John Baugh, a business entrepreneur and major supporter of moderate Baptist causes, died Monday after several years of declining health. He was 91.

The founder of SYSCO, the leading supplier to “meals-prepared-away-from-home” operations in North America, Baugh was also a leading lay figure in the fundamentalist/moderate controversy that divided the Southern Baptist Convention beginning in 1979.

A member of Tallowood Baptist Church in Houston, Baugh and others founded the Baptist Laity Journal in 1985 in an attempt to educate laypeople about efforts by fundamentalists to take over control of the nation’s largest Protestant faith group.

That led to formation of “Baptists Committed to the Southern Baptist Convention,” also called Baptists Committed, an organization committed to returning the SBC to its historic basis of cooperation in missions, evangelism and education and ending a decade of denominational strife.

The movement stalled with the defeat of Daniel Vestal for SBC president in 1990. A year later moderates disengaged from SBC politics and formed an alternative organization, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Vestal, a pastor in Houston at the time, now leads the Atlanta-based CBF.

While the CBF emphasized missionary and educational programs for moderate Baptists, another spin-off group, the Mainstream Baptists Network, focused on defending state conventions from fundamentalist takeover. Baugh’s efforts are credited with helping moderates to retain control of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Baugh summarized his concerns about Baptist life in a book, The Battle for Baptist Integrity.

“John Baugh had the wisdom to see the dangers of fundamentalism earlier than most and the courage to face fundamentalists long after most moderate ministers had surrendered from the fray and retreated into denial,” said Robert Parham of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.

Growing up during the depression era on a ranch in Waco, Texas, Baugh attended the University of Houston before going to work for the A&P food stores. In 1968, he was the visionary who convinced eight other successful owners of independent food-services firms to form SYSCO, a Houston-based wholesale food distributor that now serves nearly 400,000 eating establishments from fast-food chains to five-star restaurants.

“Frozen foods taste better than anything I could grow in my garden,” Baugh was quoted as saying, seeing an opening in the food-services marketplace for a large, national distributor that would change the way Americans dine.

In an industry marked by competition, independence and autonomy, Baugh advocated collaboration for mutual benefit. Much of the success of SYSCO, which now has 45,000 employees and $30 billion a year in sales, was attributed to Baugh’s integrity, intelligence, determination and the example he set of fairness to suppliers, customers and employees.

He retired as senior chairman of the board in 1998 at 82, but continued to go to the office as the company’s distinguished tenure director. He recently moved to San Antonio to live with his daughter.

Baugh was inducted into the Texas Business Hall of Fame in 1991. He was a founding trustee of HoustonBaptistUniversity and served more than 25 years as a director of the Baptist Foundation of Texas.

He was a regent emeritus and a major benefactor of BaylorUniversity.

Baugh and his family donated funds for more than 20 programs and projects at Baylor over the years. That included a $5 million lead gift for construction of a building for the George W. Truett Theological Seminary, which came in addition to helping to fund the seminary’s start-up in 1993.

Baugh was lead benefactor and namesake for the JohnF.BaughCenter for Entrepreneurship at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. Baugh and his wife of 71 years, the former Eula Mae Tharp, were honored with the Founders Medal, the most distinguished award given by the university, for service and contributions of significant value to the life of the institution.

Baugh is survived by his wife and their daughter, Barbara, of San Antonio.

“Mr. Baugh ensured a vibrant future for historic Baptist principles and the best of the Baptist vision,” Parham said. “Many of us are the beneficiaries of his work and witness. Future generations will drink from the wells he dug and warm themselves on the fires he struck.”

“Baptist men of his character and accomplishment will not be seen again in this generation,” Parham said.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

Share This