Gary Comer was born December 10, 1927, into a family of very modest means residing on the south side of Chicago near Jackson Park Harbor. As young people will do, he explored his area and found the waterfront of Lake Michigan and the harbor. He hung around the Jackson Park Harbor, offering his help to anyone desiring assistance in cleaning or moving their boat. Edgar “Bud” Tohlman, owner of the 46’ sailboat Taltona, asked Gary to be of help to him one day and that led to Gary and Bud sailing together for 20 years. Bud wanted Gary to learn how to sail and gave him a small sailing dinghy. Gary proved to have natural talent and excelled in sailing the dinghy.
While doing his dinghy sailing, Gary saw that the Star Class sailing fleet was active and interesting. He found the means to buy a Star and began a very successful career racing Star boats. All the Stars were moored in the water in the harbor. Gary went to the Chicago Park District (CPD), who controlled and issued permits to moor, to seek permission to install a small boat hoist immediately north of the harbor parking lot. This area was full of weeds and scrub bushes which when cleared could hold about 12 Star boats on their trailers. Gary convinced the CPD to allow this. This became the first “dry sailing storage lot” which set the stage for the CPD to open such areas in all harbors. This improvement led the Star Class to become the largest one design class sailing on the Great Lakes.
While this was occurring, Gary was honing his racing skills, winning the Great Lakes Star Championship in 1953 and 1954. He won the Tulip Tune Up in 1955. Finally, with a good boat and new sails, in 1959 Gary won the Star North American Championship, placed 2nd in the Star World Championship, and won the Bronze Medal in the Star Class in the Pan American Games.
During this period of time Gary was promoting sailing in Stars and sailing of dinghies. He helped Pete Bennett, Floris “Doc” Black, and Gene McCarthy in their Star sailing careers. He won the Chicago to Mackinac Race aboard Taltona with Bud Tohlman. Gary always made sure that he would bring a couple of the relatively new dinghy sailors with him on Taltona. He never failed to share his knowledge and experiences with all the young sailors around Jackson Park Yacht Club.
Gary was fortunate to have attended the finest Chicago Public High School, Hyde Park High School. The family did not have the money to allow him to attend college, so he entered the work force, originally working at Von Lengerke & Antoinne, commonly known as VL&A, as a stock clerk, moved on to Young and Rubicam, an advertising agency, where after some years he won the advertiser’s copywriters award of the year for a Hammond Organ advertisement he created. His boss at Young and Rubicam, when Gary said he was at the Star World Championship in 1959 stated to Gary, “Anything worth doing is worth doing in excess.” This was a philosophy Gary embraced the rest of his life.
Gary went to France for a little over one year where he learned more regarding the human psyche. Upon his return he established a marine store, selling boating equipment, and a quarterly sales catalog of gear available through mail order. He discovered that many hours of work did not produce the profits he wanted. After three years in this business he took a vacation to Ireland where he bought 500 Irish Wool sweaters, which he advertised in his catalog. They sold out quickly and he ordered 3500 more which also sold out. Reporting his sales figures to his insurance agent, he said, “Look at the return on investment I’ve made on the sweaters. I’m going into the clothing business.” Lands’ End quickly became the number one mail order clothing business in the United States.
Gary passed away on October 4, 2006. He was a yachtsman, entrepreneur and philanthropist. His gifts to his childhood community are boundless, including the Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago. He also was a major contributor to the Maggie Daley Park in downtown Chicago.
It is with profound pleasure that Gary C. Comer is inducted to the Lake Michigan Sailing Hall Of Fame.
September 21, 2018
Gary C. Comer was nominated by the Board of Directors of Jackson Park Yacht Club to the Lake Michigan Sailing Hall of Fame.