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John H. "Johnny" Londoff Sr.: Car dealer, supporter of children's charities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 12, 2010 - John H. Londoff Sr., the man who made a name for himself as a car dealer with the catchiest of jingles and as a benefactor of children's charities, died of cancer at his home in St. Louis County on Tuesday morning. He was 85.

"He knew his business, and he was proud of it," said Charlie Brennan, a longtime friend and KMOX program host. "But a lot of people sell cars; not many people are as generous as Johnny Londoff."

Services for Mr. Londoff will be at 11 a.m., Wed., May 19, at Salem in Ladue United Methodist Church.

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A Generous Spirit

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Shortly after Mr. Londoff founded his most successful dealership, he began building his reputation as one of the St. Louis area's most philanthropic businessmen.

"When KMOX was raising funds for troops abroad, first responders or Lafayette Industries (a sheltered workshop for people with developmental disabilities), he would drop by with a check," Brennan said. "Just drop by."

And, of course, there was the Variety Club, which named Mr. Londoff "Man of the Year" in 1971.

When you think of Johnny Londoff, said Jan Albus, executive director of Variety the Children's Charity of St. Louis, you think of Sammy Davis Jr. and Variety's 19-hour live telethon.

"Mr. Londoff was a tremendous part of Variety," Albus said. "He was extremely important because in those days, the only activity Variety did was the telethon."

Shortly after the telethon began in 1967, Mr. Londoff became one of its staunchest supporters and on-air pitchmen. He became Variety's board president in 1981 and served as perhaps its best-known telethon chair from the mid-'80s until 1994.

Variety funded a floor at Children's Hospital in his and his wife's honor, the John and Sylvia Londoff Therapy Suite, a haven for children recovering from surgery. His choice of charities was spurred in part by the early diagnosis of his youngest child with Down syndrome.

A Cardinals Fan

"He was one of the best friends Variety ever had," said Ozzie Smith, who considered Mr. Londoff a father figure. "He was a special person who was always looking out for the little guy."

And some pretty big guys, too. Smith got to know Mr. Londoff when he became a St. Louis Cardinals shortstop in 1982. Smith's agent was looking for a car for him. Smith laughingly remembered what Mr. Londoff outfitted him with: "a Camaro Z-28 -- red, of course."

Smith and former Cardinals outfielder Willie McGee spent many Saturday mornings signing autographs at Johnny Londoff Chevrolet, a most popular event.

"When Johnny had Ozzie and Willie signing, (the crowds) caused untold traffic problems for Bob Lowery, the Florissant police chief and his police department," Brennan recalled.

"They were there a lot and used to get a big crowd," agreed Therese Shelton, a former Variety executive director who had handled public relations for Mr. Londoff since 1965.

"He was really a lot of fun and he liked baseball and the baseball players," Shelton said.

He liked them well enough to charter a plane, grab former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog, and head to Cooperstown, N.Y., for Smith's 2002 induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Hobnobbing with baseball MVPs had helped Mr. Londoff get people into his showroom. He had always done whatever was necessary to build his businesses, of which there had been several.

He Could Sell an Edsel -- and He Did

Mr. Londoff was born Aug. 24, 1924, in St. Louis. He graduated from the old Western Military Academy and attended Washington University. He later served two years in the Marines.

His first foray into cars began with a Plymouth dealership on Natural Bridge Road at 25th Street in north St. Louis. It was on the second floor of the Londoff family's bar and bowling alley. (He once owned two bowling alleys.) When Ford introduced a much-ballyhooed new model line, Mr. Londoff switched, hoping to get an edge in a competitive market.

He became an Edsel dealer -- and did relatively well even with the hardest-to-sell car in automotive history.

"I sold eight of those dogs over a weekend, and the regional office in Chicago called and wanted to send people down to see this whiz kid, this guy who could walk on water," Mr. Londoff told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1997.

"When they called me and asked if I'd be interested in a new North County Chevy dealership on Brown Road, it was like asking a drowning man if he'd mind if they threw him a lifesaver."

So, in 1960, Mr. Londoff founded his eponymous Florissant-based dealership on Dunn Road, which later spawned a second location in Pacific.

Mr. Londoff was innovative in the use of his advertising dollars. He commissioned one of the nation's most unforgettable jingles that played incessantly during the '60s and '70s. During a trip to Japan, Mr. Londoff told Brennan that he had met another American and introduced himself. To his amazement and delight, his fellow traveler immediately began to sing his jingle, although, presumably, not as well as Marty Bronson, the voice that made that jingle so catchy.

Also memorable: He wrote a homey column in the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

"And people still tell me they miss it," Londoff told the Post-Dispatch in 1996.

TOP 10 DEALER

In 1983, Time Magazine named Mr. Londoff one of the top 10 automobile dealers in the United States. In 2007, he received GMAC's Champion of Life Award for lifetime achievement and commitment to the community, most notably for raising millions of dollars for children's charities, including the Sammy Davis Jr. Variety Telethon and St Louis Children's Hospital.

Although well known for his work and his generosity, he was not readily recognized on the street.

Smith said when he and Mr. Londoff were together in public and he assumed someone recognized him, Mr. Londoff would laugh and say, "Don't flatter yourself, they are looking at me."

Smith will be saying a few final words at Mr. Londoff's funeral. He's not sure exactly what. But, he said, he'll probably include that "he was a great human being, one of those special human beings," and that "it was a blessing knowing someone who was so giving."

Mr. Londoff was preceded in death by his parents, Harry and Stella Londoff, and his sister, Harriet Londoff.

He is survived by his wife, Sylvia George Londoff, and his brother, Harry B. Londoff of St. Louis. He is also survived by his four children, John H. (Mary Elizabeth) Londoff Jr., now the owner of Johnny Londoff Chevrolet; Laura (William III) Koch; Linda (James) Ruck, and Jackie Londoff, all of St. Louis, and six grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to St. Louis Arc, 1816 Lackland Hill Parkway, Suite 200, St. Louis, Mo. 63146, or to St. Louis Children's Hospital, One Children's Place, St. Louis, Mo. 63110.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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