COLUMBUS, Ohio – There were captains of industry, professional athletes, famous coaches, celebrities and even little kids wearing Blue Jackets jerseys quietly filing into Nationwide Arena on Wednesday night.
All of them, more than 4,000, came to remember John H. McConnell, the man of meagre means who built a Fortune 500 company, made millions of dollars, gave much to charity and brought the NHL to Columbus, his adopted home town.
McConnell, 84, died on April 25 at a Columbus hospital. He found out last year that he had cancer.
In one of several video tributes on three mammoth screens near where the goal cages usually sit, McConnell might have offered his own perfect eulogy: “I’d like to be a community leader. I’d like to do things and help people. Someday you’ll be rewarded.”
There were countless tributes to the man who started the steel-processing company Worthington Industries in 1955 with US$600 he borrowed against his 1952 Oldsmobile. The central-Ohio-based company now has more than $3 billion in annual sales, 69 locations in 11 countries, and more than 8,000 employees.
“I loved Mr. Mac,” said Jack Hanna, emeritus director of the Columbus Zoo, who had helped keep the zoo afloat with the money McConnell gave him 30 years earlier. “He’s one of the few people who didn’t think I was crazy.”
McConnell once wrote a $50,000 check to the zoo for an exhibit for the gorillas.
“I held up the check and said, ‘Look, Bongo!’ to one of our gorillas,” Hanna said. “Wouldn’t you know that gorilla grabbed it and ate it? And I’ve got the pictures to prove it.”
McConnell’s management style was a simple one: “We treat our customers, employees, investors and suppliers as we would like to be treated.” He even wrote a book about his business philosophy in 2004 that was called, “Our Golden Rule.”
Professional golfer Tom Weiskopf said of McConnell, “He was an iconic personality. He was a motivator. He reminded me of a coach.” Then he looked down, tugged on his shirt and smiled, adding, “Every time I wear blue I think of John.”
While continuing his involvement in his company’s day-to-day decisions, he also gave much to the community.
He established the McConnell Heart Health Center at Riverside Methodist Hospital with a gift of more than $15 million after his wife, Peggy, had health problems 18 years ago.
“I always thought I owed something to the medical profession and to Riverside Hospital because they saved my wife’s life,” Mr. Mac said in one video clip.
McConnell also generously supported Michigan State University, where he played football while attending on GI Bill benefits for veterans. He graduated in 1949, and later endowed a chair in Business Administration at the school.
“The world’s a better place because he was in it,” current Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said after the memorial.
During a meeting in 1997, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was told by Columbus civic leaders that, if a referendum to build a publicly financed arena failed, they would not pursue an expansion franchise.
But as he was leaving the room, someone grabbed his arm. It was McConnell.
“Don’t listen to that,” Bettman said McConnell told him. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to bring an NHL franchise to Columbus.”
And he did, spending an estimated $120 million to create the Blue Jackets, who joined the league in 2000.
Even though the team has had little success in its seven seasons – it’s the only one of the 30 NHL teams that has never been to the playoffs – McConnell was revered in Columbus. Whenever a roving camera flashed his picture on the screen during a game, the fans responded with a standing ovation.
Rick Nash, the Blue Jackets captain, flew in Wednesday afternoon with several other Blue Jackets from the World Championships in Halifax.
“The word ‘great’ gets overused these days,” Nash said in his eulogy. “But to say he was a great man was an understatement.”
Nash announced a scholarship program in McConnell’s memory.
Because the setting was a sports arena, it was only fitting that the memorial closed with the crowd giving McConnell a standing ovation.