Leslie Fox, the first person selected to run the May 19-21 summits, left because of disagreements about policy and organizational structure after about a month. Mayoral adviser Michael Sacks then turned to Lori Healey, who had settled into the private sector after years with the Richard M. Daley administration.
Sacks called Healey in October from London, where he was watching the Bears play in Wembley Stadium, asking her to meet him at a Chicago Starbucks the next day. He didn't say why. Over coffee, he broached the subject of Healey running the summits, using the lines "You're clearly the best for the job," "we need you" and "please." He pressed hard.
Taking the job was sure to mean relentless media scrutiny, long hours and bureaucratic hassles. In some cities, international summits had sparked violent clashes with police. Why do it?
"This is an absolutely unprecedented event in the world, and I love the city, and you marry those two things together," Healey said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, for six months' worth of planning and coordination, to make sure the citizens, the mayor and (President Barack Obama) are proud of Chicago."
Steve McClure, one of Healey's bosses when she worked at the Illinois commerce department, believes the challenge hooked her.
"She is kind of a one-in-a-million person who absolutely and totally thrives off of pressure," McClure said. "The bigger the challenge, the more she enjoys it. There aren't many people like that."
Sacks said Healey's only hesitation involved her boss, John Buck, who less than two years earlier had hired her as a principal at his commercial real estate development firm. Buck would need to grant Healey leave and continue paying her salary for her to run the host committee, an arm of the nonprofit economic development organization World Business Chicago.
"She came back directly to me and explained what they asked her to do," Buck said. "It floored her first, and 20 minutes later it floored me second. … We decided right there we were going to do this. So I called (Mayor Rahm Emanuel) and said something to the effect of, 'Thanks a lot for giving me the forewarning.' And he said, 'Join the club. You had about as much time as I did.'"
Healey has crossed from the public sector to the private sector three times, rising with each move. Before joining Buck's firm, she served as president of Chicago 2016, the city's Olympic bid committee.
Divorced with two adult children, Healey, 52, vowed the summits would be her last political appointment.
"I'm too old," she said in an early December interview at the host committee's Loop office. "Government is for young people. It's exhausting. … And I don't want to work till I'm 75 years old. I like what I'm doing at Buck."
Last week, I reminded Healey of that comment and asked again if this would be her last public role. She hesitated this time. "Based on what I know now, I mean it," she said.
Then she admitted she had told herself the same thing after Chicago's Olympic bid failed.
A life of perpetual motion
If Healey's career were plotted on a chart, it would be a 45-degree line shooting up. Her personal life would look more like a wave, with highs and lows that have molded a deeply private person and one suspicious and disdainful of the press.
"Not all the media is," she said before she paused and redirected her thought. "I find it hard to believe (reporters) have actually been to college sometimes."
Healey agreed to participate in this story with reluctance but later warmed to the idea of discussing her life and fielding questions about more than protests.
Healey was born in New Orleans. Her father was an Army orthopedic surgeon who commanded a M.A.S.H. unit in Vietnam and moved the family from base to base. Healey never lived in the same spot for more than four years.
She began riding horses in second grade. Until about four years ago, she competed in show hunting, in which horses are judged on their movement and manners while jumping over fences.
A few years ago, her last horse, which suffered from allergies, began sneezing on an approach to a jump. He clipped the fence, and Healey tumbled over his face.
"I didn't have to go to the hospital, but it was just enough to scare the crap out of me," she said at the suburban barn where she trains two to three times a week on her new horse, Clooney, named after actor George Clooney.
After the fall, Healey switched disciplines to dressage, an equestrian sport that does not involve jumping, and began competing again.
"The other big horse person, interestingly enough, is (city Treasurer) Stephanie Neely," Healey said. "Whenever she and I get together, we always joke the quickest way to clear out a conversation is to talk about horses."
From equestrianism to economics
After Healey graduated from high school in Washington state, her love of horses brought her to Kansas State University's large-animal veterinary program.
"It gave me great skills for being in government," she joked dryly. "Good large-animal skills."
