After living with MDS for five years, it finally claimed the life of Jack Peter DeBoer, 90, on March 12, 2021. May you rest in peace, Jack. In keeping with Jack’s motto of “Keep it simple,” burial service was private at the graveside. Preceded in death by his parents, Alfred and Kathryn DeBoer; brother, Paul (wives, Edith and Mickey) DeBoer; daughter-in-law, Lynn DeBoer. Survived by his wife, Marilyn DeBoer; son, Skyler (Anne) DeBoer of Snowmass, CO; daughter, Penny DeBoer of Andover; German son, Rolf Ruhfus and his family; grandchildren, Christopher DeBoer, AJ DeBoer, Mimi (Scott) Oliver. 

Wichita hotel pioneer with a zest for business and adventure dies at 90


MARCH 13, 2021 03:34 PM, 

UPDATED MARCH 13, 2021 04:50 PM

A decade ago when Wichita businessman Jack DeBoer was 80, he wrote a book, saying it had nothing to do with being at the end of his life.

“No, I’m one of these guys who thinks he’s going to live forever,” he said.

He said he had at least another couple of decades in him.

“Oh, easy. I’ve got too much work to do. You should see my desk.”

Bone marrow cancer put an end to his plans.

DeBoer, a complex man who might yell at you one minute and embrace you in a big hug the next, died Friday at age 90.

Marilyn DeBoer, his wife of 67 years, said her husband enjoyed a fun time and a good laugh but said irascible wasn’t a bad way to describe him either.

“That’s close.”

DeBoer was a pioneer in a niche of the hotel business: extended-stay and all-suite concepts, with brands such as Residence Inn, Summerfield Suites, Candlewood Suites, Value Place and, most recently, WaterWalk hotels and apartments. He also was deeply involved in aviation, which is part of what drew him to Wichita in 1967 when he was building apartments.

“So many industries will miss Jack, and I will tell you that the aviation industry will miss him greatly,” said Russ Meyer, chairman emeritus of Cessna Aircraft. “He was just such an enthusiastic, creative guy.”

Meyer said DeBoer built his business in the 1960s by flying a Cessna 310 around the country and later set speed records in a Learjet 24.

According to the WaterWalk website, DeBoer “currently holds the 3 kilometer world speed record for jet aircraft under 18,000 pounds.”

Though DeBoer was a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., where he started in his father’s real estate business while still in high school, he became ingrained in Wichita’s business and civic culture.

Along with a host of accomplishments, DeBoer also faced criticism from others in the development community, particularly over the WaterWalk mixed-use development downtown that benefited from tax breaks.

But even those who didn’t see eye to eye with DeBoer found something to admire.

“He was a very likable guy,” said Ann Garvey, whose late father, Willard, was DeBoer’s contemporary.

“He had a real zest for living, this joie de vivre, and it was infectious,” she said. “Everybody got carried away with his enthusiasm.”

Zest is a word WaterWalk International president Jim Korroch also used to describe his longtime mentor and friend.

“I have never met anybody that had the zest for life that Jack had. He was an adventurist. He absolutely worked and played as hard as he possibly could as long as his body would let him do that. To the last days, he was constantly talking about business.”

It’s amazing what DeBoer packed into 90 years, Korroch said.

“Five national hotel brands. I mean, who does that?”

Korroch met DeBoer through their alma mater, Michigan State University. That and their Theta Chi fraternity were especially important to DeBoer.

Korroch was one of many people whom DeBoer mentored. A lot of those people went on to start their own companies.

“You could do a family tree,” Korroch said. “It would be pretty amazing to see all the companies and success stories.”

Working for DeBoer was inspiring, Korroch said, sometimes in a challenging way.

He said DeBoer’s philosophy was “when you think that you are at the end or there are no other options . . . there’s always another way to make it work, and he was absolutely a master at that and lived it, and that could be very frustrating sometimes working for him.”

