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Auto dealer, philanthropist Jerry Gleason dies

Jerry Gleasobit photo

Jerry Gleason obit photo

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:59AM

Gerald “Jerry” Gleason sold tens of thousands of vehicles in his lifetime, 364 of them in a single year.

He also gave cars away for fund-raising events at Misericordia, a center for children and adults with developmental disabilities, and the Irish American Heritage Center.

“That was something we never expected,” said Sister Rosemary Connelly, Misericordia’s director, of the first time Mr. Gleason told her he wanted to donate a car for the organization’s September festival raffle. “He’s done it for 30 years, and each year the car is there for us. That’s one of the reasons our festival was so successful.”

Mr. Gleason died from pulmonary disease Saturday at his home in Chicago, one day before his 82nd birthday.

A native of the Northwest Side who ran car dealerships in Forest Park and Niles, he was a father to seven children, grandfather to 16 and great-grandfather to 14.

“He touched many, many, many people,” his son Mike Gleason said. “He inspired many people. He never forgot from where he came.”

Though he built his businesses from the ground up, working at times 80-hour weeks, he attributed his success to good luck. He went out of his way to help those who were less fortunate, as he had been helped, his son Peter Gleason said. “(His businesses) were a point of pride, but it was also like he knew how lucky he was,” Peter said. “He would wake up every day and say, ‘I cannot believe how lucky I am.’”

Mr. Gleason was born in 1929 near St. Gregory the Great Church, 5545 N. Paulina in Chicago. One of five children, he took particular pride that his parents were Irish immigrants. He used a leprechaun as the Jerry Gleason Chevrolet mascot.

As young men growing up in Chicago, Mr. Gleason and his brother Bill were a pair of convivial “legends” on the Northwest Side, Peter said.

“They were troublemakers,” Peter said. “They would get in fights and then go get a drink after.”

In 1965, a friend from Mr. Gleason’s childhood offered him a job selling Fords, a needed lifeline because he was having trouble staying employed because of his drinking. In 1966, he sold 364 cars and trucks.

“His favorite car was the one that he sold,” Peter said.

As Mr. Gleason reached his 40s, though, he acknowledged he couldn’t control his drinking. In 1969, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and spent the rest of his life sober and promoting the program.

“He was one that was not anonymous,” said his son Mike. “He always had a moment to spend with anyone seeking help.”

After 10 years of selling cars, he borrowed money from the friend who offered him the job selling cars. Mr. Gleason bought a bankrupt dealership in Forest Park.

Mr. Gleason eventually owned three car dealerships, Jerry Gleason Chevrolet, Jerry Gleason Dodge and Jerry Gleason Golf Mill Ford. He also helped others invest in their own car businesses.

He was a good-humored mentor to many of his employees, said Ed Mallof, who worked with Mr. Gleason on his auto dealership advertising.

“Jerry was a generous self-made man who I thought set a wonderful example for everyone to follow,” said Mallof, who met Mr. Gleason in 1977. “I’d often tell him I wanted to be like him when I grew up.”

Remembering the break he got, Mr. Gleason would hire recovering addicts to work in his dealerships, his son Peter said.

“He always gave them a chance,” he said. “He didn’t talk the talk, he walked the walk.”

Mr. Gleason also served on the advisory board of Misericordia, an organization he became involved with because a childhood friend’s daughter was a resident.

“He loved those kids, he really did,” Peter said. “He just thought they were true gifts. He just cared very much for Misericordia and everything they did.”

A Kia Sorento he donated sits on display at Misericordia, ready for the organization’s Sept. 11 raffle.

In 1999, he sold his dealerships but spent his remaining years consulting. Mr. Gleason married three times, the final time to his devoted wife, Kay, in October 2007.

“He loved her, and she treated him very well,” Peter said.

Mr. Gleason is also survived by his children Sue Mennecke, Linda McNeil, and Pat, Diane and Peggy Gleason, and his sister Marge Tonelli and brother Ed Gleason.

Visitation is from 3 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at Cooney Funeral Home, 625 Busse Highway, Park Ridge. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Thursday at St. Gregory the Great Church. Burial is at All Saints Cemetery, 700 N. River Road, Des Plaines.

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