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Bruce G. Southworth, 71, ‘Renaissance Man’ ran gallery, known for parties

Bruce G. Southworth

Bruce G. Southworth

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Updated: October 30, 2012 6:13AM

If you’d ever been to one of his parties, then you’d know: You haven’t been to a party until you’ve been to one thrown by Bruce Southworth.

And if you loved old, beautiful things, then you’d probably heard of his North Shore antique gallery, Samlesbury Hall, in Lake Forest.

But back to the parties the wildly creative event planner for more than 40 years put together.

There was the week-long Caribbean cruise in 1998, a “Tribute to Maya Angelou” hosted by Oprah Winfrey and attended by 150 of her closest friends. The event was described by Winfrey in the May 2002 issue of Oprah Magazine as “the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Or there were Mr. Southworth’s annual Dads & Sons Mardi Gras outing for close friends and their boys — not having children, Mr. Southworth would bring his nephews, an outing that involved outlandish costumes, a float and a tour of New Orleans.

Whatever the event, Mr. Southworth’s invitations were similar to those won by hopefuls seeking a tour of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

“Bruce was really a Renaissance man. He brought a sense of style and fashion and fun to everything he did. Whether he was doing it for friends, corporate leaders or celebrities, everything with him was theatrical,” said Ed Weed, a best friend for the past five decades.

“Every party was unique,” said Weed. “It got to the point where if people wanted Bruce to do a party for them, they’d say, ‘Here’s the budget,’ and they wanted to be surprised.

Bruce’s dream was creating, and he was living his dream.”

Mr. Southworth, who operated both the gallery and his nationally known event planning firm, Southworth Productions, Inc. in Lake Forest since the early 1970s, died in his sleep Friday morning at his home. He was 71.

Born in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1940, to parents Louise Southworth Parker and George Minch Southworth, he was the only son of three siblings. He went to a prep boarding school specializing in Naval training, the Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg, Fla., then Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., graduating in 1962.

Having developed a love for the sea, both through his Admiral Farragut training and much time spent on his father’s boat, Mr. Southworth joined the Navy soon after. He would spend two years on an aircraft carrier, mostly in Europe, and return with exciting tales, fueling his penchant for storytelling, family and friends said.

He then went to work for Sears, Roebuck & Co., where his father and uncles were long-time employees, and soon excelled in Sears’ merchandising and design department, quickly moving up the ladder over the course of his 15 years there, his family said. While at Sears, he met a young interior designer, Mary Monek, and fell for her.

“He went on a couple of double dates with her — she was with the other guy, and he decided he was more interested in her,” said his nephew and namesake, Bruce Rylance.

“They started dating, and married in 1969,” said Rylance, who would come up summers to work for his uncle. Mr. Southworth took him along on that first Dads & Sons Mardi Gras trip.

“Aunt Mary was running her own business and the two of them truly complemented each other in their line of work, but also in their personal interests,” Rylance said. “They were just a perfect balance to each other’s lives.”

In 1970, Mr. Southworth and his wife moved into a landmark home in Lake Forest, which they restored.

A few years later, the couple accompanied Mr. Southworth’s parents to their ancestral home in England, Samlesbury Hall, where Mr. Southworth gained a deeper appreciation for beautiful things with history, particularly the Georgian period of English antiques.

He returned with the decision to start his own antique business, which, formally established in 1982, became one of the Midwest’s largest importers of 18th and 19th century English antiques.

It’s how his friend of 15 years, Jim Farrell, met him.

“We met through our wives at the antique shop, and began to socialize. I know no one else of Bruce’s character and style. Bruce was a larger than life kind of guy, not only in his persona but in his person,” said Farrell, who attended many of Mr. Southworth’s events, from the Dads & Sons outing to European-themed cruises.

“He was an immaculate dresser, the kind of guy to wear a vest along with his suit, custom-made shirts, silk handkerchiefs, and if he could get away with it, a cane,” said Farrell. “And Bruce could tell a story a minute for 10 hours a day where you would just want to listen.”

Survivors include his wife of 43 years; his mother; two sisters, Ann Southworth Davis of Tallahassee, Fla., and Susan Southworth Baldwin of Mobile, Ala.; and a host of nieces and nephews.

“Our life was one big party,” said his wife, Mary Monek Southworth.

“We just laughed and had a good time all the time. Bruce was an open book. I think everybody knew everything about him. They all know that he just took the world in as his own, loved everybody, and everyone loved him,” she said.

“He was just a great guy. He was my best friend.”

Visitation will be held from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at Wenban Funeral Home, 320 E. Vine Ave., Lake Forest. A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Church of St. Mary, 175 E. Illinois Rd., Lake Forest.

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