However, Korroch added, “Sure enough, those were the moments Jack really lived for. Those were the moments his genius really came through.”

DeBoer acknowledged mistakes, including passing up a fortune and then losing one, too, which he detailed in his 2011 book, “Risk Only Money: Success in Business Without Risking Family, Friends and Reputation.”

In the early 1970s, DeBoer was the country’s second-largest apartment developer and, thanks to what he acknowledged was his ego, turned down a $100 million offer for his business. The economy then tanked, along with the business.

In the prologue to his book, DeBoer wrote how he took to his bed after that.

“For two days, I lay there in the darkness, shades drawn and the covers pulled over my head. I was paralyzed — with fear, with self-loathing, with shame, and with a realization that I didn’t know what to do next.

“I had hundreds of creditors I couldn’t pay. Hundreds, affecting the lives of thousands of people. A few days before, one of them had called me on the phone. ‘I want my money by Friday or I’ll kill you,’ he said.”

Marilyn DeBoer said her husband never would declare bankruptcy.

“He never would tarnish his name and his reputation with that. He worked his way out. He negotiated with the bankers. . . . It took a number of years, but everybody got paid off.”

Jack DeBoer would go on to make another fortune — many times over — but his wife said while they had luxurious trappings such as a plane and a yacht, they didn’t live a luxurious life.

“We live a basic, simple life. Middle America life. I never wanted to live rich, and neither did Jack.”

Indeed, for many years, journalists joked about how DeBoer always would want to meet at his favorite restaurant, Fazoli’s, and seemed to always be wearing the same particularly ugly sweater for every interview and photograph. Appearances weren’t his thing.

Marilyn DeBoer recalls the first time she met her future husband, which was when she was working at his father’s firm. Jack DeBoer’s mother had been talking up her son, and young Marilyn had high expectations.

Instead of the image she’d built in her mind, what she saw was a freckled, gap-toothed 6-foot-5-inch, 165-pound ROTC member in a olive drab uniform topped with a reddish-blond “flattop brush cut that was too long.”

It was something they joked about for years.

“His personality won me over eventually.”

In 1988, the two took a four-month trip around the world in their Gulfstream II, tracing the history of civilization over 7,000 years. During their stop in Burma, now Myanmar, they were forced to flee within 24 hours due to civil unrest. That brief encounter led to their lifelong support of the country’s people, including starting a leadership training program that had its first graduating class a few years ago.

Sonia Greteman, whose Greteman Group branding agency worked with DeBoer for decades, said it was difficult for people to do business in Myanmar because of corruption. She said DeBoer found ways to elevate the business culture.

Business was everything to DeBoer, said Greteman, who flew with her team to the National Business Aviation Association conference in DeBoer’s private planes over a couple of decades.

“The minute I would get on the plane, the first question out of his mouth was, ‘How’s business?’ ” Greteman said.

She called DeBoer an avid reader and “just a statistic machine” with an incredible memory.

Greteman said DeBoer looked for value to the point of being frugal.

“He was always looking for a deal.”

They’d talk business over pancakes at IHOP, another favorite restaurant.

For years, Greteman would offer nice bottles of scotch as a thank you for the flights to NBAA, but then she learned of DeBoer’s love of candy and got him a half year’s supply of his favorite candy bar: PayDay.

In addition to his wife, DeBoer is survived by his son, Skyler DeBoer, and his wife, Anne, of Snowmass, Colo.; his daughter, Penny DeBoer of Andover; and three grandchildren, Christopher DeBoer, AJ DeBoer and Mimi Oliver, who is CEO of WaterWalk International. The DeBoers also considered their former German exchange student, Rolf Ruhfus, to be their son.

Korroch said it may sound trivial, but it is DeBoer’s can-do attitude that will stay with him — and that zest for life.

“Some of his last words to me he said was, ‘Have fun. Make sure you’re having fun along the way.”

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