The late hotel developer and philanthropist Bruce White built hotels all over the country: in Indianapolis, Chicago, Austin, Louisville, Denver, Charlotte, San Antonio and many other cities.
Over the course of his life, he built more than 225 hotels, some towering more than 30 stories tall with more than 1,000 rooms.
White built a national business, left a lasting mark on the hotel industry and became Marriott’s largest franchisee worldwide. But he never forgot where he came from, pouring millions of dollars into Crown Point’s YMCA, Merrillville’s community center and many other philanthropic causes in the Region, as well as into hotel programs at his alma mater, Purdue University.
“Bruce was the embodiment and unique combination of Hoosier hospitality, business acumen and charitable giving par excellence,” Indiana Gov. Eric J. Holcomb said. “His life’s work improved individual and community trajectories, shaped city skylines, not just in Indiana, but around the country. Janet and I send our deepest condolences to the family as they deal with such an unimaginable and giant of a loss.”
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White, who died at 70 after a year-long struggle with cancer, never forgot his roots in the Region and never forgot his friends.
REI Real Estate CEO and Founder Mike Wells went to college with White in the 1970s and remained friends with him over the years.
“Bruce was basically a guy who did not forget his friends,” he said. “A fellow fraternity brother from Purdue was not expected to live because of a health issue and ultimately did not live. Bruce was running all over the country to get some work done and had his pilot stop off in Peru, Indiana, and drove to this guy’s house to stay with him for hours because he remembered their friendship back at Purdue. Then he got back in his plane and flew home. He was always putting together trips with his friends and always sharing his insights into travel. He enjoyed being with his friends and with his family. He loved his family. He loved his company. He loved everybody.”
Colleagues and friends remember White as the architect of a national hotel empire that narrowed its focus to upscale urban hotels and luxury ranches in recent years. They described him as highly influential in the hospitality sector and a major charitable giver who supported many causes around Northwest Indiana, including two new YMCAs now under development in north Lake County.
“He was a smart businessman who made a name for himself,” Wells said. “He knew how to make money. He knew how to run a business. He was very kind to all his friends.”
Rich Melman, founder and chairman of the high-profile Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises restaurant group in Chicago, said White was extremely generous with his friends. He remembers that he invited him to a charity gala his wife was organizing to benefit Metropolitan Family Services. The fundraiser fell short of the goal. White asked Melman’s wife what the shortfall was and then wrote a check to cover it.
“It was close, but short by a big amount,” he said. “He cared about charity and helping people. He’s going to be missed. He had a great sense of humor. He liked telling stories about he and his father (the late billionaire Dean White). He would talk about his dad being tough on him, and we’d compare our parents and have a laugh.”
White also loved music like the Doobie Brothers and Beach Boys, having spent time as a booker at his family’s Holiday Star Theater, which was later known as the Star Plaza Theater.
“I find it interesting that David Crosby died on the same day and wonder if they’re going to get together,” Melman said. “He loved music. He loved travel. He had such a zest for life. He just got a kick out of life.”
He knew White for more than 20 years and worked with him for 17 or 18 years. White Lodging retained Lettuce Entertain You as a consultant to elevate the quality of the restaurants at its 60 hotels with more than 14,600 rooms across the United States.
“He was a meat and potatoes guy. He relied on us to show him a little bit more,” he said.
Never stopped innovating
White was an innovator in the hotel sector who read frequently and always sought improvements, Wells said.
“He would come up with new angles to make the hotels innovative,” Wells said. “He was the first to combine two branches, like a Courtyard and Residence Inn. The brands did not want that, but he saw it would be more efficient and result in better service.”
White Lodging’s corporate headquarters in Merrillville has a training and test kitchen where chefs would try out dishes for its more than 50 restaurants nationwide.
“That was Bruce’s idea, and it’s been a tremendous success,” Wells said. “He was always reading to find out what’s new and taking pictures and staying in hotels to get ideas. Another great part of his legacy is that he traveled all over but stayed in Northwest Indiana. He provided careers to thousands of thousands of people to raise their families.”
White Lodging at one point contemplated moving its corporate headquarters to Chicago or San Antonio but ultimately opted to stay in Merrillville.
“We’re extremely thankful for the White Family Foundation gift for the community center,” said Merrillville Town Councilman Shawn Pettit. “It’s a sad day, just tragic news. We lost a visionary pioneer who had success around the country.”
