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Craig Hart Named 2017 History Makers Honoree

Craig Hart head shot

Craig Hart was born on January 11, 1934 in Streator, Illinois. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Economics and his Master’s degree in Business from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. While in school, Craig was in the naval training program at the University and upon graduating, he spent two years active duty as an officer in the United States Navy.

After leaving the Navy, Craig was offered a position at Arthur Andersen in Chicago, but opted instead to move to Bloomington to work for a small accounting firm. “I settled in Bloomington because, while most all my peers were taking jobs with large companies, I didn’t want to live in a big city”, Craig said. After two years with the accounting firm, Craig joined Bloomington Federal Savings and Loan in 1960. After working for Bloomington Federal for 11 years in various capacities including insurance manager, commercial loan officer, treasurer and executive vice president, Craig was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer in 1971.

Under Craig’s leadership Bloomington Federal became the largest financial institution in downstate Illinois through growth and a series of mergers. The company name was changed to Champion Federal Savings and Loan in 1985. “The thing I think is important is the impact it had on a lot of people’s lives. During the period I was there, home financing was very much centered in institutions like ours. We employed thousands of people and were the leading financer helping people buy and build homes.” In addition, Champion Federal was involved in commercial real estate. “We had a very significant part in business real estate growth in Central Illinois.” Locally, Champion Federal was involved in the development of College Hills, Eastland Mall, Westminster Village and many apartment projects. Craig retired from Champion Federal in 1992, the same year it merged with First of America Bank.

In addition to building Bloomington Federal, Craig worked with three partners – William Froelich, Tom Jefferson and Dr. Herman Wellmerling – to develop a new skilled nursing home in 1963. “In 1961, William Froelich came to me with the idea of building a senior healthcare facility in Bloomington which was so needed. He owned an ambulance company and was a funeral director, and he was aware that there were no new modern facilities to care for the elderly,” Craig explained. Together, Bill, Tom, Dr. Wellmerling and Craig established Heritage Manor, later to become Heritage Enterprises. “We were all working full time so we spent all of our evenings, lunch hours and weekends building Heritage," Craig said. “I did all the financial work and accounting.”

Heritage Enterprises continues to grow and today employs nearly 5,000 people. “We provide all kinds of healthcare and have facilities throughout downstate Illinois and into Indiana.” The Hart and Jefferson families continue to own the company.

Champion Federal and Heritage Enterprises are just two of the reasons Craig Hart is so well-known in the community. “Really,” according to Craig, “I’ve worn three hats (in this community). The first was years of (working for) Champion Federal. The second was building Heritage, and I’m still involved. My three partners have passed away and I’m now Chairman of the board. The third hat was involvement with Illinois Wesleyan University.”

That involvement with Illinois Wesleyan University began through Wesleyan Associates. Craig chaired Wesleyan Associations, raising funds for IWU, when President Robert Eckley approached Craig to join the Board in Trustees in 1981. He served for many years as Treasurer, Chair of the Investment, Audit and Farm committees, and President of the Board. He was President during Minor Myers’ tenure as President of the University. “During the Minor Myers years, we worked very closely together,” Craig remembers. “I was involved in a lot of growth at Illinois Wesleyan during those years.” That growth included $137 million capital campaign and the construction of multiple campus buildings, including the Ames Library, the Hansen Student Center, the Center for Natural Science, and the Shirk Center for Athletics and Recreation. Craig retired as President of the Board in 2005.

Another organization that Craig was deeply involved with was Bloomington Unlimited, Inc., a forerunner of the Downtown Bloomington Association. He served two terms as President. Bloomington Unlimited aimed to foster the health and development of Downtown Bloomington, as Craig and many others grew concerned about the situation in the early 1980’s. “I think the fact that so many businesses had moved out of Downtown drew attention; (there were) lots of vacant buildings that were good buildings. When Eastland opened, a lot of people moved out, and then we saw professionals move to the east side – the doctors and lawyers who had occupied the second floors left.” Bloomington Unlimited encouraged building owners to restore and maintain their buildings and researched alternative uses for downtown space. At one point, they advocated for a downtown park on the south side of the Museum Square.

Craig and his three Heritage Enterprises partners were early movers and shakers in the Downtown revitalization movement. “We wanted to be in the heart of the community,” Craig said.” All four of us who started Heritage were big believers in Bloomington. The Roland’s building (formerly the Roland’s Department Store) had been a very prominent building historically, and it was just sitting there empty.” Heritage Enterprises bought the old Roland’s building and, with the cooperation of the City, renovated the building in 1989 and restored much of it to its original specifications. It remains the Heritage Enterprises corporate office and is today know as Heritage Plaza.

Another Downtown landmark Craig helped preserve was the Old McLean County Courthouse, now the McLean County Museum of History. In the late 1980’s, McLean County appointed a special committee to determine what to do with the Old Courthouse. Nancy Froelich, wife of Craig’s business partner Bill and Chairman of the McLean County Board, advocated for the Museum to move into the Old Courthouse. Craig was of the same opinion and, in fact, made the motion that the study committee officially recommend that the Museum move into the Old Courthouse.

Craig served as President of Bower Automotive, an Illinois wholesale auto parts company, from 1969 to 1985. He also often volunteered his time as a fundraiser for organizations such as United Way of McLean County, the Downtown Development Corporation, and the Illinois State University Foundation. He served as President of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, officer in the Bloomington-Normal Jaycee, Trustee of the Endowment Fund for the McLean County Art Association, and Director and Treasurer of Bloomington Country Club. Craig served as a founding director of State Farm Bank and was Chairman of the Audit Committee until retirement in 2006.

Craig is a member of Sigma Chi Fraternity and was selected as a Significant Sig in 1995 and elected to their Business Hall of Fame in 2007.

Today, Craig is semi-retired and he and his wife Jane split their time between Illinois and Arizona. Together, Craig and Jane run the Laura Hart Burdick Foundation in memory of their daughter. The Foundation hosts an annual event, Laura’s Run, which raises funds to support lung transplant patients at St. Joseph Hospital’s Norton Thoracic Institute.

One of Craig’s sons, Bruce, also lives in Arizona, while his son Brian lives in Chicago. His third son, Ben, lives in Bloomington and is currently President and CEO of Heritage Enterprises. Craig laughed when asked if he had encouraged Ben to follow in his footsteps. “All three of my sons are strong-willed; they chose their own paths,” Craig explained. “Ben has worked at Heritage for over 20 years. He’s certainly paid his dues. He made his choice to do that, and I certainly didn’t push him. Ben elected to be the Bloomington boy.”

Craig admits that he doesn’t usually talk about what he’s done. “I don’t talk about myself much,” he said. “I suppose when I reflect back, I feel good that I spent my working life doing things that contributed to the well-being of Bloomington-Normal. I was involved in building a lot of buildings – for Bloomington Federal, for Heritage, for IWU, and I employed a lot of people. My job was to ensure the organizations ran properly, and I’m still involved.”

Lauren Lacy

Lauren Lacy

Director of Development at the McLean County Museum of History