Snack food business founder McCleary remembered

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Until about three weeks ago, retirement couldn't keep Eugene McCleary from the South Beloit snack food business he founded nearly 50 years ago.

“He was in on a very, very frequent basis,” said Jerry Stokely, a manager for McCleary Inc. who knew the founder 10 years. “He'd make sure we were all doing what we were supposed to do.”

McCleary died Sunday at NorthPointe Terrace in Roscoe. He was 89.

Nicknamed Mac, McCleary and his wife, Judy, moved to Beloit during World War II when he was stationed here as a Naval officer and stayed because, he once told the Daily News, “There was nothing to lose.”

Before he started his own business, McCleary joined the Flakall Corp., a company that produced a raw extruded corn meal product sold to corn curl producers. In 1946 he began engineering work at Adams Corp. to improve the quality and to quicken production of a snack food. He stayed there until 1960, when Adams announced it was merging with Beatrice Foods Co.

Preferring not to belong to a conglomerate, McCleary opened his snack food business at 455 Clark St. The company first produced popcorn but later added caramel corn, fried cheese curls, corn chips, tortilla chips and pretzels. In 1965, the business moved to its present location, 239 Oak Grove Ave.

He retired as president of McCleary Inc. in 1989.

“You could tell he'd been a very powerful man in his prime,” said Krista Eberdt, a registered nurse who cared for McCleary the three years he lived at Riverside Terrace in Beloit and, more recently, NorthPointe Terrace in Roscoe. “He was very much respected, I think.”

Indeed, Stokely said McCleary's legacy shows in the number of people he influenced and the good he did as a community member.

Because of McCleary's modesty, Stokely only knew of a few examples of his charitable donations - such as one to the YMCA - but he could speak more about the good McCleary did as a boss.

“Mac was very, very supportive of all his employees. He preferred to lead by expectation and example,” Stokely said. “He was really avant-garde in terms of how he treated employees. He looked at them as family.”

In addition to starting a profit-sharing program, Stokely said McCleary implemented an “extremely generous” extended sick pay program that continued to pay employees who fell ill for an extended period. The company still uses the program.

Like most good entrepreneurs, McCleary recognized running a company wasn't something he could do alone, Stokely said. He eventually entrusted his son Pat with the business's leadership and let son Nick play a role as well. His post-retirement visits were not intended as a chance to give orders; it was his way of following up on his expectations.

“It was prevalent everyone understood his expectations and everyone knew they were meeting or not meeting them,” Stokely said.

McCleary is survived by his wife, Judy; sons Jeff, of San Mateo, Calif., Pat and Nick, both of Roscoe; daughters Sally Stover, of Brighton, Mich., and Margaret Sturges, of Madison; 14 grandchildren; a sister and her two children.

Memorial services will be 1 p.m. Jan. 20, 2008, in the First Congregational Church. Memorials may be given in his name to the South Beloit Historical Society, First Congregational Church of Beloit or the Michigan State University School of Engineering.

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