Town Council President Rick Bella said the White family has long supported the town of Merrillville, such as with the purchase of new police cars, support of town events and a $10 million donation toward the new 84,000-square-foot Dean and Barbara White Community Center on Broadway.
“The gift is allowing the town to draw $500,000 per year to offset the operational costs of the center. It has by far become our crown jewel and is a tremendous asset to the residents of our community as well as neighboring communities,” he said. “We are saddened by the loss of Bruce and wish his family well as they grieve this wonderful person. We will miss him but look forward to continuing his great philanthropic work with his wife and children in the future. Merrillville was the starting point for the White family and really is home to them.”
Dedicated to Northwest Indiana
The Region has benefited from having a major corporation with a national reach headquartered here, said Bill Hanna, executive director of the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation.
“He was dedicated to having a headquarters and a presence here,” he said. “He brought a wealth of knowledge and value to Northwest Indiana. We don’t have a lot of corporate headquarters here anymore.”
He started the company with just a single hotel in Northwest Indiana. At first, the goal was just to survive, White Lodging Senior Advisor and CEO Emeritus of Development Deno Yiankes said.
“We were a start-up, fee-only management business with three hotels when I joined,” Yiankes said. “Along the way, he took very bold but also very calculated risks to create a foundation that ultimately allowed us all to think much bigger in terms of the opportunities that were there for the taking within the hospitality and real estate markets. Once that foundation was firmly established, his vision for White Lodging transitioned to become a company that lasts forever.”
White founded the company on principles that continue to guide it today.
“Bruce had a saying that he insisted we recognized and respected in our early days of growth, and that was that there is no cash register in the corporate office,” Yiankes said. “The real heroes of our business are in the field — the housekeepers, the front-line associates, our general managers. They are the individuals that interact with our guests, embody the spirit to serve and bring life into our hotels. As long as we execute, this in turn will continue to provide opportunities for individuals to become their best and thrive for generations to come.”
A believer in bettering oneself, White always sought to cultivate workers to realize their full potential, Yiankes said.
“He had an innate ability and desire to extract the very best out of people,” he said. “There are countless examples of White Lodging associates — including yours truly — that have far exceeded what they may have previously believed to be their maximum potential.”
Yiankes describes White as humble, passionate, purposeful, highly ethical, strategic, fun and a step ahead.
“Let’s not forget direct. He was not one to sugarcoat or beat around the bush on items of importance,” he said. “He would call it being brutally honest with not only one another but with ourselves as well.”
White loved his family, friends and Region roots, Yiankes said. He wanted to see people become their best, desired to do good and wanted to make employees’ time at work positive and rewarding, he said.
He also thrived on competition and refused to be outworked or out-prepared, Yiankes said.
“His legacy is his loving family and the countless opportunities he created for thousands upon thousands of people through White Lodging and his good-hearted, well-intended philanthropy that will continue to have a positive impact for generations to come,” Yiankes said.
Hanna first worked with White while he was on the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, looking to extend connectivity to Chicago by increasing South Shore Line access.
“My initial impression was this was clearly a capable guy who had a deep passion for Northwest Indiana,” he said. “He has a well-qualified view. He’s been out in the world in multiple markets. He’s extremely well-read and engaged. He’s a business icon in the hospitality industry. It takes a lot of wherewithal to manage a large company, but he’s managed very well even when the pandemic hit the industry very hard, lowering occupancy across all their holdings. He was successful coming out of it.”
His children are now involved in running White Lodging, the hotel development and management company he founded in 1985. A succession plan has long been in place.
“We all owe it to him to continue to operate at the highest level going forward and continue to do the great work he started,” Wells said. “He absolutely built one of the top hospitality companies in the United States and it will continue to go forward.”
White built hotels all across the country and will have a long-lasting legacy in the Calumet Region, Hanna said. His many donations helped build the Dean & Barbara White Southlake YMCA in Crown Point, the Schererville Family YMCA, the Destination YMCA being designed in Hammond, the Tolleston YMCA at the Boy’s and Girls Club in Gary, and the Dean and Barbara White Community Center in Merrillville. He helped bring the Big Shoulders Fund from Chicago to help promote more Catholic education for K-12 kids in Northwest Indiana.
