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Chicago banker and oil executive John E. Swearingen dies at 89

John E. Swearingen, who led Standard Oil Co. of Indiana, died at a Birmingham hospital. He was 89.

Swearingen died of pneumonia Friday at Brookwood Medical Center, according to his wife, Bonnie Bolding Swearingen. She said he also suffered from Alzheimer's disease. He was in Birmingham to visit relatives.

During his long business career, Swearingen met with leaders of countries around the world and socialized with U.S. presidents from Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford to Jimmy Carter.

He was at the helm of the American Petroleum Institute in the 1970s in the role of industry spokesman during the energy crisis.

A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Swearingen was awarded honorary degrees by 15 colleges and universities and served on the board of major banks and corporations, including Sara Lee Corp.

"He was a giant of a businessman," said retired Sara Lee CEO John Bryan. "I don't think there was anyone in Chicago in the 20th century who was a more important business figure."

Swearingen graduated from the University of South Carolina and patterned his life on his father's admonition: "work hard, wash clean, and always tell the truth."

By age 20, Swearingen had earned a master's degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University. He immediately went to work for Standard Oil, doing research.

He rose through the ranks to become its chairman and retired from Standard Oil in 1983. During his 44-year tenure, the company's profits rose from $84 million to $1.8 billion, according to his 2004 memoir, Think Ahead.

After he left, he took over the troubled Continental Illinois Bank, where he served until 1989.

Meanwhile, Standard Oil became part of BPAmoco, which is now known as BP PLC.

Among his many professional and civic honors, Swearingen had been decorated by the governments of Egypt, Italy and Iran for his global oil activities.

Besides his wife, Swearingen is survived by two daughters, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Private services were planned in South Carolina.

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