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Saga of John family fortune takes new (and bright) turn.

The name De Rance Foundation and those of Harry and Erica John mean a lot of personal things to the family of nine children, to friends, but to the wider Catholic community the names are synonymous with megabucks and controversy.

The Harry John saga dates back to 1946, when he started the De Rance Foundation (named after a 17th-century Trappist monk) with $14 million, 46 percent of the Miller Brewing Co. inheritance. With John's millions in hand, De Rance began funding Catholic charities from Milwaukee's inner city to Africa's leper colonies.

But by 1983, it is said, Harry began acting oddly. For example, he moved into gold futures, began funneling millions into an underwater treasure hunt, began paying employees lavish salaries and began spending $100 million to launch a television company known as Santa Fe Communications. Its intention was to spread a more "authentic" Catholic faith, one allegedly not watered down by post-second Vatican Council changes. It was also said he believed that he could do no wrong and that be was acting under "divine inspiration." John, undisputably a quiet and pious man and known for avoiding an ostentatious life-style, at the time moved to Las Vegas. He divorced Erica. She, in turn, went to court to remove her husband, a powerful Catholic layman, from the foundation's board of directors.

Her action against Harry took place against the background of a drop in De Rance Foundation assets from $188 million to $83 million during a 15-month period in the early 1980s. At least $60 million of that loss stemmed from Harry's attempt to build his Los Angeles-based Catholic television network.

During the civil lawsuit, conservative Catholics came to Harry's defense. They said he may have been eccentric but was by no means crazy. Then in August 1986, after a bitter public courtroom battle, a Wisconsin circuit court judge, citing "gross mismanagement," permanently barred Harry from his position as director of De Rance. Erica took over.

In 1990, trying to regain control of the assets, Harry created a new foundation, Southern Cross. In the same year, De Rance trustees and directors started to dissolve the foundation with the intention of disbursing its assets. They said they wanted to disburse in ways compatible with Harry's original philanthropic intent of funding Milwaukee archdiocesan projects.

Harry died Dec. 19 after suffering a stroke, a day after spending his 73rd birthday with his estranged wife and nine children. It was reported family relationships had healed during the last year of Harry's life. Then 10 days after his death, the foundation formally announced it bad dissolved itself. The action, it said, was taken shortly before Harry's death but circumstances had delayed the announcement.

The announcement stated that, of the $100 million De Rance has in assets, $30 million is to be distributed immediately to a number of charities. The remaining $70 million will go into an "archdiocesan supporting fund" whose main purpose will be to assist charitable and religious endeavors in the Milwaukee archdiocese.

Directors of the fund will be Erica, Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Paula John, a daughter of Erica and the late Harry John. Weakland immediately stated the generous gift will not be used to help with routine archdiocesan administrative costs. Rather, he said, interest would go to support charitable and religious endeavors "that have struggled so hard in recent years, to provide increased services with fewer governmental and private financial resources."

Among the larger donations from the $30 million, $1 million will go to Milwaukee's Marquette University High School for scholarships; $2 million to Marquette University for scholarships; $3.2 million to Milwaukee's Messmer High School for real estate and scholarships; $2.7 million to Santa Paula, Calif., Thomas Aquinas College; and $5 million to Family Rosary, Inc., the late Father Patrick Peyton's group. Peyton was a lifelong friend of the John family.

News of the foundation's dissolution and awards had "heads spinning" last week as grants were announced, according to one Catholic involved in philanthropy. He asked not to be identified. So, for the moment, it appears the Miller fortune is definitely back in Milwaukee in caring hands. But it is unlikely the saga has ended. There is already talk of further litigation as conservative Harry John backers try to pry the money out from under Erica's and the Milwaukee archdiocese's watchful eyes.
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Title Annotation:Harry and Erica John - De Rance Foundation
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 15, 1993
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