Dean and Barbara White

Dean and Barbara White are pictured.

Dean V. White was a developer, hotelier, theater impresario and major marketer, but never a self-promoter.

In 2015, White had a net worth of $2.5 billion and had been named to Forbes magazine's 400 richest people in the world many times. That same year, he was listed as the 268th richest American.

White died Wednesday. He was 93. He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Barbara, children Cynthia Merida, Bruce White, Christopher White and Craig White. He is also survived by seven grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and his beloved golden retriever, Blue. Dean had five siblings and one surviving sister. 

Forbes Magazine's real-time ranking of billionaires placed White as the 789th richest person in the world Wednesday.

According to Forbes, White was Northwest Indiana's lone billionaire.

White owned billboards across the world, but was rarely in the public eye, instead letting his money speak for him with multimillion-dollar donations to education, charities and politics.

Modest beginnings

The White family fortune began modestly when his father launched a billboard sign company in 1935 in the sleepy community of Shelby.

Dean White took over his father's billboard company in 1946 and used the profits to build Whiteco Industries, a hotel and real estate development empire based in Merrillville. The outdoor advertising business eventually owned hundreds of billboards in the U.S. and China. He sold the billboard business to Chancellor Media Corp. in 1998 for $960 million.

The business also branched out into real estate development and became a leading hotel operator in Indiana.

White has sold more than a billion dollars in outdoor advertising and hotel assets only to drop big money on a multi-hotel project at Marriott Place in downtown Indianapolis.

In 2006, White sold 100 hotels to BET founder Robert Johnson for $1.7 billion. In early 2011, he opened a $450 million development in Indianapolis next to Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, which has five hotels including a 1,005-room Marriott, the largest JW Marriott hotel in the world.

Locals call the glistening skyscraper "Big Blue" and a replica is on display in the lobby of son Bruce White's hospitality company, White Lodging.

His Whiteco Residential company built more than 4,000 apartments along the Eastern seaboard.

In late 2012, he donated $2 million to the Indianapolis Zoo to build the International Orangutan Exhibit, which will include a research center focused on orangutan conservation. Whiteco announced in late 2013 that it was building a 32,000-square-foot "memory care facility" in Merrillville with 50 rooms for residents diagnosed with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, which opened in June.

'Main Street of Lake County'

He was best known for buying farm fields around Interstate 65 and U.S. 30 and erecting a Holiday Inn and business offices known as the Twin Towers during the early 1970s. Later that same decade, he expanded his holdings into Star Plaza Theater and Radisson Hotel and conference center.

White is widely credited with transforming Merrillville and Hobart into a retail mecca after building a Holiday Inn, now the Radisson at Star Plaza, amid cornfields in 1969. His son Bruce White built the Holiday Star Theatre, now the Star Plaza, which was the largest theater in Indiana and the second largest in the Chicago area at the time, drawing as many as 500,000 visitors to Northwest Indiana a year. Both will be torn down next year to make room for a new hotel at U.S. 30 and Interstate 65.

He told The Times he envisioned turning the once rural area into "the Main Street of Lake County."

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Bill Wellman, 92, a lifelong friend of White, worked closely with White through their time at Whiteco Industries. Wellman handled public relations.

"When he opened the theater, I remember on the following Monday, I got three phone calls from three of the larger restaurants ... saying 'You've got to give us your schedule. We were hit (with customers) last night and we didn't know what happened to us.' So in a circle of about 25 miles, (the theater's opening) affected a lot of people," Wellman said.

White has donated millions to Purdue University, which is home to Purdue University Northwest's White Lodging Center for Hospitality and Tourism Management at the Calumet campus in Hammond.

White also was Lake County's premier homeowner, with a $5.6 million estate in Crown Point's gated Morningside subdivision.

White's wealth grew rapidly in recent years, rising to an estimated $2.5 billion last year from $1.8 billion in 2013.

Republican donor

He also was a major Republican donor, and donated $1 million to American Crossroads in the 2012 campaign cycle. White has supported numerous Indiana Republicans, including state Rep. and House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and has also donated money to the House Republican Campaign Committee of Indiana.

White has been an unmatched powerhouse of funding for the war chests of Indiana’s political party of power throughout the years.

He personally pumped $4 million into five of the Indiana GOP’s six largest campaign funds between 2011 and 2014, a Times’ analysis of state campaign finance records revealed.

White was the number one, two or three overall donor to those five campaign funds, which include the powerful Indiana Republican State Committee.

In September 2013, he donated $250,000 to the campaign fund of Republican Gov. Mike Pence.

Including that latest donation, White had given the Pence campaign $775,000 since May 2011, according to Indiana campaign finance records. Overall, one out of every $20 raised by Pence has come from White.

In June 2013, White gave Pence $100,000 after campaign manager Kyle Robertson sent Pence supporters an urgent plea for cash to help pump up the governor's fundraising totals at the end of the semiannual reporting period.

Huge impact on Northwest Indiana

Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, said White's impact on the community will never be forgotten.

He described White, a major supporter of tourism, as a "man of great vision," adding that "his generosity to the community approaches legendary."

"His investment launched thousands of careers. You would be hard pressed to find someone in our industry in Northwest Indiana who didn't start out, like I did, at the Star Plaza Theater, or in that building," Batistatos said.

"Countless people got their first jobs there. The man touched so many lives. He was an incredible business leader, an incredible philanthropist and a man who was always very humble about everything he was able to accomplish."

Times staffers Joseph S. Pete and Marc Chase contributed to this report.

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.

Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.