a generous gift to establish the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital. Two years later, they gave another gift to build the Comer Pediatric Emergency Department, which is the only dedicated emergency room for children on the South Side of Chicago.
In January 2006, the couple made a $42 million donation to create the Comer Center for Children and Specialty Care at UChicago Medicine This gift brought the Comers' total support of pediatric medicine at the University of Chicago to more than $84 million.
My wife Francie and I have been determined to find the most effective ways to give back. 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?
Comer was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. He graduated from Paul Revere School, 1010 E. 72nd Street, in 1942. Throughout the years, he provided unprecedented support to the school and to the community in which he grew up.
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, which he ensured was connected to 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 printed their first catalog, which became an industry legend with its clever and tight writing. In 1978, Comer moved the warehouse and phone operations to Dodgeville, Wisconsin. In 1986, Lands' End went public. It eventually became the second largest apparel-only mail order business and one of the world's largest clothing websites.
Comer stepped down as president in 1990, but remained chairman of the board and the majority stockholder. In 2002, Sears purchased Lands' End.
Through private donations, the Comers provided support to several Chicago-based projects that advance health and education, especially for children on the South Side. They gave about $50 million to the Revere School community, including $30 million to create the Gary Comer Youth Center, an activity, performance and education center, which is adjacent to his alma mater. He gave $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 UChicago Medicine, the Comers 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 Women's Board.
In October 2006, Comer died from cancer at age 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."