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, have revolutionized children's healthcare 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 the University of Chicago. This gift is the largest single donation ever made to the University of Chicago, and brings 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," said Gary Comer.
"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 has provided unprecedented support to the school and to his old community.
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, especially if 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 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 is the second largest apparel-only mail order business and the world's largest clothing Web site.
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 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 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 the University of Chicago Medicine, 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.
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."