Walter F. Beran, a businessman whose deep civic involvement and philanthropy reflected his belief that "we must put ourselves in the place of another" if America is to continue to be a productive society, died Saturday of respiratory failure at a nursing home in Los Angeles, his son Jim Beran said. He was 81.
For decades Beran worked at Ernst & Whinney, a predecessor of Ernst & Young. After joining the accounting firm in 1948, he became a partner in 1960 and in 1971 moved to Los Angeles to serve as vice chairman and managing partner of the firm's western region. But it was Beran's willingness to involve himself in a long list of endeavors outside the business world that distinguished him. Those experiences helped shape his views on the responsibility of business leaders to address the city's problems.
"Here was a prime example of a businessperson who was ethical and moral and a tremendous positive contributor to the community," said a longtime friend, the Rev. Keith Phillips of World Impact, a Los Angeles-based, inner-city missions organization.
After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Beran accepted an invitation from Phillips to meet with a group of Watts residents who wanted to express their concerns about life in their community. After the meeting, Beran and former Mayor Tom Bradley, another longtime friend, spearheaded a fundraising campaign to help with the creation of the Watts Christian School, near the Imperial Courts housing projects in South Los Angeles, and to assist the community in other ways, Phillips said.
Beran was deeply religious, but he argued that such service wasn't just good for the soul, it also made good business sense. The city's most vexing problems -- a lack of affordable housing, healthcare and education -- affected everyone.
"Many don't seem to realize that if the community around them is not healthy, their business eventually will suffer," he told a Times reporter in 1982.
Beran sat on the board of trustees for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and served on the advisory board of the Skirball Institute on American Values. He was a member of the board of regents at California Lutheran University and the board of councilors at USC's business school.
Beran was campaign chairman for the United Way during the mid-1980s, when layoffs and reduced profits at companies resulted in the largest shortfall in existing accounts that United Way had ever experienced. Beran and the organization responded by broadening the base of United Way supporters, inspiring thousands of individuals and businesses to donate for the first time.
Born April 20, 1926, in The Grove, Texas, Beran was the youngest of four sons. He picked cotton during the Depression and at 17 enlisted in the Army and headed off to fight in World War II, Jim Beran said.
On Christmas Eve, 1944, Beran was asleep on a troopship, the Leopoldville, when he nearly lost his life. The vessel, a converted passenger liner, was traveling in the English Channel on its way to the Battle of the Bulge when a German torpedo struck and sank the ship, killing hundreds of men. Beran was among the survivors and was awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
After the war Beran enrolled at Baylor University, where he met Annette Lott, known as "Speedy." They married in 1948.
Beran is survived by his wife and their two sons, John Beran of Fallbrook, Calif., and Jim Beran of Marina del Rey.
As a businessman who was once president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, Beran had the ear of executives. With his influence he encouraged others to care.
"Our compassion must become less institutional and more personal, particularly now that government is lessening its social role," he told a group of bankers and accountants in 1982. "For if we are to retain and foster the American fabric necessary for a productive society, we must, as Shelley said, 'put ourselves in the place of another and many others, and the pains and pleasures of our species must be our own.' "
A memorial service is being planned for July 28. Memorial donations may be sent to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, World Impact, California Lutheran University, Pepperdine University or the Japan American Society of Southern California.