Constable: John F. Cuneo Jr., last of land barons, leaves legacy of charity, development
The seeds of modern suburbia were planted in 1937 when wealthy gentleman farmer John F. Cuneo Sr. bought his palatial estate in Vernon Hills and grew his Hawthorn Mellody Farms into a successful dairy and bustling tourist attraction. Today his dream has blossomed into Hawthorn Mall, countless subdivisions and the Cuneo Museum.
And next week, John F. Cuneo Jr., the last local link to one of the most influential and philanthropic Lake County families of the past century, will have his body returned to Illinois for burial.
He died Aug. 30 at age 88, surrounded by friends and family at his home in Sarasota, Florida.
"John was the last of the Mohicans," said Jack Childers, a sports agent from Lake Forest and longtime friend of Cuneo. Stefan Cuneo, the only son of John Jr. and Herta Cuneo, lives in Florida and hasn't been involved in Illinois business and charities, Childers said. Herta died in 2017.
Some people know the Cuneo name only because of the Cuneo Museum in Vernon Hills and the lavish Christmas displays and weddings hosted on those grounds. But the family played a key role in the development of Lake County and Chicago.
Born into the wealthy family of millionaires John and Julia Cuneo, John Jr. and his sister, Consuela, grew up in the family's opulent 32-room Italian Renaissance-style mansion built on a 4,000-acre farm in what is now Vernon Hills. The senior Cuneo, who made his fortune in publishing and with the Hawthorn Mellody Dairy, bought the estate in 1937 for $80 an acre after owner Samuel Insull, founder of ComEd, ran into financial hardship during the Depression and went bankrupt.
During John Jr.'s life, the Cuneo property was sold piece by piece, with acreage that was once a lavish example of a bygone era becoming shopping malls and housing tracts. A devout Catholic, John Jr. donated the last piece of that legacy -- 100 acres, the mansion and fine art collections -- to Loyola University.
"When I became president in 2001, he was already legendary at Loyola," said the Rev. Michael Garanzini, the university's president until 2015, when he stepped down to become chancellor. Garanzini, who will officiate part of Cuneo's memorial service, is on business in Rome but phoned to talk about Cuneo.
"For John, continuing the charity of the family was one of his highest motives. He was always giving," Garanzini said, noting the medical school is housed in the John and Herta Cuneo Center. The Cuneo name graces classrooms and medical and educational facilities in Illinois and in Florida.
An "old-fashioned," "opinionated," and at times "a cantankerous kind of guy," Cuneo donated well over $100 million to Loyola, Garanzini said. "The legacy will go on. We will continue to give out Cuneo scholarships."
While John Sr. ran his Cuneo Press publishing business and a chain of National Tea grocery stores and built the Golf Mill Shopping Center in Niles, his son "never wanted to be in any of his father's businesses," Childers said. Inheriting a fortune after his father died at age 92 in 1977, John Jr. built the trust by investing well. He once bought a parking lot in Chicago that now sports a skyscraper.
But the only business he created was Hawthorn Corp., a refuge near Richmond where Cuneo housed elephants, bears, white tigers, albino elk and other exotic animals, which he leased to traveling circuses amid complaints from animal welfare groups. His wife was born into a German circus family and performed with animals as Goldie Locks and "The Klauser Bears" before marrying Cuneo. One Christmas, she bought her husband a male elk for their herd of 28 on Cuneo property in unincorporated Fremont Center. In 2015, Cuneo sold 337 acres to the Lake County Forest Preserve District for nearly $10.5 million.
"That was John's love. He loved the animals," said Al Salvi, a former Illinois representative and Republican political candidate who became a close friend of Cuneo in 1992. "As a very young lad, he bought two elephants."
Cuneo, an equestrian and friend of Arlington Park owner Dick Duchossois, was a frequent guest at the racetrack in Arlington Heights. "I went to the Arlington Million with him five or six times. He knew his stuff," says Salvi, who lives near Cuneo's Grayslake home, which was built by Lloyd Wright, son of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
"John was a great storyteller," Salvi says. "When we'd go to dinner, he would keep the whole table spellbound with his stories."
John Sr. had talked about selling land to developers since the 1930s. "It was inevitable that the land be developed," John Jr. said during a 1984 Daily Herald interview. "As the land matures, there's more reason to develop it. You can't sell anything to anyone unless there's a demand."
John Sr. turned his Hawthorn Mellody Farms into a thriving dairy, and eventually a tourist attraction.
"At one time, 2,000 people a day would come out to see the cows get milked. But you can only watch cows being milked for so long, no matter how fascinating it is," John Jr. said in that 1984 interview. So the family added a petting zoo, a Western ghost town, a carriage museum, a steam train, a country store and a sports museum that housed items such as Joe Louis' boxing gloves and Sonja Henie's ice skates. Film and TV character Hopalong Cassidy opened the Western town in 1952 and reportedly "cut" the ribbon by shooting through it with his pearl-handled revolver.
A requiem funeral mass will be Saturday in Florida after a private wake at Cuneo's home in Sarasota. Local services will include a wake on Thursday, Sept. 19, at the Cuneo Mansion and Gardens, 1350 Milwaukee Ave., Vernon Hills, with Cuneo's casket outside the chapel entrance from 3 until 7 p.m.
A funeral Mass of Remembrance will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at Assumption Catholic Church, 323 West Illinois St. in Chicago. His remains will be buried next to his parents in the family mausoleum at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Evanston.