John D. MacArthur was a rags-to-riches success story in the tradition of the author Horatio Alger. He came from humble beginnings to be the CEO and sole stockholder of Banker's Life and Casualty which he founded in Chicago in 1935. At the time of his death, he was one of the three richest men in America. He was the founder of The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation based in Chicago.
MacArthur was born on March 6, 1897 in the small minging town of Pittston, Pennsylvania ten miles south of Scranton. He was the youngest of seven children born to William Telfer and Georgiana Welstead MacArthur. His father was a missionary and Baptist minister. The family was poor and for a while they lived in New York City. They then moved to Chicago where John attended grammar school and some high school but he quit school at 16.
MacArthur served in World War I with the British Royal Flying Corps rather than with American forces. He came back to Chicago to work with his brother Alfred MacArthur for National Life Insurance Company. For a while, he worked with his other brother Charles MacAthur, the journalist and playwrite, at The Chicago Herald Examiner, but returned to insurance in less than a year. Charles wrote The Front Page with Ben Hecht and his second wife was actress Helen Hayes. John acquired control of Marquette Life Insurance of Jerseyville, Illinois in 1928. The company survived the Depression and in 1935 John purchased ownership of Banker's Life and Casualty which became the foundation of his later personal fortune.
The Chicago area was the company headquarters and the location of MacArhtur's homes for most of the rest of his life. But he did have a home in Florida that was the basis of a fight between Illinois and Florida over which state had the right to tax his estate.
From 1935 to 1956, MacArthur developed the concept of mass marketing low-cost health insurance policies through the mail. Bankers became the largest health and accident insurance company in America in the middle 1950s.
According to the Banker's Life and Casualty history, MacAthur went on a visit to Florida in 1956 to look at investment properties and his visit became a long-term stay. He ran his business affairs from both Illinois and Florida for a while. In 1963, he purchased the Colonnades Hotel in Singer Island Florida. But he and his wfie lived a simple and frugal lifestyle in an apartment facing the parking lot. His frugality and some other eccentricities were famous. For a while his office was the back table of the hotel coffee shop. For most of this time, John was the sole stockholder of Bankers Life.
When John D. MacArthur died on January 6, 1978, he was likely the third richest man in America. Control of the company passed to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation which is still giving grants to PBS and "genius grants" to various scholars. The foundation is still based in Chicago.