Des Plaines man who led national American Legion dies at 85

 
By Eileen O. Daday
Updated 1/17/2011 1:15 PM
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  • John Henry Geiger

    John Henry Geiger

John Geiger, who influenced national policy for veterans for nearly 30 years and helped build O'Hare International Airport's award-winning Terminal 1, has passed away.

The Des Plaines resident and World War II veteran rose through the American Legion ranks after returning home from the war, ascending first as Illinois commander in 1960 then leading the 2 million-member organization from 1971 to 1972 as its national commander. He later served on the National Commander's Advisory Committee from 1978 to 1999.

Mr. Geiger passed away Jan. 10, at the age of 85.

"We have lost a great leader in our organization," former National Commander Jake Comer wrote on a Legion-affiliated website. "He was an icon."

Mr. Geiger grew up in Iowa, where his father directed units in the Civil Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. As a World War I veteran, Geiger's father also was influential in helping to bring the American Legion to the state.

"My father was raised by founding members of the Legion in Iowa," said one of Mr. Geiger's six children, Vivienne Hildebrand of Elgin. "He was raised in that tradition.

"And then as members of the Greatest Generation came back from World War II, they boosted the numbers in the Legion," Hildebrand added. "My dad kept up his leadership all the way along."

Hildebrand said that during her father's tenure as national commander, he traveled to Europe and the Far East, and held government hearings on veterans' affairs.

Mr. Geiger's American Legion colleagues recall him testifying before Congress on several issues, including not dismantling or absorbing the Veterans Administration -- now known as Veteran Affairs -- into a national health care plan, and not granting blanket amnesty to Vietnam War draft dodgers.

They added that Mr. Geiger also urged every Legionnaire to write their legislators calling for improvements to the G.I. Bill for Vietnam War veterans.

Mr. Geiger enlisted in the Army at age 17 and served in the 11th Armored Division with a tank battalion. His units served in the Battle of the Bulge and the Army of the Occupation.

After the war, Mr. Geiger earned his architecture and engineering degrees from the University of Illinois on the G.I. Bill. He briefly joined a Chicago architecture firm before starting his own company, John H. Geiger & Associates, in Des Plaines.

In 1966, Mr. Geiger accepted a job with United Airlines in its facilities and properties department, bringing his experience as an architect and engineer to the rapidly expanding company.

He oversaw the building or expansion of United terminals in Los Angeles, Hawaii and Salt Lake City. While famed architect Helmut Jahn designed United's O'Hare Terminal 1 in 1987, it was Mr. Geiger who supervised its construction.

Mr. Geiger was preceded in death by his wife, Vivienne DeBaets Geiger, in 1992. Besides his daughter, Mr. Geiger is survived by his companion, Florence Tanka; his children Ellen (Michael) Rosborough of LaCrosse, Wis.; Lois Bruffey of Lawrenceville, Ga.; Laura (Paul) Widhalm of Batavia; Carl Geiger of Des Plaines; and Jack (Carol) Geiger of Arlington Heights. He's also survived by 10 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

Mr. Geiger was buried Monday with full military honors at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Ill.