“He looks for things that have a high impact, are strategic and have a catalytic effect for a bunch of folks’ quality of life,” Hanna said. “He’s looked to elevate Northwest Indiana’s quality of life. He helped facilitate a group visit to Witchita to see what they did with the YMCA system and helped make the Crossroads YMCA in Crown Point the largest in the country with 40,000 members, which is greater than the actual population of the town itself. That’s a great example of the way he thinks of things. He wants projects to be transformative. He was looking for the next evolution of the YMCA project and asked how we took it to North Lake County, which made an opening for the Hammond project and the Tolleston project. He’s always looking to have the biggest impact.”
His donations helped create Purdue University Northwest’s White Lodging School of Hospitality and Tourism Management and fund enough hospitality education at Purdue University in West Lafayette that the school was recently renamed the White Lodging-J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. He also funded scholarships for hospitality students at Purdue and renovated the Union Club Hotel, now known as The Union Club Hotel at Purdue University, Autograph Collection, turning it into a learning lab where students can get hands-on experience.
The foundation will carry on his legacy, Hanna said.
“His values are so strong, so clear and so consistent that him not being in a meeting is just as effective as being in the meeting. Even when he’s not in the room, we would look for the same values,” he said. “He wanted to make it better over the years. That was his legacy. That spirit is at the core of what we do as a foundation. We’ll continue to build the best things we can to be transformational.”
White inspired others around him to dream big and do better, Hanna said.
“He was still extremely relatable,” he said. “He spent time with the most influential people you can think of but would prefer to sit with teachers and hear what’s going on in the classroom. He was very down to earth.”
Even when he was battling cancer, White volunteered his time. He, for instance, spent three hours meeting with the Big Shoulders Fund, delivering remarks when he wasn’t feeling well, Hanna said.
“Bruce’s leadership in the hospitality sector was both epic and historic,” said Big Shoulders Fund President and CEO Joshua D. Hale. “However, what’s more poignant for me is that he brought that same passion and visionary leadership to his civic and philanthropic efforts.”
Every summer, he brought students out to his ranch in Wyoming to further their education while experiencing the west.
“Bruce’s boyhood dream to own a ranch in Wyoming combined all of his greatest passions — his love for family, philanthropy, hospitality, business, adventure and educational experiences — and exemplified the best of his abilities and vision. Together with his wife and partner, Beth, they created a program on their Wyoming ranch for Big Shoulders Fund students to attend science and leadership development programs,” Hale said. “Each summer, hundreds of elementary-aged students take flights — the first plane trip for many of them — to what is now known as Staddle Camp at Brush Creek Ranch. To date, more than 2,000 children from Chicago and Northwest Indiana have journeyed to Wyoming for this life-changing experience. Rather than collecting awards or seeking spotlights, Bruce would more likely be found sitting at a table with a group of students in their classroom or by the fire at camp.”
White’s charitable endeavors extended far beyond just cutting a check to the occasional local nonprofit, Hale said. He wanted to ensure his gifts left a lasting impact.
Native son with national impact
White even had a lasting impact on people with whom he briefly worked, like Randy Palmateer, business manager with the Northwestern Indiana Building & Construction Trades Council.
He pursued a $356 million redevelopment project called The Farm at Crossroad Commons at the site of the former Star Plaza Theater, Radisson at Star Plaza and Twin Towers, which his father built and he razed when maintenance became prohibitively expensive more than four decades later. The massive project White planned at U.S. 30 and Interstate 65 would have included a meeting and event center, four hotels, an office building, a parking garage, a townhouse, condos, two restaurants, a craft brewery, a distillery, an art gallery, a visitors center, a greenhouse and a 30,000-square-foot horse-riding arena. It never came to fruition.
“He was a visionary who saw a great spot for a convention center. It would have made a lasting imprint on Northwest Indiana,” Palmateer said. “He was loyal to the Region. His vision didn’t go through. I’m a younger man and would have been more mad but he told me, ‘You win some, you lose some.’ He taught me how to handle a situation that doesn’t go your way when I might have gone in a different direction. He taught me there’s a different way to handle things. I can’t say enough good things about him in the short time I knew him.”
His legacy will endure, Hanna said.
“Everybody in Northwest Indiana can appreciate that one of our native sons took the hard work attitude we have here and translated it into something that’s had a national impact,” he said. “We’ve got to keep going and doing good things to honor his values and the people he cherished.”
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