Ann Lurie isn't very good at being merely a name etched in granite.
Take the coming fundraising gala to celebrate the completion of the new Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, a 1.25 million-square-foot facility in Streeterville with an $855 million price tag, to which she contributed $100 million.
Not only will Lurie and her late husband's name be visible on the 23-story building, her fingerprints will be on just about everything else.
Lurie brought in a party planner for the gala April 20, her birthday. She helped sell $5 million worth of tables ranging from $25,000 to $100,000. She secured Bombardier Inc., maker of her private plane, as an underwriter. She tasted the hors d'oeuvres.
And it is her voice that guests will hear on an audio tour guiding them through select areas of the new hospital.
When she recorded the tour, producers said her voice, slightly monotone, wasn't "bouncy" enough. "Put a smile in it," they told her.
The script, she said, read like a 20-year-old wrote it and included lines she would never say, such as, "You've got to see this!" The guests, mostly older philanthropists, would appreciate something more sophisticated, she thought.
In the end, Lurie compromised. Her voice will sound more "sing-songy" than usual. But she made a few edits to the script.
Lurie, the widow of entrepreneur Robert "Bob" Lurie, the partner of real estate magnate Sam Zell, has made philanthropy her full-time job for more than 20 years, giving away more than $331 million to an array of causes: cancer research, children's health, even a large-scale archaeological excavation in Egypt. She has become known for a very hands-on approach.
"That's sort of what characterizes Ann -- she's not a stand-by-the-sidelines person," said Brian Simmons, an emeritus board member of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. "She knows what she wants to do."
Lurie aims for her gifts to be a tipping point, a spark that draws additional donors and generates momentum to get a project done. The $5 million check she wrote to the food depository in 2004, for example, set the organization on a path to raising five times that for a new facility.
As a girl, she could be moved to tears if someone looked at her askance. Now, at nearly 67, sitting in a pristine conference room in her River North office with her wispy blond hair pulled back in a butterfly clip, Lurie is not shy about sharing her opinion. She describes herself as "curious" and "stubborn."
"I'm not a person who takes yes or no for an answer without understanding why that is the response I'm getting," she said.
"Ann is very smart," said Dr. Lewis Landsberg, the Irving S. Cutter professor of medicine and dean emeritus for the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. "She likes to make sure that her money is being spent wisely. She consults widely, thinks very carefully about it and makes her own decisions."
Happiness ripped apart
Lurie was raised an only child by "pretty hearty" Canadian women -- her mother, Marion Blue, her aunt and grandmother -- who had settled in Florida. Her father became persona non grata in their lives when she was 4, a reality she struggled with for many years.
When she enrolled in the University of Florida, intent on following her mother's footsteps and becoming a nurse, her mother discouraged it. Nursing was tough emotionally and physically, and her mother feared it would be hard on sensitive Ann.
Ann studied nursing anyway. She married in her junior year, but it didn't last. They were too young, Lurie said. Her husband was ambitious, and afterward she decided that men driven toward wealth and acquisition didn't suit her.
Then she met Bob Lurie.
With his Bozo the Clown-style kinky red hair, as she calls it, Bob didn't look rich the day they met in 1973, riding down their building's elevator to do their laundry.
After glancing at her Triumph key chain, he mentioned that he, too, used to drive a British sports car, an MG. Then he asked her to help him sort his laundry.
"I wondered if it was a test to see if I was a helpful person," Lurie mused after her husband's death.
Bob, also divorced, was a shy engineer and problem solver content to let Zell travel and do deals while he figured out how to make the numbers work. (Zell is now chairman of Tribune Co., parent company of the Chicago Tribune.)
Ann had arrived in Chicago a few months earlier. Determined not to spend her life in Florida, she had taken a job at Children's as a critical care nurse.
Less than a year into the job, she quit. She worked in the intensive care unit caring for the sickest children, many of whom were kept alive on respirators. The trauma of watching them die got to be too much for her.
"Bob said, 'You can't keep doing this, it's just too hard,' " she said.
They had two children together, then married and had four more. In 1988, when their youngest was nearly 3, Bob Lurie was diagnosed with colon cancer.
"He told me, 'This will be harder on you than it will be on me,' " Lurie said.
Bob Lurie died 2 1/2 years later. His passing felt like "something had been ripped out of my stomach," Lurie said. "I would say ... I probably would not have survived were it not for my children."
She threw herself into raising them but also had Bob's estate to manage.
While she nursed him through his illness, each day he would try to prepare her, talking to her about his business and what to do with their money. They would create trusts for Ann and each of their children, with Ann as trustee. They would also give a substantial chunk away.
"The only positive I can see out of Bob dying ... was that he got to sit down with Ann" over time to discuss his wishes, said Mark Slezak, who at the time was Zell and Lurie's accountant. He is now CEO of Lurie Investments.
When Bob died, his investment business with Zell was private and illiquid, and the country was in the midst of the savings and loan crisis. In the decade it took to untangle much of their partnership, Zell took three companies, the bulk of his real estate portfolio, public.
Despite a very large tax bill on her husband's estate, Ann Lurie wound up an extremely wealthy woman.
Eight days after this month's gala, Lurie will take her private plane to Kenya to what she calls her "forever project": the Africa Infectious Disease Village Clinics, a free clinic she founded to serve the native Masai tribe in the southeast Kenyan bush.
She travels there every other month, joining her staff of about 170 medical personnel and support workers to do everything from treating injuries from animal attacks to providing antiretroviral therapy to HIV/AIDS patients. Since 2002, Lurie has put more than $30 million of her money into the clinic, which began providing free medical exams out of an Airstream trailer and has grown to a 24-building compound that receives thousands of patients each month.