But after taking an economics class with a charismatic professor, she switched her major to economics and political science, going on to earn a master's in public administration. In her last year of graduate school, she won a fellowship in the Kansas governor's office and stayed. There, she coordinated her first event: The 1983 Midwest Governor's Conference.
After two years in the governor's office, Healey moved to the state's economic development department, working on federal grants that funded infrastructure, anti-poverty programs and affordable housing.
"My favorite was being in a slaughterhouse in Salina, Kansas, in August, seven months pregnant, when it was 105 degrees," she said. "I got sick."
At a conference in the mid-1980s in St. Louis, she met Tom Ticknor, a division manager at what was then the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, who recommended Healey apply there.
"I really, really wanted to leave Topeka, really badly," she said. "If you've ever been to Topeka, you know you don't want to stay there. I decided I was just going to move. I got divorced, took my son, came to Chicago, didn't know anybody and sat on DECA's doorstep until they hired me."
It took three months of calls to get hired in 1985 as a financial analyst. She rose to deputy director, helping craft incentives for Nabisco, Tootsie Roll, Deere & Co., a Motorola plant in Harvard, which closed in 2003, and Sears' move to Hoffman Estates.
Healey said she "hardly remembers" her eight years in Kansas. Its function, she said, was to hook her on public service. And in Illinois, she found her niche as a go-to person for explaining government to business.
Her quick rise in Chicago politics leads people to assume she is from Chicago or related to someone with clout. She is neither.
Petite and with brown hair curled into smooth, large loops, Healey can come across as emotionless and cold in the media. She does not smile very often on television or in public appearances.
And she can quickly become defensive, as she did Wednesday when a reporter compared the summits with the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In an instant, Healey changed the pitch of her voice to cut into her adversary.
More than a dozen of Healey's former bosses or colleagues interviewed for this story said she advanced on her skills. Among the words most often used to describe her are "direct," "competent," "smart" and "organized."
When former commerce department director Jan Grayson had to cut staff, he gave Healey and another deputy director three months to see which one would keep the job. He expected the much-younger Healey to lose.
"But it became so clear how effective she was," he said. "I would give her projects to do, and they were done. … She's very quick to prioritize things and very quick to get activities going."
In 1993, after more than a decade in government, Healey left for the private sector. She worked at a consulting firm that helped real estate developers obtain tax subsidies, called tax-increment financing (TIFs), from the city. Then, the local Federation of Women Contractors recruited her to be its executive director.
In 1998, she was asked to interview for the job of deputy commissioner of Chicago's Department of Planning and Development, overseeing TIFs. In 2000, she was recruited to join architecture firm Perkins & Will.
While there, she also served as vice chair of the Chicago Housing Authority and on the city's Zoning Reform Commission. She also joined numerous nonprofit boards, building herself an even stronger network.
"Lori is able to connect the dots with all different units of government at the federal, state and local level in a way I haven't seen anyone be able to do," said Kurt Summers Jr., who was chief of staff to Olympic bid Chairman Pat Ryan and now to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. "She's got relationships with the White House, the (U.S.) Transportation Department. She knows folks in Homeland Security, the (Chicago) Department of Emergency Management, the (Chicago) Public Building Commission. And if she needs to get something from the state, she knows those folks too."
After Healey's mother died in 2005, she quit her job at Perkins & Will and took six months off before Mayor Richard M. Daley offered her the job of planning commissioner. Healey told him she would consider it.
"He had asked me to do it once before, but I turned him down because my kids were in high school, and I had college tuition," she said. "By that point, everything was paid for. They were leaving the nest. It seemed like a good time to go back."
This stint at City Hall would take her from planning commissioner to chief of staff to Chicago 2016 president, a post for which she lobbied hard.
'A political professional'
Healey has worked for Republicans and Democrats. She is not viewed as ideologically motivated but as a skilled political operative. If her boss wants something done, she figures out how to get it done. Fast.
"She is a political professional at the end of the day and treats the assignments as work," said Ald. Brendan Reilly, 42nd, whose ward includes most of the city's tourist corridor and who has worked with and against Healey. "She understands she's there to forward the mayor's agenda, not her own."
