Fran Jabara, Wichita businessman and professor, dies at 90

Fran Jabara stands outside Wichita State University’s Devlin Hall in 1996.
Fran Jabara stands outside Wichita State University’s Devlin Hall in 1996. File photo

It’s impossible to describe all that Fran Jabara accomplished in a few sentences.

He was a nationally known entrepreneur.

He was a philanthropist.

He was a much-loved and respected professor.

He was a loving brother, son, husband, father and grandfather.

But perhaps most of all, he was a mentor, his friends say.

“It just made you better to be around Fran, one way or another,” said David Mitchell, a longtime friend of Mr. Jabara’s. “He was one of those people you just wish you could have been around more.”

Mr. Jabara died Saturday morning at the age of 90.

His success story is the classic American dream.

He was one of nine children born to the Jabaras, who had emigrated to the United States from Lebanon. His sister Helen Galloway, who owns The First Place jewelry and gift store in Wichita, said he was a favorite from a young age.

“Of nine children, he always stood out,” she said. “All of them were wonderful, but he always tried a little harder to make life wonderful for everyone. He was a dear heart.”

Mr. Jabara graduated at the top of his class from Burden High School in Cowley County and then attended Oklahoma A&M University, where he graduated with a degree in accounting in 1948. He was inducted into the Oklahoma State University Alumni Association’s Hall of Fame in 2005.

Mr. Jabara then relocated to Chicago to get his master’s degree from Northwestern University.

His first job out of college was teaching accounting at Wichita State University in 1949. He would teach at the school for the next 40 years.

“He loved teaching and loved being with the students, and he loved following their lives,” Galloway said. “All of my life, I’d run into people every day who’d ask me about him, because he changed their life.”

In 1977, Mr. Jabara founded the Center for Entrepreneurship at WSU and served as its director until his resignation in 1989. He was also dean of the college’s business school for many years.

Many of Mr. Jabara’s former students have gone on to successful business careers.

“Fran was the spirit behind it,” Dan Carney told The Eagle in 1998 of the founding of Pizza Hut. Carney, co-founder of the pizza chain, was a student in Mr. Jabara’s first accounting class at the college in 1949.

“He recognized the importance of small business and the necessity to have courses to teach those to operate their own business,” Carney said.

Mitchell remembered with a laugh the way Mr. Jabara would “get so enthused about auditing that he’d literally be spitting on me in the front row” of his accounting class.

“He brought in some of the greatest entrepreneurs across the country to speak,” said R.D. Hubbard, who first met Mr. Jabara in 1959. He said Mr. Jabara later talked him into donating money for Wichita State’s R.D. Hubbard Hall. “The founder of Wendy’s came several times. I just couldn’t name everybody, you know, and the impact that he had in Wichita as well as across the country.”

And Mr. Jabara was more than just a professor to his students – he was a mentor, friend and sometimes financial partner.

“Fran loaned me money when nobody else would,” Mitchell said of Mr. Jabara’s willingness to loan him $115,000 to buy land in Muskogee, Okla., on which to build a hotel. “It morphed into a company with over 1,000 permanent jobs, but there’s many other stories like that. I’ll always be indebted to him, because he changed the opportunities for my family and my children.”

Despite Mr. Jabara’s acute business acumen, he always put the well-being of others above his personal success.

“I never heard Fran say a bad word about anybody, and in the business context, there’s always somebody on the other side,” said Jay Newcom, who had been friends with Mr. Jabara since 1974. “He would always see the other person’s perspective and try to work out a win-win for both. He was never negative, judgmental or critical. It’s hard in today’s world to believe there are humans like that, but he was one of them.”

After he left WSU, Mr. Jabara founded Jabara Ventures Group – a private equity and investment firm – with his son Harvey, who now runs it full time.

Over the years, companies nationwide sought Mr. Jabara for his legendary business knowledge.

Hubbard said he and Mr. Jabara bought Tennessee-based AFG Industries in 1978 with $300,000 in cash and $1 million borrowed from a bank. Ten years later, the company went private for $1.1 billion.

