He was remarkable for the way in which his character combined force with geniality...His conspicuous personal attractiveness, his fine and wholesome example as a gentleman, his constant, varied, most generous and yet most discriminated charities, his conspicuous business conservatism and judgment, so justified by success, and the steadfastness in his religious life, made him a man of rare value and usefulness to all circles with whom he closely associated, and to the large circle of the great city.
Born on March 8, 1827, in New York City of Scottish immigrants, John Crerar went to work in 1856 for Morris K. Jesup, owner of a railway supply business.
Crerar came to Chicago in 1862 as Jesup's partner to inspect one of their branch offices, a large manufacturing and distributing plant for railroad supplies founded by J. McGregor Adams. So impressed with the future possibilities of Adams' business and Chicago itself Crerar purchased Jesup's interest, becoming president of the new firm Crerar, Adams & Company. During this period Chicago was becoming a great railway center and a chief distribution point for railroad supplies. Financial success was immediate and by 1868 Crerar leading businessman financing new railways and involving himself in companies like the Chicago and Alton Railroad Company, the Chicago & Joliet Railroad, the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank, and the London, Liverpool and Globe Insurance Company. He served as director of all these organizations and president of some at one time or another. Crerar was one of the incorporators of the Pullman Palace Car Company and served on its' Board of Directors throughout his life. Crerar became one of Chicago's leading citizens as well lending his influence and resources to causes he considered beneficial to the development of Chicago. Following the 1871 fire, as Director of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, he was selected by the New York Chamber of Commerce to distribute the funds sent by them. Active in the Commercial Club which founded the Chicago Manual Training School, later to become part of the University of Chicago High School, Crerar also belonged to the Chicago Literary Club, the Chicago Historical Society, the YMCA, the American Sunday School Union, the Chicago Orphan Asylum, and the Presbyterian Hospital, holding positions of director or president in each.
A lifelong interest in books and learning, Crerar was an active member and former president of the New York Mercantile Library, and instrumental in bringing William Makepeace Thackeray to America on his famous lecture tour of 1852.
Known for leading a quiet personal life, Crerar never married and made his residence at the Grand Pacific Hotel. He was a fervent ecclesiastic and active protagonist of orthodoxy. In 1886 while still in good health, Crerar wrote his will bequeathing large sums of money to friends, cousins on his mother's side, philanthropies, and for the erection of a statue of Abraham Lincoln. All monies left over were to be used for the founding of a free public library. Although Crerar did not specify the scope of the library, it "must not contain nastiness and immorality", such as "dirty French novels and all skeptical trash and works of questionable moral tone", a reflection of the character he had developed throughout his life.
John Crerar died in Chicago on October 19, 1889 and was buried in Brooklyn next to his mother. The Chicago Central Music Hall could not accommodate all who wished to attend his memorial service.
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