Jeffrey Comment dies at 60

Civic leader and philanthropist Jeffrey W. Comment, 60, chairman and chief executive officer of Helzberg Diamonds Inc., died unexpectedly Saturday after collapsing during a private party at Kansas City’s Starlight Theatre, The Business Journal of Kansas City reports.

H. Marvin Beasley has been named chairman and chief executive officer of the North Kansas City, Mo.-based jewelry retail chain, The Kansas City Star reports. Beasley formerly held the title of president and chief operating officer.

Comment joined the Helzberg Diamond Shops in 1988 as president. He served side-by-side with Barnett C. Helzberg Jr., growing the company from 80 to 145 stores. In May 1995, Helzberg Diamonds became a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and Comment became chairman and CEO. The company now operates approximately 262 stores in 37 states with nearly 3,000 employees.

With Comment at the helm, Helzberg Diamonds launched the concept of the Helzberg value tag, which became the cornerstone of the company’s marketing strategy.

Comment had been gearing up for his 10th year of touring pediatric hospitals as Santa Claus. He was first talked into playing Santa at Helzberg’s Christmas party in 1995, The Business Journal reports. During the party, Comment was moved by a group of abused children who had been invited. As the children told their sad stories, Comment told them that Santa loved them.

Since then, Comment has visited more than 15,000 children in pediatric hospitals throughout the U.S.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett became a supporter of the annual Santa trips. The trips eventually inspired the book Santa’s Gift: True Stories of Courage, Humor, Hope and Love, in which Comment describes his encounters with these children. In addition to Comment’s stories, the book contains a foreword by Buffett and personal reflections on philanthropy by celebrities such as Sir Elton John, Ted Danson, Norman Lear, Donna Karan, Michael Eisner, and Mary Steenburgen.

All profits from the book are donated to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.

After graduating from Indiana University in 1966 with a business marketing degree, Comment’s retail experiences began with several management positions in various department stores, including Jordan Marsh Company and Burdine’s. His last department store assignment was as president and COO of John Wanamaker department stores, Philadelphia’s largest department store at the time.

Comment served as a director and board member for the Diamond Council of America, Jewelry Information Center, Jewelers of America, and Jewelers Charity Fund for Children. He also was a member of several Kansas City area organizations including the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce where he served as chairman in 2002, The Business Journal reports.

On Oct. 28, Comment received the “ORT Community Achievement Award” from the Jewelry Industry Chapter of American ORT.

“We are proud to honor one of the key figures in retail jewelry,” said Michael Kaplan, chapter president, when the organization first announced that Comment was this year’s recipient. “Jeffrey has not only raised the bar of professionalism for the jewelry industry as a whole, but has dedicated considerable time to important national issues such as education, child welfare, and pediatric AIDS.”