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Billionaire Dean White was such a towering figure in the Northwest Indiana business community that the vote to induct him into the 2017 Class of the South Shore Wall of Legends was unanimous and quick.

"It's no surprise it was a unanimous vote," said Speros Batistatos, South Shore Wall of Legends committee member and South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority president and CEO. "He was a prolific philanthropist. He dominated the hospitality industry."

Batistatos said White put the Region on the map. 

"With everything he's done, it was a short, quick and unanimous vote," he said.

White died at the age of 93 last year, after amassing a fortune of $2.5 billion from a national billboard and hotel business that made him the 260th wealthiest person in the U.S. in 2016, according to Forbes Magazine. He built hotels across the country, as well as the Lighthouse Restaurant in Cedar Lake, the 34-story "Big Blue" JW Marriott skyscraper in Indianapolis and the Morningside subdivision in Crown Point.

Dean White's son, Bruce, said his father loved Northwest Indiana and would have been flattered by the recognition. 

"He took great risks, but believed in the people and local economy of the Region," said Bruce White, founder and chairman of Merrillville-based White Lodging. "He was proud of what he and the residents of the area created together, and my sister, brothers and I are all committed to helping his legacy live on here.”

Shaping the Region

Dean White transformed Merrillville from farm fields to Northwest Indiana's "main street," building the Twin Towers, Celebration Station, the Radisson at Star Plaza conference center and the Star Plaza Theatre, which drew A-list performers and hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the Region.

Now Dean White will join prominent Region figures including early flight pioneer Octave Chanute; "A Christmas Story" author Jean Shepherd; popcorn magnate Orville Redenbacher; ecologist Henry Chandler Cowles and astronaut Jerry Ross in the South Shore Wall of Legends. The accomplished figures are honored in a hall of fame-like wall display at the Indiana Welcome Center, 7770 Corinne Drive in Hammond.

Batistatos said the legends wall is a great asset to the Welcome Center and an opportunity for visitors to learn about the people who shaped the Region. 

"Past inductees include (actor) Karl Malden, the Tuskegee Airmen and (middleweight boxing champion) Tony Zale," he said. "It's a distinguished list."

Batistatos said White epitomized what the Wall of Legends stands for, which is intended to inspire the next generation to make their own contributions along the South Shore.

Lasting legacy

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After inheriting the White Advertising Co. billboard business from his father, Dean White turned it from a small operation out of the back of a pickup truck into a major international company, which branched out into hotels. 

Dean White had the foresight to see the growing interstate system would create a demand for Holiday Inns just off the highway. Whiteco Industries went on to build hotels, restaurants, retail, offices, condos, apartments, long-term care facilities, warehouses and Celebration Station family entertainment facilities.

Dean White later cashed in by selling his billboard company to Chancellor Media Group for $960 million, and 100 hotels to BET founder Robert Johnson for $1.7 billion.

Despite being the 789th richest person in the world at the time of his death in 2016, White maintained a low profile. He quietly donated to many causes, including the Southlake YMCA, the Lake Courthouse Foundation, the Crown Point SportsPlex and the Crown Point Community Foundation. 

Dean White funded Purdue University Northwest's White Lodging Center for Hospitality and Tourism Management in Hammond and gave life-changing scholarships to many students.

Batistatos said Dean White's work and philanthropy changed Northwest Indiana and America.

"There were no boundaries to his success," Batistatos said. "He was a quiet, respected leader behind the scenes. This was the first time he was nominated, and he was voted in quickly because of the prolific body of work he's done. It can't be limited to Northwest Indiana or Indiana or any geographical area."

White leaves a major legacy, having poured money into many causes including a veterans memorial in Merrillville, restoring the Old Courthouse in downtown Crown Point and the upcoming Crown Point YMCA expansion.

John Davies, South Shore Legends founder and coordinator, said White and civil rights leader Quentin Smith were giants in Northwest Indiana.

"White's legacy will live on for generations," Davies said. "He became one of America's most wealthy people but continued to live in Northwest Indiana."

Davies said White was a great entrepreneur and a tremendous business leader.

"He is known for so many contributions in the business world, but was also extremely generous as a philanthropist," Davies said. "Where do you start?"

Davies said Dean White's life is celebrated for all of the iconic moments. 

"What struck me more than anything was the long hours he put in often working from the back of a pickup truck as he started his lifelong journey to greatness," Davies said. "His life was remarkable and his love for Northwest Indiana was legendary. He stayed here and made Northwest Indiana work better and inspired all of us in the process."

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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.