Cincinnati Bengals co-founder Sawyer dies

John Sawyer

John Sawyer, co-founder of the Cincinnati Bengals and former Madison County resident, died early Thursday in Cincinnati, according to family members.

He was 90.

Sawyer was a prominent agri-businessman and owner of Orleton Farms, north of London, when he joined an effort to obtain an AFL professional football franchise for Cincinnati in 1967.

Others involved were London veterinarian Bill Hackett, Delaware businessman Austin “Dutch” Knowlton and legendary football coach Paul Brown.

The Sawyer family moved to Cincinnati in 1975.

Sawyer served as the team’s president from 1983 to 1993 and also served as vice-president since 1994.

“John was a pioneer with the Bengals,” Mike Brown, the current Bengals president, said in a statement issued Thursday. “The team wouldn’t have come into existence were it not for his efforts. He was our original president and our primary owner for many years. We lost a critical business partner, as well as a close dear friend.”

Sawyer had long been one of the Brown family’s key advisors, and he rarely missed a game at home or away. He also was a former part owner of the Cincinnati Reds, and he was a leader in initiating construction of Riverfront Stadium, which opened in 1970 and served as home to both the Bengals and the Reds for more than 30 years.

According to “Orleton Farms From The Beginning,” a book penned by local resident Ann Vick, Sawyer first came to the area as a youth to spend summers and holidays at the 4,800-acre Orleton Farm, then owned by his aunt, Mary Johnston.

Following graduation from Princeton University and service as a pilot in World War II, Sawyer assumed partial oversight of farm operations in 1949.

He married Ruth Dennis, a Kansas City resident, in 1953. The couple continued to live in the farm’s “cottage,” where they frequently entertained and became community leaders. Along with daughters Anne, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary, the Sawyers moved to London in 1965.

Sawyer’s agricultural operations expanded in Ohio and as far west as Montana and as far south as Florida. At one point, he owned interests in six farms.

He and his wife were community activists with interests in both the arts and business, including the former London School-Community Theater and London Art Center.

Herb Markley, a contemporary of Sawyer and fellow community thespian, described him as “a mighty fine man.”

“He and his wife (Ruth) did so much for the community,” Markley said. “We were in community plays together. She was a great artist. He was in the plays with us, just so common and wonderful to be around. Wonderful people, wonderful family. Everybody loved John and his wife.”

Joyce Hilldebrand knew the Sawyers as well.

“He was husband Frank’s employer at Orleton farms. They were personal friends. He and Ruth were exceptional people with the community at heart. Both John and Ruth were in all of our community plays for 25 years. They were fantastic folks and we will miss them.”

Sawyer was instrumental in founding the Madison County Airport and was also instrumental in preserving the Red Brick Tavern.

Additionally, he was president of the J. Sawyer Company in Cincinnati, a multi-faceted agricultural and real estate firm. Sawyer was a B-17 pilot in World War II, and he was a innovator in aerial applications of crop pesticides. He was the son of Charles Sawyer, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

In 1983, he was inducted into the Ohio Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Earl Kimbler worked one of the farms owned by the company from 1959 to 2000, when he retired as foreman. Kimbler described Sawyer as “a wonderful person to work for.”

Kimbler found Sawyer to be a supportive employer who would “do anything for you.”

“I enjoyed working here the whole time. He was always interested in what was going on. He’d tell us how good a job we were doing.”

State Rep. Bob Hackett, son of Bill Hackett, said Sawyer was involved in the community, but always kept a low profile and not wishing for any public acclaim for his contributions.

Hackett described him as a down-to-earth person who treated everybody nicely.

“You’d never know he was worth millions. He was a quality guy,” Hackett said. “He never wanted any credit for doing things. He did it behind the scenes.”

Hackett said Sawyer enjoyed his time as president of the Bengals.

“It opened up a new part of his life he hadn’t experienced before,” he said.

Sawyer was preceded in death by his wife, Ruth, and is survived by four daughters and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Reporter Dean Shipley also contributed to this report.