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Many Northwest Indiana natives leave the Region to find success — as entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes, academics and actors.

Dean White stayed.         

White, who died at age 93 last week as the 789th richest person alive, amassed a $2.5 billion fortune after building a national billboard and hotel business.

Though he kept a low profile, the hotelier and billboard magnate was the 260th wealthiest person in the United States last year, nearly as rich as Oprah Winfrey, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel.

White, who Forbes Magazine said had an "under-the-radar empire" that included "4,000 apartments from Washington to Florida" easily could have moved to the coasts, to New York City or some other gilded center of power and prestige.

But White stayed.

According to Forbes, he was the only billionaire who chose to live in Northwest Indiana, and one of only four in the state.

"Dean was a giant whose commitment to Indiana, particularly Northwest Indiana, impacted the lives of countless Hoosiers," Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., said. "His legacy will live on for generations."

White stayed true to the Hoosier roots of the business his father ran in the rail depot of Shelby in South Lake County. White also shaped the skylines of Merrillville and Indianapolis with the Twin Towers here and the "Big Blue" JW Marriott there.

He shaped people's perceptions of the Region, helping to build the Star Plaza Theatre, a premier concert venue that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and put Northwest Indiana on the Chicago area entertainment map for nearly four decades.

He shaped where Region residents shop and eat, turning the intersection of U.S. 30 and Interstate 65 into the crossroads of Northwest Indiana and making Cedar Lake into a dining destination.

He shaped state politics, donating millions of dollars to Republican politicians. 

"Mr. White was a business-world legend and made his mark on not only Northwest Indiana, but on the entire state," Indiana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Cardwell said. "His legacy will live on through his many accomplishments and contributions to Indiana. He will be truly missed."

White built the 11,600-square-foot Lighthouse Restaurant in Cedar Lake, which draws people from miles away for countless weddings and to savor the Florida red grouper, macadamia crusted walleye and Midwestern corn-fed prime steaks. The eatery with lakeside views and a boat bar has emerged as an iconic Region restaurant since opening in 2009.

He also helped raise Indianapolis' profile nationally with a $450 million hotel development, including the largest JW Marriott in the world. The 34-story skyscraper is the largest hotel in Indiana and helped the city land Super Bowl XLVI and other big sporting events.

His outdoor advertising company, Whiteco Industries, started as White Advertising Co. in Nebraska, was moved to Shelby in 1950 and finally relocated to Merrillville in the early 1970s. It expanded beyond an original focus on billboards to include graphics, retail, hotels and commercial developments.

He took the business over from his father and grew the operation that originally did business out of the back of a pickup truck to a major international company. He cashed in by selling the billboards to Chancellor Media group for $960 million, and 100 hotels to BET founder Robert Johnson for $1.7 billion.

After his death last week, electronic billboards throughout Northwest Indiana paid tribute with memorials to the billboard king, who branched out into the hotel business when he saw the then-growing system of highways had even more potential, and presciently realized travelers would start staying at Holiday Inns on the outskirts of towns. 

"Dean White was a rare legend whose unwavering support of White Lodging, commitment to Northwest Indiana, zest for family and life, and success in the business world was unmatched," said Deno Yankes, president and CEO of investments and development for White Lodging.

Profound regional legacy

His legacy includes the millions of dollars he poured into Region charities and community projects, including the new Crown Point YMCA that hasn't been built yet and Purdue University Northwest's White Lodging Center for Hospitality and Tourism Management in Hammond.

White, for instance, came to the rescue when Merrillville wanted to build a veterans memorial but didn't know where it would get the funding, council member Richard Hardaway said.

"He will be remembered as a great humanitarian who was concerned with and dedicated to the town of Merrillville and the entire state of Indiana," he said.

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"But what I'll remember him for is what he did for veterans. He stepped up and helped us financially. He will live in our hearts."

