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Gary C. Comer, 78; Founder of Lands' End Clothing Was an Expert Sailor and Seller

October 06, 2006|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Gary C. Comer, who founded the Lands' End sailing equipment supplier and turned it into a successful mail-order clothing business, died of prostate cancer Wednesday in Chicago. He was 78.

An indifferent student growing up on Chicago's South Side, Gary Campbell Comer learned to sail as a young man. He became a world-class sailor, winning a number of competitions, including the North American Championship in 1959 and a bronze medal in the Pan American Games the same year.

With no money for college, Comer went to work, toiling at odd jobs before landing a position at the advertising firm of Young & Rubicam in 1950.

In 1960, he quit and headed to Europe, where he spent a year traveling. He returned to Chicago and started a business in 1963, selling sailboat equipment, hardware, duffel bags, rain suits and a few items of clothing. He called his new company Lands' End because, he said, "It had a romantic ring to it, and conjured visions of a point to depart from on a perilous journey."

The misplaced apostrophe in the company's name is the result of a typographical error in the first catalog, distributed in 1975.

Comer bought out two partners, and by 1977 the company was selling only clothing and had moved its headquarters to Dodgeville, Wis.

Comer took the company public in 1986, and Lands' End became one of the largest and most innovative mail-order businesses in the world.

It was one of the first catalog retailers to set up toll-free telephone lines for customers to shop seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Comer stepped down as president in 1990. He remained chairman of the board and the majority shareholder until the company was sold to Sears, Roebuck & Co. in May 2002 for $1.9 billion.

Known for their philanthropy, Comer and his wife, Frances, donated more than $84 million to the creation and expansion of Comer Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago.

In addition to his wife, Comer is survived by a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.

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