Obituary: Leo Van Munching, Jr., 89

Leo Van Munching, Jr., who guided Heineken’s decades-long dominance in the US imported beer market, died February 14th after a long illness.  The Darien resident was 89.

Born in 1926 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Leo and his family immigrated to the United States upon the repeal of Prohibition in 1933.  His late father, Leo, Sr., came as a representative of the Heineken brewery and eventually established the independent Van Munching & Company as the sole US importer of Heineken brands.

Leo served as a ‘Seabee’ in the 35th Special Naval Construction Battalion on Oahu, Hawaii from 1944 to 1946.  Upon discharge from the Navy, he enrolled in the University of Maryland on the G.I. Bill, earning a degree from the College of Business and Management in 1950.  

He then went to work for Van Munching & Company, establishing regional offices in major markets around the country and developing both the brand imagery and the distribution network that led to Heineken’s preeminence in the expanding imported beer segment.  He married Margaret (Peggy) Pratt in 1953, and moved his quickly growing family to Chicago and Los Angeles before settling in Connecticut, where he took over as president of Van Munching & Company. He remained in that role until his retirement in 1993.

During his time with Van Munching & Company, no other brand approached Heineken’s position as the largest-selling imported beer.  After cajoling the Heineken Brewery to create a low-calorie version of its Amstel brand, Leo guided Amstel Light to the top sales spot in the imported light beer segment.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions and personal dedication to US-Netherlands trade relations, and his promotion of goodwill for the Netherlands in the United States, the Dutch government honored him with The Order of Orange-Nassau in 1982.  Six years later, the Netherlands Chamber of Commerce in the US also recognized his role in the expansion of trade between the two countries, presenting him with the George Washington Vanderbilt Award.

Leo’s efforts as a philanthropist – often anonymous – were substantial and far-reaching.  Many of his contributions were made out of appreciation for the opportunities he and his family enjoyed in America.  He became involved in the restoration of the Statue of Liberty in honor of his mother, Mia, who he said was greatly affected by seeing the statue as an arriving immigrant.   

He donated Van Munching Hall, home of the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, in part to thank the university for its kind treatment of the veterans of World War II.  In addition to building the home for the University of Maryland’s business school, Leo was a member of the school’s Dean’s Advisory Council, an honorary trustee of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation Board, and in 2012, was given the Tyser Gottwals Award in honor of his outstanding service to the university.

Leo’s fervent commitment to supporting education led him to a long-standing relationship with Kolbe Cathedral High School in Bridgeport.  His support of that school, both as a benefactor and member of the Advisory Board, prompted the Diocese of Bridgeport to honor him with the Order of St. Augustine Medal of Service in 2012.  He and Peggy were also strong supporters of the St. Margaret Mary School in the Bronx.

Closer to home, Leo and Peggy established the Van Munching Rehabilitation Unit at Stamford Hospital, which helps people with chronic or disabling illnesses or injuries restore their mobility and independence. The excellent care he received at the New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center prompted Leo to make a founding donation to the Margaret M. Dyson Vision Research Institute. Leo was also a leadership donor to the construction of the new Darien Library, which opened in 2009.  He was an active supporter of several Darien-based charities, and a member of the Wee Burn Country Club.

Leo is survived by his wife Peggy, and their eight children: Leo, III (Laura) of San Francisco, CA, Jan Phillips (Chuck) of Bonita Springs, FL, Pieter of Darien, Paul (Heather) of Bath, England, Tesa of Newport, RI, Anne Ardery (Peter) of Darien, Philip (Christina) of Darien, and Christopher (Kimberly) of Darien.  He is also survived by thirteen grandchildren – Kyle, Charlie, Brennan, Annebet, Max, Anneka, Lily, Mia, Megan, William, Anna, Maggie, and Leo, IV – and two great-grandchildren, River and Rory. In addition, he is survived by his sister, Anne Wilsey, of Greenwich.

A funeral mass will be celebrated at St. Thomas More Church in Darien, CT on February 20th at 10:30 AM. Memorial donations can be made to the Kolbe Cathedral High School, 33 Calhoun Place, Bridgeport, CT  06604, attention Jo-Anne Jakab, Principal.