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Preferring the shadows to the spotlight, Dean White let Liberace do the talking.

"Years ago, Liberace was being interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and he asked Liberace where he made the most money -- that it must have been in New York," recalled Bill Wellman, Whiteco Industries senior vice president.

"Liberace said 'no,' it's in Merrillville, Indiana. I go there twice a year for 12 days and do 14 shows and make more money there than any place in the country.'

"Dean put Merrillville on the map. The Chicago media thought he was out of his mind. But he put it out here and it worked. It was like a spoke. For a 25-mile radius, there was an economic impact from the theater.

"It acted as a center because 95 percent of the people would go someplace else to eat. Restaurants from Phil Smidt's in Hammond to Teibel's in Schererville to Strong Bow in Valparaiso were packing them in."

Filling the parking lot with 60 buses from around the Midwest, the flamboyant piano player known for his extravagant costumes and candelabra still holds the record at the venue, known as the Star Plaza Theatre.

White, 84, of Crown Point, who has been publicity shy during the span of his brilliant global career, is credited for the massive growth of the Interstate 65-U.S. 30 corridor, which was spurred by the Twin Towers office buildings and the theater.

Back in the 1970s when White built his first hotel, a Holiday Inn, the interchange was nothing but cornfields. Today, the area is a retail mecca.

White, a Nebraska native, has several things in common with America's most beloved self-made billionaire and investor, Warren Buffet. Both were born in he Cornhusker State and both are on Forbes Magazine's lists of wealthiest citizens.

But it is not money that motivates White. He loves challenges and accomplishments, especially in Northwest Indiana.

It was White's father who launched a billboard sign company in 1935 in south Lake County's Shelby. Dean took over the business in 1946, making it a leader in the U.S. A half-century later, he sold it to Chancellor Media Corp.

But being a shrewd businessman, after observing a five-year noncompete clause in the Chancellor agreement, White founded View billboards and started his billboard empire anew.

As he puts it, "It's a business I know very well."

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He recently sold a string of hotels across the nation.

Today, his holdings include Whiteco Qingyu, a billboard company in China, which owns 550 billboards. Some says he is the "billboard king of China."

]Among other holdings are WPM Construction, which builds hotels, Whiteco Residential LLC, a residential developer and Profile Systems, which is a technology operation that monitors billboard and facility lighting via satellite.

White still owns the Radisson Hotel and Star Plaza in Merrillville and is building hotels in Las Vegas and Denver. In Indianapolis, a new 1,000-room Marriott convention center hotel is in the works.

Former Hammond mayor Thomas McDermott Sr. said White is exceedingly generous.

"Whenever someone has a fundraiser, he's always been No. 1 on the charity hit list," McDermott said. "I know because I'm the one that usually asks."

Indeed, the Dean and Barbara White Foundation supports a wide variety of local causes, such as Boys & Girls Clubs, universities and hospitals, as well as the Indiana State Museum and the Indiana Grantmakers Alliance.

"He is a visionary who sees things most other people don't and has the courage and willingness to back it up with his own investment dollars," McDermott added.

White is described as a humble, good-natured, approachable workaholic who still finds work fun. McDermott said his friend refuses to be lured from his homegrown roots and is not done leaving his footprints on Northwest Indiana.

Cedar Lake has been the latest beneficiary of his caring. He recently built condominiums along the lake -- sold out before completion -- and has plans in place for a subdivision and restaurant. Some cautioned projects there might not be financially sound, but White is proving them wrong as he helps revive the lakeside community he knew so well as a young man.

"He still goes into the office every day, telling his staff what he's going to do next. He's just a regular guy who sits in the same seat at the restaurant every morning reading the paper with his cup of coffee.

"You know how he'll be remembered? As a real nice guy that did well -- and never forgot where he came from," McDermott said.

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