John W. Baird, founder of Baird & Warner, prominent Chicago real estate developer and champion of fair housing, open space and historic preservation, died on December 27 at the age of 98 in a Glenview hospice after suffering a stroke eight days earlier.
According to the official obituary, Baird was known for his “understated style and dedication to causes that often seemed at odds with his personal financial interests.” It prompted the architect Laurence O. Booth, with whom he worked on many projects, to call him “the ultimate American, the Gary Cooper of real estate.”
After serving as an Army captain in World War II, he joined Baird & Warner, which had been owned by his family since 1860. In 1963, he succeeded his father, Warner G. Baird, as president of Baird & Warner, and moved aggressively to open sales offices throughout the city and suburbs and expand the company’s commercial mortgage operation.
He served as president of the company until 1991, when he was succeeded by his son, Stephen W. Baird, the fifth-generation member of the family to lead the company. Until shortly before his death, Baird served as chairman of the board of Baird & Warner, which currently operates 23 brokerage offices with sales of more than $5 billion annually in northern Illinois as well as mortgage and title units.
Beginning in the 1960s, Baird led efforts to end housing discrimination in Chicago. As president of the Metropolitan Housing and Planning Council, in 1962 he became something of a pariah to fellow members of the Chicago Real Estate Board by appearing before the Chicago City Council and calling for enactment of an open-housing ordinance, which passed after a heated debate in 1963.
Baird was also well-known for his generosity. He co-founded the Protestants for the Common Good; gave to various conservation and preservation initiatives, including programs designed to alleviate homelessness; and Wesleyan University, his alma mater, from which he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1992 after serving many years as a trustee. He also established the Baird Family Endowment for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
He is survived by his sons, Stephen, the president and CEO of Baird & Warner, Wyllys Baird of Chicago and Orrin Baird of Washington, D.C.; a daughter, Katharine Mann of Chicago; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A public memorial is being planned.