This is not meant to be a comprehensive account of Crerar's life: for that you'll want to read Thomas Goodspeed's historical sketch on John Crerar (published in the University Record, new series, v.6 no.2, April 1920, LD907.R31. Also republished as a separate volume entitled John Crerar in 1939, HV28.C8G6.)
I admit that much of what follows I directly copied from Goodspeed's sketch, but this isn't really a bio. Instead, this page is devoted to what I personally like and admire about John Crerar.
Some quick facts about his life: John Crerar was born in 1827 in New York City, where he spent his childhood and early adult life. After graduating from high school, Crerar spent the next ten years or so working as a bookkeeper for various iron and steel firms in NYC.
When he was 29, Crerar left his current position to start a railroad supply company with Morris K. Jesup and others. The partners realized that Chicago was about to become the nation's railway hub, and sent J. McGregor Adams to open a Chicago branch of the business. Crerar followed Adams a year later. In 1863 Crerar and Adams amicably split from Jesup. Crerar, Adams, & Co. was listed in the Chicago directory in 1868 as "manufacturers and dealers in railroad supplies and contractors' materials."
Crerar and Adams brought in a third man, Edward S. Shepherd, and set about making their firm the largest railroad supply concern in the Midwest, dealing in everything from lanterns to entire train cars--Crerar helped finance and promote George Pullman's new Palace Car Company. Parts of the firm still exist: Adams & Westlake, which was an existing company acquired by Crerar, Adams, & Co. to bring more of the manufacturing orders in-house, still does business as Adlake.
Although generally healthy for most of his life, Crerar took ill in the spring of 1889, and traveled to Atlantic City to recuperate. However, while on the coast he had a stroke that partially paralyzed him. Crerar returned to Chicago and died in November at the home of his friend Norman Williams. Following his death, the leading citizens of Chicago held a memorial service at the Central Music Hall, at that time the chief city auditorium. There were so many attendees that the doors had to be shut before the service began.
Crerar was a lifelong bachelor and had no direct heirs. While he made some bequests to cousins on his mother's side and to close friends, most of his will is donations to specific charities and religious institutions, some of which I mention below. However, he reserved the bulk of the estate for the creation, construction, and maintenance of a new library.
Franklin MacVeagh, who spoke at Crerar's memorial service, said: "I could occupy all the time allotted me in enumerating and commenting upon John Crerar's virtues, but I shall not attempt it." Let me barge in where he did not tread: what is there to admire about John Crerar?
In an age where men of great personal wealth expected and relished the public spotlight, John Crerar was an exception. Morris K. Jesup described Crerar as "retiring, modest, and humble," who lived "without display or ostentation." Although Crerar gave generously to charities while alive, Jesup used to chide him for not spending his money more publicly, that he might be better known and praised. Crerar would always reply, "I am satisfied and content." He had no desire for prominence, shunning club presidencies, not seeking political office, and--although enjoying the company of his friends--was never what we would call a social butterfly. Instead, he often worked hard "without ostentation," as many of his friends said.
Although Crerar left money for a statue of Abraham Lincoln, he desired "a plain headstone" for himself. Judge B.D. Magruder took note of this: "With a modesty that bespeaks the greatness of his own soul, he orders a simple headstone to be placed at his own grave, but that a colossal statue be raised to the man who abolished slavery in the United States. The millionaire is content to lie low, but he insists that the great emancipator shall rise high."
Jesup said of Crerar, "I never knew a man who had so many real friends." As a founding member of the Commercial Club, an association of prominent businessmen, Crerar met men like Marshall Field, T.B. Blackstone, Philip Armour (meatpacker and founder of IIT), and others. He formed deep and lasting friendships with many of them, and upon his death his fellow Club members wrote in their minutes: "we who are his fellow-members have experienced a personal afflication such as can rarely come out of the intercourse and friendships of social life. He was not a recent friend nor one who could make a light impression upon his neighbors."
Crerar's business relationships often blossomed into friendships. When he entered into his last partnership with Adams and Shepherd, Crerar drew up a partnership agreement. The other two partners trusted Crerar so much that they never looked at the agreement until after his death, when they were surprised to find the Crerar had failed to specify in writing the division of the firm between the three partners. This was no obstacle, however, as the mutual friendship they enjoyed made it possible for the matter to be settled quickly and amiciably. Crerar not only bequeathed $50,000 ($1,000,000) to each partner, he left his personal watch and chain to J. McGregor Adams.
