Dead Folks: Business/World Affairs
Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.
At the time of his death, some of the short obituary entries read: Roy Disney, businessman.
They got that right. The last Disney family member to be involved with company clearly possessed the business acumen—and sheer willpower—to twice rescue the mammoth enterprise from spiraling into financial and creative irrelevance. In the movie industry, Roy is known as “the man who saved Disney.”
Roy was prepared for that destiny almost from childhood. His uncle Walt obviously instilled in him an abiding fondness for storytelling through animation. His father, Roy O. Disney, ran the business end of the Walt Disney Company in those early years; fierce and long-lasting disputes between Roy O. and Walt about money revealed to Roy, Jr., that there was much more to the Wonderful World of Disney than just cartoons. He worked for the company during the 1950s and ’60s producing True Life Adventures, an Oscar-winning series of wildlife documentaries that eventually became a staple of Walt Disney’s Sunday night TV program.
After years of producing shorts about injured owls, lonesome cougars, and mischievous raccoons, Roy joined the board of directors when Walt died in 1967. The lackluster production of the 1970s-model Disney company left him with not much to do, so Roy departed, established the Shamrock Holdings investment company, and made several hundred million dollars in real estate deals and corporate raids over the next two decades. Still technically a member of the board, but suddenly no longer dependent on Disney stock holdings for his livelihood, by the early 1980s Roy was a formidable force—aka a billionaire with an opinion. It was his opinion in 1984 that a big change was in order for the Walt Disney Company.
Through some bold corporate maneuvers and a very showy “departure” that rattled shareholders, Roy pushed aside management and installed Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg at the top. This period, known as “the reanimation of Disney,” brought a tide of animated hits, box office bonanzas, retail stores, toys, clothing lines, cable shows, and something called Pixar. Two decades later, when company profits were declining again, Roy noticed that Eisner was cutting corners with new theme park construction, shutting him out of new creative development meetings, and alienating the management at Pixar. Shoving everyone out was more difficult during Roy’s second “Save Disney” campaign, but long story short: Eisner no longer has a Golden Pass, and Pixar/Apple Computer head Steve Jobs is Disney’s largest shareholder. At Roy Disney’s passing, Shamrock Holdings was a $2 billion enterprise. (79, stomach cancer) —David Pelfrey
Oscar G. Mayer, Jr.
The biggest name in wieners died this year, but he wasn’t the first Oscar Mayer to make it big in hot dogs. Oscar F. Mayer started the meatpacking empire that bears the name. He died in 1955 and the company was taken over by Oscar G. Mayer—who passed away in 1965. It was left to Oscar G. Mayer, Jr., to see his name become a memorable commercial jingle. There was a time in the early 1970s when everyone’s baloney had a first name and a last name spelled out by cute kids on national TV. Mayer’s death marked the end of a long retirement, as he left the company after celebrating its first billion-dollar year in 1977. Sadly, no one thought to build an Oscar Mayer Wienerhearse. (95, natural causes) —J.R.T.
A self-described “bleeding-heart conservative,” former New York Republican congressman and vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp was a staunch believer in tax cuts and supply-side economic policy who often embraced elements of social liberalism. He was a bit of a pariah in conservative circles for his support of affirmative action and welfare. Kemp’s sensitivity to urban problems prompted the first President Bush to appoint him as chief of Housing and Urban Development.
A former pro quarterback who led the Buffalo Bills to a pair of AFL championships in the 1960s, his camaraderie with black athletes during his playing days was one reason he strongly encouraged the GOP to actively seek support from minorities. As president of the AFL Players Association, he convinced the league to move its 1965 all-star game to Houston after black players threatened to boycott the game in New Orleans following ugly incidents of discrimination. He later claimed that sports steeled him for the harshness of political life. “Pro football gave me a good sense of perspective to enter politics: I’d already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded, and hung in effigy.” Among his favorite memories is going to Red Square in Moscow, where he was amused that the line at a McDonald’s restaurant was longer than the one to see Lenin’s tomb. (73, cancer) —Ed Reynolds