SALISBURY, Md. - William B. Johnson, one of Chicago's leading business executives from 1966 to 1986, died of a stroke Wednesday, April 24 in Lake Forest, Illinois. Born in 1918 and raised in Salisbury, Maryland, he received his A.B. Degree, Maxima cum laude, in 1940 from Washington College, where he served as president of the Student Government Association. At the University of Pennsylvania Law School he was the Editor and Chief of The Law Review, and received his L.L.B. Degree in 1943. He served as an attorney with the U.S. Tax Court from 1945-47, and then joined the Pennsylvania Railroad as Assistant Solicitor. After advancing and serving as their Assistant General Counsel, he left in 1959 to become president and director of the Railway Express Agency. He was elected president, chief executive officer and a director of the Illinois Central Railroad and its parent company, IC Industries in 1966. He served as chairman of the Executive Committee of Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Company from 1972 through 1976. In 1972, Mr. Johnson was elected chairman and chief executive officer of IC Industries, where he directed the acquisition of over 100 companies, growing IC Industries to a Fortune 100 Company. Mr. Johnson was Crain's Chicago "Executive of the Year" in 1985 and received Loyola's Damen Award for Civic Leadership in 1986, among many other achievements in his long career. After receiving national attention and the cover of Business Week for his revitalization on the Railway Express Agency, he came to Chicago as Chief Executive of the Illinois Central Railroad and grew the railroad into a diverse international conglomerate known first as IC Industries and later as Whitman Corporation, controlling extensive interests in food and consumer products (including PET Foods, Whitman Chocolate, Old El Paso, Dad's Rootbeer), real estate (Illinois Center), manufacturing (ABEX) and transportation (Illinois Central Gulf Railroad). Mr. Johnson: Modernized the IC railroad, merged it into the Gulf Mobile & Ohio, spun it off, and ultimately it was sold to the Canadian National Railway; Used the railroad property and air rights to partner in the development of the Illinois Center Development on the lakefront in downtown Chicago, which included the largest contract public works infrastructure in the city's history; Bought and sold over 100 companies, merged and integrated them over a 21 year span to generate a compounded annual rate of return of over 15%; and contributed actively to the Boards of University of Chicago, Penn Law School, Loyola University, Washington College, TransUnion Corporation, Aetna, SwissAir, the former Continental Illinois National Bank and Michael Reese Hospital, and many others. Mr. Johnson continued his affiliation with the Illinois Central Railroad, serving as director and audit committee chairman until June, 1999, when the merger with Canadian National was completed. Past directorships include: Perdue Farms, Inc., Lear Seigler's Owner's Committee, Swiss Air Advisory Board, Tans Union Cooperation, American Productivity Center, Chicago Central Area Committee, Webster Broadcasting, Whitman Corporation, Continental Bank (now known as Bank of America), Esmark, Pet Foods, Midas, Abex, Hussman, Pepsi-Cola General Bottlers, Waukeshaw Manufacturing, Lincoln Financial, etc.
He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Mary Barb, his sons, Ben and Kirk, his daughter Kathleen Browning and his six grandchildren, Will, Olivia, Eileen, Grace, Ben and John.
A private burial will take place at the Johnson family cemetery in Salisbury Maryland. A memorial service will be held at St. Mary's parish at 2:00 PM on June 14, 2013 in Lake Forest, Illinois. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago at 225 E. Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60611. Local Arrangements are in the care of Holloway Funeral Home, P.A., 501 Snow Hill Road, Salisbury, MD 21804. To send condolences to the family please visit Holloway Funeral Home's website.