“Every quarter of every year we set sales records,” Hubbard said. “We never had a down quarter in 10 years.”

For his friends at Wichita State and across the country, Mr. Jabara will be remembered as a mentor – even for people who did not identify as entrepreneurs.

“He not only helped the tremendously successful business person or helped people become tremendously successful, he helped just a lot of young people that would hear about him and ask to talk to him,” said longtime friend David Dahl. “They’d come into his office, and they never had any thought about starting a business. They just wanted some advice from somebody that was able to give good advice, no matter what people were looking for in life.”

And when Mr. Jabara gave you advice, you took it.

“If Fran asked you to do something, it was probably in your best interest to do it,” Mitchell said. “You knew he was looking out for both of you. You just couldn’t say no to Fran. It was like saying no to the godfather.”

“That’s right. The godfather, but a tremendously kindhearted, thoughtful, encouraging, inspirational man,” Dahl said. “When you walked out of his office, you believed you could conquer the world, no matter who you were.”

WSU president John Bardo said in a statement Saturday that “Fran played a transformational role in the history of the city and the university.”

In 1996, WSU’s Jabara Hall was renamed to honor Mr. Jabara and his wife, Geri.

“Many of the most successful Wichita entrepreneurs have had Fran as a professor, business advisor, investor or mentor,” Bardo said. “He will be sorely missed, but his positive impact will continue for generations.”

Geri Jabara was an advocate for the arts in Wichita, and he followed his wife in becoming a supporter of the arts.

At Newman University, Mr. Jabara was instrumental in financially supporting the school’s theater department. His and Geri’s faces are embossed on a plaque outside the Jabara Flexible Theatre. The school awarded Fran and Geri honorary doctorates in 2009.

“Professor Fran Jabara will be greatly missed by all of the Newman University community,” Newman president Noreen Carrocci said in a statement. “He served Newman exceptionally as a Board member, benefactor and counselor to presidents. I feel fortunate to call him a friend and like many, will miss his valuable wisdom, his kind nature and his optimistic outlook.”

Mr. Jabara was also an active supporter of Butler Community College, where he was inducted into the Mid-America Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame in its inaugural class in 2006.

It was Mr. Jabara’s spirit of giving that helped to define him. Since 1996, students at WSU have been receiving the Professor Fran Jabara Endowed Scholarship. Two students receive the $20,000 scholarship every year.

“He was always thinking about passing it on,” Mitchell said. “You have this obligation to the community and the university, and any success that comes your way, you have an obligation to pass it on.”

Mr. Jabara is survived by his wife and three children, Leesa, Lori and Harvey. He also had three grandchildren, Jaxon, Jensen and Elliott.

“Fran and Geri were just great, loving parents, and you know, despite all the success that they’ve had, they never thought about themselves, never boasted about themselves, never tried to draw attention to themselves,” Dahl said. “They took great pride in the success of other people and hence the scholarships that they’ve given out.”

Dahl said if people never got the chance to meet Mr. Jabara, they should simply meet his son, Harvey.

“If you meet Harvey, you are meeting Fran,” Dahl said. “Those two were such good friends and business partners and couldn’t have been any more proud of one another. That relationship that he had with Harvey sets an example for all of us as to what kind of relationship we should have with our kids.”

“We are humbled and thankful for the incredible outpouring of love and support that our family has experienced today,” Harvey Jabara said in a statement on behalf of the family. “Never underestimate how deeply meaningful every word and gesture has been. If we have learned anything from Fran, it was to meet every day with enthusiasm, hope, a positive attitude and the excitement of endless possibility. His door was always open and his light will always shine.”

Funeral arrangements are being made with Downing and Lahey Mortuary East. There will be a visitation at the mortuary from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday. The funeral service will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral. Burial services will be 11 a.m. Wednesday at Old Mission Cemetery.

Reach Matt Riedl at 316-268-6660 or Follow him on Twitter: @RiedlMatt.

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