Former CEO of International Paper, major supporter of Paul Smith’s College, remembered as ‘a visionary’
By Gwendolyn Craig
The retired chairman and CEO of International Paper and philanthropist John Dillon died last Tuesday, according to Paul Smith’s College representatives and close associates. He was 84.
Colleagues, who spoke with the Adirondack Explorer this week, remembered Dillon’s generous spirit, straightforwardness and continued devotion to the Adirondack Park, even after moving through the ranks of the largest paper company in the world and settling in Connecticut.
“He never lost sight of the fact that a lot of people need help, and never forgot the sort of common folk out of which he arose,” said Thomas Jorling, former commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, who worked at International Paper during most of Dillon’s tenure leading the company.
Dillon made “significant contributions to strengthen our college,” said Paul Smith’s Interim President Dan Kelting, in a news release on Tuesday, adding that the entire college was profoundly saddened about his passing.
Dillon was born in Schroon Lake in 1938. He earned a forestry degree from Paul Smith’s in 1958. He became a great benefactor of his alma mater, donating over $2 million. The college’s science center is named after him, as is John Dillon Park near Long Lake, a college-operated trail system and campground accessible to people with disabilities. His 2017 donation of $1 million for the science lab was the college’s largest ever from an alumnus, college officials had said at the time.
“John Dillon was a visionary, but also a doer who was always ready to roll up his sleeves to improve our venerable institution in the Adirondacks,” Kelting said. “John’s contributions to Paul Smith’s College and the Adirondacks are too numerous to mention, but his spirit lives on in the generations of Paul Smith’s students and faculty he has helped along the way. That is John’s ultimate contribution.”
After graduating from Paul Smith’s, Dillon received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hartford and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.
In 1965, Dillon joined International Paper as a sales trainee. Three decades later, he became president and by 1996, he was CEO and chairman until his retirement in 2003. Dillon oversaw two multi-billion dollar deals through the paper company. They included the acquisition of Union Camp Corporation and later Champion International Paper. Champion and International both had offices in the North Country. The Champion merger led to International Paper also acquiring billions in debt, records show.
International Paper, which used to own a mill in Ticonderoga, is considered the largest pulp and paper company in the world, with over $20 billion in revenue as of 2020 and more than 49,000 employees. Its headquarters for a time were in Purchase.
Jorling, who oversaw IP’s environmental compliance from 1994 to 2004, said he had heard of Dillon’s passing from Dillon’s personal secretary, Ada Marini. For months, she had been keeping some former colleagues apprised of Dillon’s condition after he suffered from a severe case of pneumonia, Jorling said. Marini, who worked with Dillon for over 30 years, spoke with Explorer on Tuesday and said Dillon had died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia, and his family was working on an obituary draft.
“I’m at a loss for words right now,” Marini said. “I’m going to miss him. I lost a good friend.”
Jorling also described his former colleague as a compassionate and caring person. In the mid-1990s, arsonists set fire to a number of mostly Black-attended churches in the South. A congressional record from May 1997 described the fires in 1994 and 1996 that led to an FBI investigation and the National Council of Churches to start a Burned Churches Fund.
“John made sure that International Paper contributed all the building supplies necessary to rebuild those churches,” Jorling said. “It was not something he sought any recognition for; it was just his concern.”
The congressional record before the U.S. Senate included an article from Delta Airline’s Sky magazine detailing the donation of funds, lumber and building materials. It quoted a memo from Dillon to his company employees that said: ‘‘Beyond the instant tragedy associated with this wanton destruction, these events strike at the essence of what makes small-town communities so special,’’ Dillon wrote. ‘‘For International Paper, small towns and small-town values have long been an important part of our history. The spirit of unity, dedication to purpose and pride in performing well that are so fundamental to these communities have also been indispensable to our company’s success. This link, together with the premium we place on corporate citizenship, requires that International Paper respond in this time of need.’’
The magazine quoted Charles Eason, a deacon at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Proctor, Ark. Eason said the paper company’s donation “made the difference for us.”
A caring CEO
Dillon was also a stickler for safety in the workplace, Jorling said. Jorling recalled times when Dillon would walk around a paper mill and not wear safety equipment, hoping a floor worker would reprimand him. Dillon wanted to make sure everyone was treated the same and everyone abided by the proper precautions, Jorling said.
Donna Wadsworth, communications manager at Sylvamo, which was formerly an International Paper mill based in Ticonderoga, worked at International Paper for over two decades before the company transition.
“We always kind of felt like we were his favorite, even though he was a CEO of a very large company,” Wadsworth said. “In his retirement, he would often stop by the mill and walk through and talk to people. He was a very gregarious and outgoing person.”
When Dillon retired, the company planned to build a park on Grampus Lake and Handsome Pond in the Adirondacks in his honor. Jorling said it was the company’s practice to do something for their retired CEOs.
John Dillon Park opened officially in 2006 and was recognized for campsites compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The park included nine fully accessible lean-tos and three miles of accessible trails. It is located between Long Lake and Tupper Lake, and Dillon made several financial donations to it over the years. Its inspiration for being an accessible campground was in part due to another Adirondack Park giant recently lost. Timothy Barnett, the former president of the Adirondack Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, had suffered a spinal cord injury and became paralyzed in 1997. This was around the same time as a lawsuit against the State of New York that found the state was not providing enough accommodations for people with disabilities.
“This combination of events led to the plan to make the Park a place for people with functional differences,” according to International Paper’s website about John Dillon Park.
“It was really a recognition of John’s multiple contributions, obviously as chief executive officer of the company, but also his interest in people, who may not have enjoyed all of life’s privileges,” Jorling said.
Author Lorraine Duvall wrote about the park for the Adirondack Almanack in 2015 as a “near-wilderness experience” but “with much less hassle than what is required in remote areas of the Adirondack Park.”
Jason Thurston, outreach coordinator for International Paper-John Dillon Park, was shocked by Dillon’s death. He called Dillon the “driving force when it came to big decisions,” and said he was a very straightforward person.
“He cared deeply about the park and wanted to make sure that people had as few barriers to the opportunity as possible,” Thurston said. “He was always very concerned about what prevents people from being able to come … what’s standing in their way, and to be able to solve that piece of the puzzle.”
Dillon was adamant, Thurston added, that the park be free so cost was not a barrier for visitors.
Wadsworth, who has a drawer in her office labeled “John Dillon Park,” said an advisory committee is working on how to ensure the operations continue running smoothly.
Dillon made his mark in other ways at the Paul Smith’s campus. He donated $600,000 to establish a college-owned saw mill. He also helped establish the Gould Hoyt Scholarship, named after a forestry department faculty member. He was on the college’s board of trustees from 1982 to 1992 and was named trustee emeritus in 1993, according to the Adirondack Almanack.
In April 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed Dillon as a member of the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations. The role assisted the federal government with trade policy advice. According to a White House news release, Dillon was also chairman of the Board of Governors of the National Council for Air and Stream Improvements and was chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Council on Economic Education at that time.
After leaving International Paper, Dillon became vice chairman of Evercore Capital Partners in New York City. According to his Evercore biography, Dillon also served as board member on a number of prominent companies including Caterpillar Inc., the Kellogg Company, DuPont, Vertis Inc. and Davis Petroleum. Dillon was also for a time the chairman of the American Forest and Paper Association.