Charles M. Harper, a University of Chicago Booth School of Business alumnus whose landmark gift in 2007 led to the renaming of the school’s main campus building in Hyde Park, died Saturday at his home in Omaha. He was 88.
Harper, who was known as Mike, earned his MBA in 1950 from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, later renamed Chicago Booth. He rose to prominence in the 1970s when he rescued ConAgra from near bankruptcy and transformed the failing food producer into an industry powerhouse. After a 1985 heart attack forced him to change his eating habits, Harper pioneered the creation of ConAgra’s Healthy Choice brand, one of the first mainstream food lines aimed at healthful diets.
“Throughout his remarkable career, Mike was an extraordinary alumnus. Even in retirement, he remained a generous and engaged supporter of Chicago Booth,” said Sunil Kumar, Chicago Booth dean and George Pratt Shultz Professor of Operations Management.
In recognition of his donation in 2007, at the time the largest gift in the school’s history, the Hyde Park Center at 5807 South Woodlawn Avenue was renamed the Charles M. Harper Center. He also sponsored the Charles M. Harper Road to CEO Series and served on the Council on Chicago Booth from 1992 to 1995. He was awarded Booth’s Distinguished Corporate Alumnus Award in 1991.
Harper was born on Sept. 27, 1927, in Lansing, Mich., and grew up in South Bend, Ind. He received a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Purdue University and served in the U.S. Army. After earning his MBA, Harper began his career as an engineer for General Motors, followed by 20 years at Pillsbury, a unit of General Mills, where he was a group vice president.
During his nearly two-decades at ConAgra – as executive vice president and chief operating officer in 1974 until his retirement as chairman and chief executive officer in 1992 – ConAgra’s annual sales increased from $600 million to more than $20 billion. After a brief retirement, he served as chairman and chief executive of RJR Nabisco from 1993 to 1996.
Harper’s wife, Josie, preceded him in death. The Josie Harper Admissions Suite at Booth is named for her. Harper is survived by his daughters, Carolyn Harper, Elizabeth Murphy, and Kathleen Wenngatz; son, Charles Jr.; 11 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.