Philanthropist and civic leader Jeffrey W. Comment, 60, chairman and chief executive officer of Helzberg Diamonds Inc., died suddenly Oct. 30 in Kansas City, Mo. H. Marvin Beasley was named to replace him as head of the North Kansas City, Mo.-based national jewelry retail chain, by Warren Buffet, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Helzberg’s parent firm. Beasley was Helzberg’s president and chief operating officer. In a Nov. 1 letter to all Helzberg does business with, Beasley cited “Jeff’s invaluable leadership,” calling him “instrumental in guiding the company to its current status as a leading national fine jewelry retailer.”
Comment’s death shocked those in the jewelry industry and beyond, many of whom praised his good works and his business expertise. Matthew Runci, executive director of Jewelers of America (JA), called him “afriend, a vital member of the JA board of directors, an active contributor to his community, and a true humanitarianin our industry.” Runci cited his “tireless efforts on behalf of the disadvantaged among us, [though] he never sought publicity. He touched many lives in a most human way.”
Pete Levi, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, where Comment was 2002 chairman, noted “his caring manner” and called him “a person full of vitality, vigor, great ideas, and high energy.”
On Oct. 28, Comment received the “ORT Community Achievement Award” from the Jewelry Industry Chapter of American ORT. Calling him a “key figure in retail jewelry,” Michael Kaplan, chapter president, had said Comment “not only raised the bar of professionalism for the jewelry industry, but dedicated considerable time to important national issues such as education, child welfare, and pediatric AIDS.”
Comment held several top retail posts, including president of Philadelphia-based John Wanamaker’s department stores, before joining Helzberg in 1988 as president. Working closely with former chairman and CEO Barnett C. Helzberg Jr., he helped develop it into one of the largest U.S. jewelry chains. In 1995, it was bought by Berkshire Hathaway, and Comment became chairman and CEO. Today, it has 262 stores in 37 states with almost 3,000 employees. “Jeff was a great strategist, and we saw amazing growth,” Helzberg told a Kansas City paper Nov. 1. “It’s a loss for Helzberg Diamonds and the community.”
In addition to JA, Comment was a director and board member of the Diamond Council of America, Jewelry Information Center, and Jewelers for Children, the industry’s charity. He also was active in many local and national organizations, including the Salvation Army, William Jewell College, Rockhurst University, the Midwest Research Institute, United Way, Young Life, and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City.
Comment had what his family calls “a profound commitment to helping others.” His book Mission in the Marketplace tells how Christian principles can be applied in the work environment. At the time of his death, Comment was preparing for his 10th year playing Santa Claus for sick and terminally ill children across America. Since 1995, he had visited more than 15,000 children in U.S. hospitals. In 2000, the Jewelers Charity Fund for Children (now Jewelers for Children) honored him for his “Santa’s Tour” program, which he created to encourage businesspeople to do the same thing. His experiences led Comment to write two other books: Jonathan Through Santa’s Eyes, a touching story of one ill child, and Santa’s Gift: True Stories of Courage, Humor, Hope and Love, with personal reflections by celebrities. All profits go to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
“The holidays won’t be as bright without his presence,” said Randall O’Donnell, president and CEO of Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, to a Kansas City paper, but “because of him, we’ve all learned how to better give the gift of ourselves.”
Comment is survived by his wife; two children; his mother; a sister; two brothers; and nieces and nephews. Gifts in his memory can go to Young Life, Greater Kansas City Region, P.O. Box 15694, Lenexa, KS 66285, or to Heartland Community Church, 8301 Lamar, Overland Park, KS 66207.