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Leonard K. Firestone, Past Board of Trustees President, Dies

by James Lytle

Tire executive Leonard K. Firestone, last surviving son of the founder of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co., died Dec. 24 at his home in Pebble Beach of complications from respiratory failure. He was 89.

A past president of the USC board of trustees (1960-64), Firestone was named U.S. ambassador to Belgium in 1974 by President Richard Nixon, to whom the industrialist was a close adviser and financial supporter. Firestone was reappointed by President Gerald R. Ford and served as ambassador to Belgium until 1976.

Firestone, the third son of Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Samuel Firestone Sr., was born in Akron, Ohio, on June 10, 1907. His father had founded the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in 1900, starting with a tire-mounting patent and only $20,000 in assets.

Leonard Firestone prepared for college at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., where he was president of his class and a member of the student council and The Hill Record board. He also lettered in football, basketball and track.

In 1927, he entered Princeton University, where he was captain of the polo team during his junior and senior years, leading it to the intercollegiate indoor polo championship.

After graduating from Princeton in 1931, he joined the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. and served in various capacities as a sales executive in Florida, California and Ohio during the next 10 years. He was elected vice president of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. of California in 1932; appointed sales manager of the parent firm, with headquarters in Akron, in 1935; elected a director of the parent firm in 1939; and named president of the Firestone Aviation Products Co. in 1941.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Firestone enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was commissioned as a lieutenant. During the war years, the facilities of the major rubber firm were devoted to war production. In July 1943, the Navy placed Firestone on inactive duty to become president and general manager of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. of California, based in Los Angeles. He then made his home in Beverly Hills where, during the late 1940s, he was elected to the City Council.

In 1967, Firestone purchased the Desert Sun newspapers, publishers of Palm Springs’ The Desert Sun, a daily, and the Yucaipa and Calimesa News-Mirror, a weekly.

He retired as president of Firestone’s California operations in 1970 but continued to serve as a director of the parent company until his appointment in 1974 as ambassador to Belgium. He returned to Firestone’s board of directors in 1980 and served until 1983.

Firestone chaired the board of trustees from 1960 to 1964, leading USC’s Master Plan campaign to raise $106 million. His $250,000 challenge gift of 1961 – then the largest dollar-matching gift by an individual to the annual giving drive of any American college or university – helped USC to pass the $1 million mark in annual giving for the first time in its history. An October 1961 memorandum from the USC alumni fund office stated that the Firestone challenge had done more to stimulate interest in giving to the university than any single previous event. In addition, the Firestone Foundation gave $500,000 toward the Master Plan’s goal.

Firestone received an honorary doctor of laws degree at USC’s spring commencement in 1965 and was elected to the board in 1957.

A champion of civic causes, Firestone was a member of the campaign committee of the Community Chest, a director of the California Community Foundation, a member of the steering committee for the Salvation Army, a member of the board of regents of Pepperdine University and a director of the Hospital of the Good Samaritan. He was a member of the national executive board of the Boy Scouts of America and headed that organization’s Los Angeles Area Council. He also served as president of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.

Firestone and his first wife, the late Polly Curtis Firestone, were among the founders of the Los Angeles Music Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

A major benefactor of national efforts to curb alcohol abuse, Firestone was a director of the National Council of Alcoholism and the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. In 1961, the Salvation Army gave a Sally Award to Firestone, citing his “contributions to human betterment through many avenues of community service.”

Firestone was an enthusiastic backer of political candidates in both state and national campaigns. He supported Republican Wendell Wilkie’s presidential bid of 1940.

In 1966, he backed former San Francisco Mayor George Christopher’s candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in California. But when Christopher was defeated by Ronald Reagan, Firestone backed Reagan in the runoff. He later became a member of Gov. Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” of close friends and advisers.

In 1969, he chaired the Businessmen for Bradley Committee to support Democrat Tom Bradley in his Los Angeles mayoral race.

In 1971, he headed the state organizing committee to launch President Nixon’s re-election campaign in California. After Nixon resigned from the presidency, Firestone chaired the foundation formed to plan the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

Firestone had a lifelong interest in sports. He was one of the original owners of the pro football Cleveland Rams, and was part owner and a board member of the Los Angeles Angels baseball club. He was campaign chairman for the 1958 Los Angeles Open Golf Tournament and served as president of the 1961 and 1962 Palm Springs Golf Classic.

Firestone married three times. He was married in 1932 to Polly Curtis of South Orange, N.J., who died in 1965; in 1966 to Barbara K. Heatley of San Francisco, who died in 1985; and in 1987 to Caroline Hudson, who survives him.

In addition, Firestone is survived by his son A. Brooks Firestone, a Republican state assemblyman representing parts of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties; his son Kimball C. Firestone, of Middletown, Md.; daughter Lendy Brown of Paris, Ky.; 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.T

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