EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) _ John M. Cotter, who started out as a clerk in a Minnesota hardware store and founded the True Value Hardware chain, has died of cancer.

Cotter, a resident of this north Chicago suburb, died Monday. He was 85.

Born in St. Paul, Minn., he worked as a hardware store clerk as a boy, and as a department manager and buyer after high school. He moved to Chicago in the early 1940s.

He started his first store and distribution center, Cotter & Co., in 1948, and began to revolutionize the idea of a ''dealer-owned'' wholesaler. In its first year, the company had sales of $385,000 and 25 dealers.

Today, nearly one in four hardware stores in the United States belong to Cotter's organization, which he served as chairman.

''He had a lot of vision when he started Cotter Co. In 40 years, he made it a $2 billion business,'' said his son, Daniel. He added, ''He was also a heck of a father.''

True Value sales exceed $2 billion, and membership includes more than 6,000 True Value stores and 2,000 V&S Variety stores. The company also owns 15 distribution centers, an outdoor power-equipment factory and two paint factories.

Cotter is survived by his wife, Alice; another son, Michael; daughters Mary Fee and Patti Kiggins; and eight grandchildren.