White was always committed to the town of Merrillville, keeping his corporate headquarters there, Hardaway said. He continued to invest in the community, for instance, building the 50-bed Merrillville Memory Care facility for people suffering from memory loss. The new senior home just opened this summer.

Most significantly, he helped transform the town into a bustling commercial and retail hub by building a Holiday Inn, the Twin Towers Office Complex and the Holiday Star Theatre in cornfields. He told The Times in the 1970s that he envisioned turning the area into "Lake County's Main Street."

"He shaped the town immensely," Hardaway said. "At Interstate 65 and U.S. 30, all of that is his footprint. He wanted to make it the crossroads of Northwest Indiana, and he definitely did."

White helped make Northwest Indiana a convention destination by building 30,000 square feet of meeting space at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza. His family's Star Plaza Theatre gave a home to the Northwest Symphony Orchestra for many years. 

The Star Plaza, which was the largest theater in the state and the third biggest in the Chicago metro area, drew in top acts like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, Bob Dylan, Christina Aguilera and B.B. King. It drew 500,000 visitors a year at one point and helped cement Northwest Indiana as part of Chicagoland.

His initial investment in a Holiday Inn, which at the time some scoffed at as being in the middle of nowhere, helped lead to the development of Southlake Mall and all the big box stores and restaurants that now line that stretch of U.S. 30. 

"Mr. White was a visionary and an innovator," Merrillville Councilman Shawn Pettit said.

"He saw what this area could become and has become — a very successful center of retail, service and entertainment. He was way ahead of the development curve. His development spearheaded the growth in the town of Merrillville."

White also played a huge role in Crown Point where he lived in one of Northwest Indiana's most palatial homes. He built the entire Morningside subdivision, an exclusive enclave that has some of the highest valued homes in the Region nestled amid woods, ponds, waterfalls and tended gardens.

His foundation donated to the city, the Southlake YMCA, the Lake Courthouse Foundation, and the Crown Point Community Foundation. Many got grants and scholarships that forever changed their lives, Crown Point Mayor David Uran said. 

"We have lost a pillar of our community, as has the entire Region lost a visionary and true leader," he said.

"Through his hard work and determination Mr. White was able to build several very successful companies and was blessed with the rewards of those successes. Mr. White was a true leader as he graciously opened his door to anyone that needed his help. He would listen to their concerns intently and evaluate how his help would be best served."

Purposeful local leadership

White believed in the proverb that you feed a man for a lifetime when you teach him to fish, and did more than just write checks, Uran said.

"While he surely had the means to assist anyone who came to him for help, Mr. White would require that, instead of his contribution to a cause be the only one, he insisted that a partnership with others be formed," Uran said.

"This would give the program asking for the donation a relationship that would last and ensure that his gift would live on beyond his foundation’s contribution." 

The Dean & Barbara White Family Foundation, founded in 1997, has supported arts and culture, child welfare, economic development, higher education, human services, special population support, zoos and independent living for people with disabilities.

"Dean White was unwaveringly devoted to the Northwest Indiana community, not just through his business acumen, but through his full range of talents and energy," Democratic U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky said.

His impact was felt throughout Indiana. White, for instance, built a premier hotel in Fort Wayne and contributed $2 million to the International Orangutan Exhibit at the Indianapolis zoo.

“Dean White was a tremendous businessman and civic leader," Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said.

"No matter the cause or need, you could count on him to come through. What I will remember most is Dean had such a passion for the state and wanted to see it flourish. He leaves behind a wonderful legacy of a life fully lived; he so positively impacted not only Northwest Indiana but the entire state."

White shied away from public attention, especially in recent years. But he worked behind the scenes, donating tens of millions of dollars to projects like the preservation of the Old Lake County Courthouse in downtown Crown Point and the development of the Crown Point Sportsplex, a 95-acre facility with stadium seating that hosts football, lacrosse, soccer and softball games.

"People are sometimes measured by the material things that they acquire during their lifetime," Uran said. "The truly special ones are measured by the legacy they leave behind versus having their name in the forefront of the attention of others."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.