She launched the clinic after a friend asked her to fund a nursery school there.
"I saw 44 little sick kids sitting in that school room that morning and I said, 'Holy cow, somebody has to do something about this,' " Lurie said.
It took Lurie about a year to get the AID Village Clinics up and running. She tended to every detail, from choosing the trailer to hiring doctors and staff to purchasing a top-notch microscope for the lab.
When her staff didn't clean the trailer to her standards, she spent three hours cleaning it.
"I wanted them to understand that I was not going to ask them to do something that I wouldn't do," she said.
Yet Lurie also is the unabashed enforcer. Every morning she makes rounds, asks questions and aims to boost the standards of a medical system with standards that fall about 40 years behind the U.S.
Being there to provide hands-on labor and guidance has been critical.
"I could continue to send money, but the project wouldn't be there," she said. "You can't just pour money on a problem and hope that it's going to get fixed."
Lurie also knows how to take input, said Adele Simmons, vice chairwoman of Chicago Metropolis 2020 and former president of the MacArthur Foundation.
"Her whole style is to make it clear that she's there to listen and to learn, and she cares about what the people in the village think and feel," she said. "This really makes her a model for people interested in figuring out how to work in developing countries in an effective way."
Ironically, Lurie's biggest challenge there is money. She's seeking donors and partnerships so the clinic, which has a budget of $8 million this year, can be self-sustaining.
There are those who tell her that her plans in Africa are too ambitious and she should lower her expectations. She recalled a pre-eminent person in philanthropy who said she should "go home and turn your Cadillac into a Chevy, and come back to see me."
The notion makes Lurie bristle.
"We've been catering to the status quo in Africa for a very, very, very long time," she said.
Lurie is less involved in the investment arm that fuels her philanthropy, although she "has the final say on every deal we do and veto power," said Slezak, who leads the firm that manages and invests the family's wealth.
Lurie's investment strategy converges two interests: her late husband's roots in engineering and her passion for health care.
Profit isn't a primary driver. Lurie's pouring of more than $200 million into mostly early-stage biomedical and technology companies is "a little bit altruistic," because sometimes, Slezak said, they do deals others shy from.
It has been risky, and new science can be fickle, Slezak said. There have been some wins -- in 2009, they sold Ithaca, N.Y.-based sensor-maker Kionix Inc. to a Japanese chip-making firm. There also have been losses. Northbrook-based diagnostic test-maker Nanosphere Inc., in which Lurie Investments is a major shareholder, reported losses last year of $35.4 million.
"There have been speed bumps," Slezak said, but enough success to keep them on the same path.
Ann and Bob's children, ages 5 to 15 when he died, are all adults. When Ann is not in Kenya, she splits her time between her Gold Coast mansion and her Craftsman-style home in Montecito, Calif., where her two grandchildren live three miles away.
Lurie doesn't expect her children to follow in her philanthropic footsteps. They have individual foundations and pursue their own charitable interests.
"Each one has his or her own set of things that are important to them, some of which, I must admit, I would never have thought of," she said.
Her psychiatrist told her she did as good a job as anyone could raising six individuals. But her children suffered, as she did as a child, by not having a father, Lurie said.
"They know what it is to have a real problem," she said. "I don't wish that on anyone, but it is an experience that shapes your life."
Four days after she buried her husband, one of her children -- she declined to say which -- ate a piece of chicken riddled with salmonella. Symptoms escalated rapidly, and the prognosis was dire.
Her child's life was saved by a team of pediatric specialists at Children's.
Yet when hospital officials first approached Lurie to donate to a not-yet-specific expansion plan, she declined. She wanted them to decide to move from Lincoln Park to downtown without telling them they had to do it.
Lurie believed it was crucial for Chicago to have a premier pediatric hospital centrally located to attract top talent. The new Streeterville location is next door to Prentice Women's Hospital and within walking distance of Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine.
Some hospital board members resisted a move.
"They feared losing their autonomy and being swallowed up by the medical school," said Landsberg, of the Feinberg School of Medicine.
Lurie waited until they announced that the new 288-bed hospital would be located downtown before making her pledge. "I wanted to make sure that the mindset was changing," she said.
The hospital, set to open June 9, remains about $90 million short of its bricks and mortar fundraising goal. Lurie is writing letters and making calls in hopes of landing a $25 million donor whose name will appear on the neonatal intensive care unit.
She has no plans to make any more gifts of this magnitude or take on any major new projects in the near future. Lurie Children's, she said, will be her "last hurrah."
On moving day in two months, she will join a team of volunteers greeting patients and their families as they arrive at the new hospital.
"We have to get (children) as healthy and as well-fed and as well-educated as we possibly can," Lurie said. "For a philanthropist, that's a big responsibility."
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Ann Lurie, president, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Foundation and Lurie Investments Inc.; board chairwoman and president, Africa Infectious Disease Village Clinics.
Family: Three sons and three daughters. Lurie's significant other, Mark Muheim, is a film editor.
Lives in: Gold Coast and Montecito, Calif., where she has two grandchildren.
Major gifts: Lurie said she has donated $75 million to Northwestern University; $50 million to Bob Lurie's alma mater, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; $11 million to Millennium Park; $8 million to the Greater Chicago Food Depository; $861,000 to PAWS.
On being widowed: "I didn't really have time to grieve. I had six kids. But, obviously, I couldn't fall apart. I was not allowed to fall apart."
Favorite book: Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," which details the aftermath of the sudden death of Didion's husband. "It was very emotional to read it. It was emotional in a positive sort of way because it was articulating things that I felt but never was able to put into words, even for myself."
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