Leonard K. Firestone, the tire magnate and philanthropist who was a confidant of several U.S. presidents, died Tuesday at his home in Pebble Beach, Calif. He was 89.
A family spokesman said Firestone died of complications from respiratory failure.
The last surviving child of Harvey S. Firestone, who founded the tire company that bears the family name, Leonard K. Firestone was named U.S. ambassador to Belgium in 1974 by President Richard Nixon, to whom the industrialist was a close advisor and financial supporter.
The nomination raised the hackles of Nixon’s opponents in Congress, who wanted to know why large donors such as Firestone were being named to ambassadorships.
Gerald Warren, then White House deputy press secretary, shrugged off the clamor, saying Firestone was a distinguished American, adding that he didn’t know how much the industrialist had given to Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972.
According to General Accounting Office figures, Firestone gave $15,000 to Nixon’s reelection effort.
Firestone was confirmed by the U.S. Senate and was reappointed by President Gerald R. Ford. He served as ambassador to Belgium until December 1976, but the lifelong Republican drew more scrutiny because of his political connections.
His financial contributions to the presidential efforts of Ford, his next-door neighbor in Rancho Mirage; Ronald Reagan, and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. drew notice from reporters, but little resulted from it.
Firestone, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Republican Wendell Wilkie’s 1940 presidential campaign, first attracted national political notice in the 1960s as a member of Ronald Reagan’s original “kitchen cabinet” of close friends and advisors when he was governor of California.
After Nixon resigned from the presidency, Firestone stayed in touch with him, serving as president of the Richard Nixon Foundation, which was formed by several Nixon friends to establish a presidential library. The foundation’s early troubles attracted unfavorable publicity, but Firestone never wavered in his belief that helping out friends was the right thing to do.
His son, Brooks, carries on Leonard Firestone’s enthusiasm for Republican politics. Brooks Firestone is a second-term Republican state assemblyman, representing portions of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
But the elder Firestone didn’t always support Republicans.
“My father was a campaign worker for [former Los Angeles Mayor and Democrat] Tom Bradley,” Brooks Firestone said.
And former U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston ballyhooed Firestone’s endorsement when the lawmaker ran for a third term in 1980 against Republican anti-tax crusader Paul Gann.
Firestone even tried his hand at elective office, winning election to the Beverly Hills City Council in the late 1940s.
While some may have grumbled at his political contributions, few could argue with Firestone’s generosity when it came to civic and social causes.
He was a major benefactor of national efforts to curb alcohol abuse. He was a director of the National Council of Alcoholism and the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.
He was a past chairman of the governing Board of Trustees at USC and a past president of the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles. He was a member of the national executive board of Boy Scouts of America.
His generous contributions to Pepperdine University led to the construction of an all-purpose gymnasium, Firestone Fieldhouse, at the Malibu campus.
He also dabbled in sports. He was a minority shareholder in Gene Autry’s successful effort to bring a second major league baseball team, the Angels, to Los Angeles in 1961.
When he ventured to Wrigley Field in the team’s first season, 1961, he was well enough known around Los Angeles to receive some plaudits from the fans. But even he knew he was no match for the whoops and hollers that were reserved for Autry, the signing cowboy who was the team’s majority owner.
As a tribute to his family, he and his late brother Raymond C. Firestone completed a relocation of their father’s boyhood home and farm buildings from Columbiana, Ohio, to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.
Born on June 10, 1907, Firestone was the third son of Harvey and Idabelle Firestone. He graduated from Princeton in 1931 and later joined the sales department of his father’s tire company.
In 1935, he was appointed sales manager at Firestone headquarters in Akron, Ohio. He was elected a director of the company in 1939 and the president of the Firestone Aviation Products Co. in 1941.
He was a lieutenant in the Navy during World War II. After leaving active duty, he became president and general manager of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. of California. Based in Los Angeles, he retired as president of Firestone’s California operations in 1970, while continuing as a director of the parent company until his appointment as ambassador to Belgium.
He returned to Firestone’s board of directors in 1980 and served until 1983.
Firestone married three times. He was married in 1932 to Polly Curtis of South Orange, N.J., who died in 1965. A year after her death, he married Barbara K. Heatley of San Francisco. She passed away in 1985.
In 1987, he married Caroline Hudson, who survives him.
In addition to his wife and son Brooks, Firestone is survived by son Kimball of Middletown Md.; daughter Lendy Brown of Paris, Ky.; 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held Jan. 4 at 3 p.m. at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert.
The family suggests that contributions can be made to ABC Recovery Center, 45-374 Palm St., Indio, CA 92201.