Frank H. Wheaton Jr., 85; Led Wheaton Industries

Posted: July 25, 1998

Frank Hayes Wheaton Jr., 85, the colorful, sometimes controversial, South Jersey industrialist and philanthropist who built his fortune on glass and plastic, died Tuesday from a stroke at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, Philadelphia.

A lifelong Millville resident, he was a 1931 graduate of Millville High School.

Once the largest family-owned company in the United States, Wheaton Industries Inc., formerly known as Wheaton Glass Co., became a giant concern under three generations of Wheatons. The company produced packaging for such household staples as Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup, Old Spice after-shave, Revlon cosmetics, and Anacin. In 1995, Wheaton's sales were $450 million.

The firm was founded in 1888 by T.H. Wheaton, Mr. Wheaton's grandfather, a physician who set up the glassworks in Millville to produce containers for his pharmaceutical products. Under his son, Frank H. Wheaton Sr., the company grew into the nation's largest family-owned glass business.

Mr. Wheaton headed up the company from 1966 until a family dispute ousted him from the presidency in 1990. Under his direction, the firm's workforce grew from about 100 to more than 6,000.

The Wheaton legacy was set up in 1966, when Mr. Wheaton converted a 16-room house in Millville into a museum to the art and history of glass-making. Today, the museum is Wheaton Village, an independent nonprofit foundation with the world's largest collection of American glass. Mr. Wheaton remained chairman of the foundation board until his death.

Mr. Wheaton was a self-taught engineer with a wide-ranging reputation as an innovator. His style was that of ``the old breed of businessmen - a handshake was a contract,'' said Barry Taylor, president of Wheaton Village.

He began working at Wheaton Glass in 1932. It took him 34 years to work his way to the top position, but he had always known that job would be his one day.

Mr. Wheaton modernized, mechanized and added plastic to the product line. The company became an international concern with production facilities in France, India, China, Brazil and other countries. Six years after Mr. Wheaton was ousted, the sprawling international firm was sold to Alusuisse-Lonza Holding Ltd. of Zurich, Switzerland, a packaging supplier and aluminum producer.

In 1995, Mr. Wheaton and Dorchester Industries Inc. - a shipbuilding firm he owned - were ordered to pay more than $40 million in back taxes, interest and penalties in a dispute with the IRS. He once vowed to die before the IRS could get his money. The battle was continuing at the time of his death.

Retired Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Paul Porrecca, a close friend, observed that Mr. Wheaton could have settled the case several times. But ``he was firmly convinced that he was right,'' Porreca said.

Whether Mr. Wheaton was right or wrong, he wanted a judge - not a bureaucrat - to make that decision, Porrecca said.

Millville Mayor James F. Quinn said, ``He was a very, very strong-willed man, a man of his convictions. I admired the man. As I ride through the town, there are so many things that he touched.''

A noted philanthropist, his generosity touched many local institutions.

In January, Mr. Wheaton was honored for his years of service to the Millville Rescue Squad. He served on the squad's board of directors until his death. He also was a benefactor of the Millville Hospital.

He was one of the original members of the Cumberland County College Board of Trustees when the college was created in the mid-1960s. Although he was an opponent of creating the college, when Mr. Wheaton was named to the board he simply got on with the task at hand.

Retired Judge Porrecca recalled that Mr. Wheaton threw his resources and those of Wheaton Industries into the construction of the college. As a result, Cumberland County College was the first of the state's two-year colleges to open its doors, Porrecca said.

Mr. Wheaton enjoyed ceramics and woodcrafts, and he crafted several totem poles. He also enjoyed sailing and had owned and sailed a 28-foot Chinese junk with a red hull and bright blue sails.

But his real hobby?

``His real hobby was building businesses; he didn't consider it work,'' Porrecca said.

After leaving Wheaton Industries, he founded Wheaton Worldwide, which produces glass and plastic packaging materials today.

Mr. Wheaton is survived by his wife of 62 years, Mary Bainbridge Wheaton; a son, Frank H. 3d; three daughters, Mary Edith Smith, Susan H. Ball, and Nancy Wheaton; 13 grandchildren; 11 great-grandchildren; and a brother, Laur Don Wheaton.

Memorial services will be 11 a.m. today at Christy Funeral Home, 11 W. Broad St., Millville. Burial will be in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Millville.

Memorial donations may be made to the Millville Rescue Squad, Box 576, Millville, N.J. 08332; or to Wheaton Village, Glasstown Road, Millville, N.J. 08332.

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