Dan McCaffery, who is developing the behemoth former U.S. Steel site on the city's Far South Side, praised Healey for another trait.
"I never got the feeling that Lori ever viewed a decision that was favorable to me as if she was doing me a favor," he said. "I never felt I was in the books of having to owe the city or her back. … And sometimes, when a person is as direct and forthright as Lori, you don't go in asking for stupid things."
During the construction boom of the late '90s, her first task at City Hall was to "speed up" the approval process for developers.
"That's one of the reasons (Mayor Daley) and I got along so well," Healey said. "The mayor and I have the same perspective on things. You know, time is money, and it's important in the business world to move things along."
Her knowledge of the city and her ability to explain a proposal's faults earned developers' respect.
"She might immediately identify something like, 'You're going to have a problem with the alderman,' or, 'You're not going to be able to displace that business,'" said David Reifman, a real estate attorney at DLA Piper. "But she might suggest a solution, like, 'Now, if you found that business a place over here, you might be able to cut a deal.'"
Even after she left City Hall for The John Buck Co., Daley called on her to provide the same kind of political intelligence to Wal-Mart in its campaign to persuade union-backed alderman to approve stores inside Chicago's city limits.
"Make them understand how Chicago works" is how Healey described Daley's directive to her in 2010, as the retailer was exploring potential sites. The company flew her, along with former alderman and Daley campaign manager Terry Peterson, down to its Arkansas headquarters.
Healey worked on some of the most controversial decisions of his administration. The parking meter lease deal was approved while she was chief of staff.
Healey also helped win enough City Council votes to approve the Chicago Children's Museum's now-scuttled move to Grant Park. That vote came over the objections of Reilly, the local alderman.
The Olympics were a rare defeat. Healey learned the International Olympic Committee had rejected Chicago's bid, a swift cut in Round 1 of voting, while riding a bus to the selection venue in Copenhagen. She got the news from a decathlete, who had read it on his wife's Twitter feed.
Healey's father had once been a surgeon for the U.S. decathlon team. She has traveled to equestrian events worldwide. Her son played soccer in college. She badly wanted the Olympics.
"It was really hard," she said.
"Did you cry?" I asked.
"Not until way later in the evening, in my room," she said. "I'm not a crier."
G-8/NATO: A call of duty
This time around, Healey has become the face of the event, appearing on television, meeting NATO officials in Brussels two weeks ago and briefing community groups. Intended or not, her omnipresence has provided Emanuel with some political cover.
Healey has tried in interview after interview to explain she is not in charge of security for the May summits; the Secret Service is.
If protests turn violent, it is doubtful the public will grasp that distinction.
When I first asked her in December if she had wanted the host committee job, she ignored the question, saying she was "surprised" by the offer. We talked about other things for about 10 minutes, and I asked again.
"Ahh." She let out a deep, exhausted sigh. "Yes."
Her tone was so sarcastic, her press secretary laughed.
"I don't believe you," I said.
So Healey changed the tone of her voice to a cheery falsetto, cocked her head to the side, smiled and said, "Yes!" She held her head still for a few seconds, batting her eyes with manufactured enthusiasm.
"You look like Rizzo in 'Grease,' in one of the scenes where she pretends to like Sandy," I told her.
"Look at it this way: It's over in May," she said.
52, executive director of the G8 & NATO Host Committee
Born: New Orleans; raised all over the world. Daughter of an Army colonel.
Family: Divorced; son and daughter, both in their 20s.
Little-known fact: She's published. A graduate school essay on political philosopher Leo Strauss is Chapter 2 in William Richter's political science textbook, "Approaches to Political Thought."
On her best trait: She's organized; her children joke that she's obsessive-compulsive. On a recent weekend, she reorganized three drawers at home: "They didn't really need it. It just makes me feel better."
What's on her iPhone: A photo of her smiling with her horse, Clooney, whom she calls Jax.
On weekends: She goes riding.