James Stuart, the patriarch of a prominent Lincoln family and owner of regional broadcasting and financial services networks for a generation, died Tuesday at age 95.
Stuart owned the National Bank of Commerce, which became a statewide network of banks, and Stuart Broadcasting, among other investments. His family’s name was on the Stuart Theater in the Stuart Building, now University Towers, at 13th and P streets.
A graduate of Lincoln High School and the University of Nebraska, Stuart was of a generation of local businessmen who went to school, went to war, came home, raised families and devoted enormous time and energy to a vast array of business and community endeavors.
Stuart began his business career Jan. 1, 1941, with Stuart Investment Co. in the Stuart Building — often called Lincoln’s first skyscraper — built by his father, Charles Stuart, in 1928.
From 1942 to 1945, he served in Europe during World War II and was discharged as a captain.
At first, he specialized in property and casualty insurance, and his insurance office operated until 1982. He gave a portion of the Stuart Building to the University of Nebraska Foundation in 1977, and the remainder to the Lincoln Foundation in 1985.
Stuart expanded his investments from real estate and insurance companies to building a radio broadcasting network. Beginning with the original ownership of Cornbelt Broadcasting Corp., KFOR and later KFRX in Lincoln, he bought stations in Grand Island; Salina, Kan.; Sioux City and Oelwein, Iowa; and Springfield, Ill.
Roger Larson, who now has a building named after him across P Street from what was the Stuart Building, worked for Stuart as general manager of KFOR, although indirectly because Dick Chapin ran the broadcast operation.
“I considered him a real friend and respected him as a good businessman. When his father died, the estate was sort of split between him and brother Chick.
“Jim went into the radio business, and hired Dick, which was one of the best things he ever did, because Dick built the company into one of best radio operating companies in the country.
“He had confidence in the people he hired and let them do what they wanted to do. … It was a wonderful place to work, and you felt you were not only doing good work, but working for the community. That was one of the things he was interested in.”
Stuart acquired controlling interest in what became the National Bank of Commerce in the 1960s. Its holding company, First Commerce Bancshares, owned NBC and, later, banks in Grand Island, Hastings, West Point, Kearney, North Platte, McCook and Colorado Springs, Colo. The family sold First Commerce Bancshares in 2000 to Wells Fargo. First Commerce, with total consolidated assets of $3.9 billion, was the third-largest commercial banking organization in Nebraska at the time, with deposits of $1.8 billion, representing about 6.6 percent of state deposits.
Stuart’s grandson, Lee, has revived the NBC brand and family banking business with his leadership and investment in the Nebraska Bank of Commerce.
James Stuart’s participation in other business ventures was extensive, from serving as a trustee of Bankers Life Nebraska to board membership of the Keebler Co. and Apache Corp.
Stuart’s leadership and participation in community organizations and philanthropy ranged from the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce to the University of Nebraska and beyond. He was Lincoln’s Outstanding Young Man of 1952, and received an honorary doctorate from the university in 1990.
An avid outdoorsman, he was devoted to Ducks Unlimited. He is in the Nebraska Skeet Shooting Association’s Hall of Fame, having won nine state championships.
Stuart served on the Lincoln school board and on the Nebraska Game and Parks commission. He was a lifetime member of First-Plymouth Church and served on its board of trustees.
Visitation will be Friday, 6-8 p.m., at Roper and Sons, 4300 O St. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at First-Plymouth.