Tuesday, July 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John E. Corbally, 79, foundation leader

Seattle Times staff reporter

John E. Corbally, a Washington state native who secured the future of one of the nation's largest private foundations, died from brain cancer Friday at his home in Mill Creek. He was 79.

When he was named president of the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1980, the philanthropy was finding its way.

By 1989, as he stepped down, the foundation was known for supporting projects that combat poverty, disease and injustice and for its unconventional MacArthur Fellows program, which gives unrestricted grants to creative geniuses.

After Dr. Corbally retired to Washington, he kept busy, serving on several local boards, including the private Zion Preparatory Academy; the nonprofit Rural Development Institute, which provides legal assistance to China and the former Soviet Union; and the Family Leadership Fund, which supports parenting classes. But there was always time for his family.

"My dad was always available to me whether it was playing a game of catch or shooting a basketball," said his son, David, 54, of Birmingham, Ala. "If I succeeded in a project he helped me celebrate it. If I failed, he'd help me understand why and show me a better way to do it next time."

Dr. Corbally was so fond of his grandkids that he set up a toll-free number they could call any time.

John "Jack" Corbally was born Oct. 14, 1924, in South Bend, Pacific County. His father was an education professor at the University of Washington, and his mother a homemaker.

During World War II, he joined the Navy, served in the Pacific and was awarded a Purple Heart.

His first job in education was as a high-school chemistry teacher in the Tacoma area in 1947.

After graduating from the UW in 1950 with a master's degree, he briefly served as a school principal near Stanwood. He got his doctorate in educational administration and finance at the University of California, Berkeley in 1955.

He then joined Ohio State University as an associate education professor and had become its vice president of academic affairs and provost by 1966. Syracuse University in New York hired him as its president and chancellor in 1969, but he jumped at the chance in 1971 to preside over the University of Illinois. He served until 1979.

"He was skilled, witty, unassuming and approachable, as both man and president," said James Stukel, the university's president, in a statement. "The University of Illinois is vastly better for his leadership, especially in the areas of private fund raising, agriculture and veterinary medicine, and our Chicago campus, in which he took such a deep interest."

The MacArthur Foundation had only recently begun when, in 1980, its board named Dr. Corbally president. He oversaw the contentious conversion of insurance magnate John MacArthur's businesses into assets that could support the foundation's mission.

The son of the late magnate sued in an unsuccessful bid to wrest control of the foundation, spilling boardroom drama into the press.

During Dr. Corbally's tenure as president and later as board member, the foundation's assets grew from about $780 million to more than $4.5 billion, and the foundation gave more than $3 billion in grants.

One of its most high-profile initiatives was a $20 million war on malaria and other parasitic diseases that afflict 3 billion people, most in developing nations.

In a statement, MacArthur Foundation President Jonathan Fanton praised Dr. Corbally as "a leader of extraordinary depth."

Besides his son, Dr. Corbally is survived by his wife, Marguerite; and daughter, Jan Corbally, of Snohomish; and three grandchildren, Kelly Corbally of Asheville, N.C., Erin Corbally, of Birmingham, Ala., and Grant Patterson of Snohomish.

The family requests that memorials be directed to the John E. Corbally Professorships at the University of Illinois or the Jack Grant Fund at the Greater Everett Community Foundation.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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