Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr.
(1909 – 1994)

Youngstown’s First Billionaire

Only the most rich and famous people get their obituaries printed in the New York Times newspaper. On December 20, 1994 the Times carried the following obituary: “Edward J. DeBartolo, a real estate developer who helped create the suburban shopping mall and used his success to invest in horse racing and professional sports teams, including the San Francisco 49ers, died yesterday at his home in Youngstown, Ohio. He was 85.” On the same day the Youngstown Vindicator’s front page proclaimed that “Death ends career rooted in Valley.” Those who knew him either loved or hated the man, but everybody respected his ability to climb to the top at whatever he attempted.

DeBartolo was born on May 17, 1909 in Youngstown and was the second of six children of Anthony Paonessa and Rose Villani; immigrants from Italy. Ed never knew his biological father, who died before his birth. When his mother remarried he would take his stepfather’s name. The stepfather, Michael DeBartolo, had also emigrated from Italy and became a paving contractor and builder of warehouses in Youngstown. While a teenager, Edward DeBartolo began working for his stepfather who did not write English. Eddy’s job was to transcribe the paving and building contracts.

DeBartolo went on to earn a degree in civil engineering at the University of Notre Dame and continued for the next ten years working with his stepfather. When the Second World War came Eddy found himself serving in the Army Corps of Engineers. It was in 1944 that DeBartolo married Marie Montani and incorporated his own company, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation. After the War ended, Americans started moving to the suburbs. DeBartolo was the first to recognize the need for stores in the suburbs and began building shopping plazas with his brother Frank who was the company’s architect.

The DeBartolo Corporation was the undisputed leader in the shopping mall industry and at one time owned one-tenth of all malls in the United States. From enclosed malls the company branched out, building hotels, office parks and condominiums. By 1990, Edward J. DeBartolo’s personal wealth was estimated at more than $1.4 billion dollars. As a powerful thinker and strategic planner, he began acquiring department store chains, such as, Lazarus and Federated. In 1988, he partnered with Dillard’s Department Stores to buy Higbee’s of Cleveland.

In 1977, DeBartolo purchased the San Francisco 49ers and gave the team to his son, Eddy Jr. Under the leadership of quarterback Joe Montana, the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1982, 1985, 1989, and 1990. Being a good father, DeBartolo gave the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team to his daughter, Marie Denise. While he was unsuccessful in his attempt to purchase the Chicago White Sox in 1980, he did acquire three thoroughbred racetracks - Thistledowns in Cleveland, Remington Park in Oklahoma City, and Louisiana Downs in Bossier City, Louisiana.

DeBartolo’s contributions to the campus at the University of Notre Dame include DeBartolo Hall, DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts, and DeBartolo Quad. There is also a DeBartolo Hall on the campus of Youngstown State University in his hometown. All of this came about by his work ethic of fifteen-hour days and seven-day weeks. You can not rule out his great ability of recognizing a need and finding a way to satisfy that need. That is what it takes to be an entrepreneur.