In his will, Crerar made several large bequests to various organizations: $25,000 ($500,000) each to the Presbyterian Hospital and St. Luke's Free Hospital (now merged into Rush-Presbyterian-St.Luke's), $50,000 ($1,000,000) to the Chicago Orphan Asylum, and $50,000 to the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. However, those who knew him said these were nothing more than an extension of the gifts he made while alive. Crerar didn't simply write checks, but served as an officer or on the boards of several charites, hospitals, and service organizations in New York and Chicago.
One of Crerar's partners told Goodspeed that Crerar used to keep a checkbook in the top drawer of his desk. When people came to him asking for help, he would listen to their case and, if their appeal made sense to him, Crerar would get out his checkbook and write a check, using the stub to record what the money was for. After his death, Goodspeed says, "these checkbooks were found and proved to be interesting reading. For example, on the stub of one check was found the following: 'A woman going about doing good.'"
Perhaps the greatest indication of John Crerar's giving came shortly after the great Chicago Fire in 1871. When news of the fire spread across the nation, the New York City Chamber of Commerce and other businesses and citizens of NYC wanted to help. They raised large sums of money, but were not sure how to distribute the aid. So they simply sent all their donations to one man, confident he would know what to do. That man was John Crerar.
As a lifelong bachelor, Crerar spent most of his evenings reading newspapers or books. He not only read widely, but encouraged others to read: in both New York City and Chicago Crerar joined library associations. While in NYC he was part of a committee that brought the English novelist Thackeray to lecture there in 1855.
The chief example of Crerar's appreciation for books is in the chief bequest of his will: "I give, devise, and bequeath all the rest, remainder, and residue of my estate, both real and personal, for the erection, creation, maintenance, and endowment of a free public library to be called "The John Crerar Library..." Crerar named the first board of directors--all personal friends--and wrote the following instructions:
Crerar was a staunch Presbyterian and a committed churchgoer. He faithfully attended the Second Presbyterian Church of Chicago, and was an elder and trustee there. In his will he left Second Presbyterian $100,000 ($2,000,000)..."so long as said church preserves and maintains the principles of the Presbyterian faith." The stipulation illustrates that Crerar was not content merely to go to church but took an active interest in its affairs, as an elder should.
John Crerar's favorite Scripture passage was the eighth chapter of Romans, which his pastor said he knew by heart. It was read at his memorial service.
Faith for Crerar was not a Sunday-only activity. Goodspeed writes, "All his friends knew him as a Christian man. He was outspoken in his faith and never hesitated to defend Christianity in when it was attacked in his presence." At his memorial service several speakers made reference to Crear's piety and his zeal in encouraging church attendance.
Crerar also took part in many Christian organizations. He was a member of the YMCA while in New York City, and remained interested in its work throughout his life. He gave yearly to the work of the American Sunday School Union, and bequeathed $50,000 ($1,000,000) to the ASSU for the work of establishing Sunday schools "in the Western States and Terroritories." The ASSU was faithful to Crerar's request, and for many years published an annual report outlining the work supported by the Crerar fund. Goodspead, looking back over roughly twenty-five years, reported: "About 1,600 Sunday schools had been organized in remote districts of the North and West, with nearly 60,000 scholars. These missionaries [ones supported by the Crerar Fund] had aided in various ways 10,000 Sunday schools in which there were 160,000 pupils. They had distributed 12,000 Bibles or portions of Scripture. Nearly 90 churches had been organized and about 7,000 converts had been lead into a new life."
After Crerar's death, his executors and trustees laid his body to rest next to his mother's grave in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery, as he desired. In accordance with his will, they placed a plain headstone to mark his grave, carving upon it the words: "A just man, and one who feared God."
I have made great use of Goodspeed's sketch of John Crerar, cited above, and the Chicago Tribune account of his memorial service (Dec 23, 1889, pp.1-2).
Dollar amounts, when mentioned, are first given as Crerar specified them, and then secondly in 2002 dollars. The year 1893 is used for conversion. Converter is at: http://www.cjr.org/resources/inflater.asp