John F. Baugh is so beloved at SYSCO Inc., the $20 billion food service corporation he founded, that he's become something of a mythic figure. One story that makes the rounds about him turns out to be true, and reveals much about his character: As a stock boy for a Depression-era A&P grocery store in Houston, he repeatedly asked for advances on his modest salary -- to buy food for starving families.
That generous spirit has characterized his life, and one of the most frequent recipients of his largesse has been Baylor, although Baugh never attended the University.
"No sir, I didn't," he says. "Mrs. Baugh and I happened to be Depression kids. Her mother and dad were Baylor graduates, and when we lived in Waco, my family had this close relationship with Baylor. So our early relationship with the University had to be a vicarious one, although our children and grandchildren went to Baylor. Eula Mae and I have always had a love affair with Baylor -- we just didn't get to attend it."
The Baughs married in Houston and eventually pooled their meager resources to become distributors of frozen foods to restaurants. During the late 1950s, they were the first to service the new, national fast-food chains. In time, the Baughs merged with nine other independent food service businesses to form SYSCO. Largely due to Baugh's astute management and reputation for integrity, SYSCO flourished. Today, the Houston-based company has more than 50,000 employees throughout the United States and Canada and is ranked No. 105 in the Fortune 500. And while he officially retired in 1998 as senior chair of SYSCO's board, Baugh still goes to the office each day.
"We have the greatest number of honorable people I've ever seen assembled at this company," he says. "That's the reason I still like to come to work."
Baugh is a man of unflagging commitment -- to his wife of 66 years, his company, to Baylor, but first and foremost, to God. He has a lifelong history of religious service at Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston. Longtime friend and Baylor regent Philip Lineberger, pastor of Williams Trace Baptist Church in Sugar Land, Texas, calls him "a man of deep integrity."
"What he says is what he believes and what he does. He is a person of great consistency. I admire his work ethic and I admire his Christian commitment," Lineberger says.
A courtly man with an old-fashioned manner, Baugh humbly deflects most compliments and personal questions. He will happily talk about Baylor, however, and why Baylor's reputation and mission have prompted him to become one of the University's most generous benefactors.
"I support Baylor because it is absolutely wonderful. It stands for moral and ethical conduct in Baptist life and in the lives of individuals, really as a reflection of their commitment to Christ," Baugh says. "When things need to be done at Baylor, somebody has got to step forward and do them."
The Baughs' beneficence includes the lead gift for the construction of a permanent home on the Baylor campus for George W. Truett Theological Seminary, which Baugh was instrumental in founding. The dedication service for the Baugh-Reynolds Campus of the seminary took place Feb. 22, and the Baughs were there to celebrate the milestone. The Baughs also have donated funds toward some 15 programs and projects at Baylor through the years, including capital improvements, scholarships and study-abroad programs. In 1988, the Center for Private Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in the Hankamer School of Business was named for Baugh.
Along the way, the Baughs have developed a warm friendship with Baylor President Robert B. Sloan Jr.
"John is a remarkable combination of attributes that you do not normally find in the same person," Dr. Sloan says. "He is courteous in the extreme, generous to a fault and he is courageous beyond measure."
Baugh has an insightful understanding of the role that Baylor's 12th president plays at this particular juncture in the University's history.
"President Robert Sloan has an awesome set of expectations to bear," Baugh says. "The first one being, 'What are the students going to be like 20 years after they graduate from Baylor?' That is a tremendous responsibility. But he also has to consider, 'What is Baptist life going to be like?' The president of Baylor University really has no other spiritual, ethical or moral choice but to recognize that responsibility. All of those expectations are right on his back, and he will fulfill them."
Baylor regent Jaclanel McFarland, another friend of the Baughs and a Houston attorney, says that Baugh's passion encompasses not only Baylor and its mission, but the mission of Baptist life in general.
"What John Baugh sees in Baylor is something that needs to be fostered," McFarland says. "You only have to look at his support of Truett Theological Seminary. He is strongly burdened that Baptists have an educated pastorate. He is passionate in ensuring that our pastors are educated theologically and that they have the free Baptist mindset that he holds particularly dear -- the priesthood of the believer, the separation of church and state, the importance of a democratic laity in a church. John's not just a big talker -- he puts his money where his mouth is."
Ultimately, Baugh smiles and dismisses such lofty sentiments. There's really only one thing he wants to be remembered for, and with a twinkle in his eye, he doesn't hesitate to share it.
"The fact that I'm married to Eula Mae Tharp. That's my one distinction."