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Robert D. Stuart Jr., former Quaker Oats CEO, dies at 98

Robert D. Stuart Jr.

Robert D. Stuart, Jr.

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Updated: June 14, 2014 6:19AM



A grandson of one of the founders of Quaker Oats, Robert D. Stuart Jr. rose to be CEO during 38 years with the Chicago company.

He led Quaker Oats’ expansion during that time through acquisitions including Fisher-Price toys and pioneering cross-marketing efforts — like helping to finance the now-classic 1971 movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and tying Quaker candy to the film.

Mr. Stuart, 98, died of heart failure May 8 while returning to the United States. from a monthlong vacation in France with his wife Lillan.

From 1964 to 1972, Mr. Stuart was a Republican national committeeman from Illinois, and he donated large sums to Republican Party candidates and causes.

During the Reagan administration, he was the U.S. ambassador to Norway.

In 1940, Mr. Stuart was at the center of a political maelstrom as Americans debated what the country’s role in World War II should be. He was a student at Yale University when he helped found the group America First, whose backers included aviator Charles Lindbergh and fellow Yalie Gerald Ford, who would succeed Richard Nixon as president. The influential group was estimated to have 800,000 members.

Depending on one’s point of view, it was an anti-war group or an isolationist group. But America First became a moot point on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese fighters bombed Pearl Harbor, according to the James Duffy book Lindbergh vs. Roosevelt: The Rivalry that Divided America. A day later, Lindbergh called the young Robert D. Stuart Jr. to suggest the cancellation of an America First rally. Mr. Stuart agreed, and he went on to serve in the U.S. Army as a field artillery major.

Mr. Stuart grew up in Lake Forest in a family with “a Scotch oatmilling background,” he said in a 1991 oral history shared with Charles Stuart Kennedy of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. His maternal grandfather, James Gore King McClure, was president of Lake Forest College and McCormick Theological Seminary. He attended Los Alamos Ranch School in New Mexico and spent time in Wyoming, where his parents had a ranch.

His father, Quaker executive R. Douglas Stuart, worked with the Roosevelt administration to boost the economy during the Depression but felt wary about dealing with United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis. “I remember Dad having thought of John L. Lewis as kind of a spooky type,” he told Kennedy.

But he recalled “finding John L. and Dad reviewing some issues together. And John L. was a very impressive character who could quote Shakespeare with the best.” His father would become U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Mr. Stuart earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton. He got his start at Quaker Oats during college, with a summer job as a millwright’s helper at a plant in Canada.

During his World War II service, he witnessed President Roosevelt’s return from the Yalta Conference. He later told Kennedy that Roosevelt was “looking very gray, very white-faced, with beads of perspiration all over his brow . . . it also concerns you that the president had been in this kind of really weakened condition at a time that he was negotiating with one of [the] tougher hombres around, Joseph Stalin.’’

After the war, he got his law degree at Yale in 1946 and joined Quaker Oats. He became president in 1962 and was chief executive officer for 15 years, until retiring from the company in 1984 to join the diplomatic corps. During his tenure with Quaker Oats, the company acquired Brookstone, Joseph A. Bank and The Magic Pan restaurants, and sales grew from $365 million to more than $3 billion, according to a family-supplied biography.

He also emphasized corporate public service. Quaker Oats staffers volunteered to teach reading to underprivileged children, and the company produced a documentary on civil rights leader Andrew Young, according to the late Chicago Sun-Times columnist Thomas Roeser.

Before building a big cereal plant in Danville, “The company encouraged — but didn’t order — the town fathers to pass an ordinance that ended de facto segregation,” Roeser wrote in 2001.

In 1938, Mr. Stuart wed Barbara Edwards, who attended the Madeira School and Vassar. Speaking with Kennedy, he credited her graciousness and intelligence with his success as ambassador to Norway from 1984 to 1989.

“In the face of considerable skepticism from Norwegians, Stuart gamely promoted President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Inititiative, more familiarly known as ‘Star Wars,’ earning the respect of the diplomatic and political community even as they disagreed with the U.S. policy he was promoting,” his family biography said. The Norwegian media dubbed him “en flink gutt” — a good lad.

Barbara Stuart died in 1993. Two years later, Mr. Stuart married Lillan Lovenskiold of Norway.

Fascinated with national security, Mr. Stuart loved Tom Clancy books, including The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising.

He was a Princeton University trustee and a director of United Airlines, First National Bank of Chicago and Deere & Company.

Mr. Stuart also is survived by a daughter, Marian Pillsbury; sons James M. Stuart and Alexander D. Stuart; a sister, Margaret Hart; eight grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and many Norwegian stepchildren, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned at 3 p.m. Saturday at First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest.

A 1992 Fortune magazine article called Mr. Stuart “The First America Firster.” Conservative Pat Buchanan was then using the term, Mr. Stuart noted, but, “My God, he’s using it very differently. Pat’s arguing in favor of economic nationalism. Most of us, back then, believed in free trade.”

America First’s stance was rendered invalid by modern warfare, he suggested to Kennedy. “Intercontinental missiles, the capabilities of technology have really changed the sort of theory that we all had at that time,” he said.

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