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BackRoom

Joan Harris

The arts philanthropist, 86, on Daley, Obama, and making donations count

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I wasn’t ever going to stay in Chicago, but here I am.

My late husband, Irving, was very much involved in trying to right the world and make it a better place. He was always concentrating on the poor, the minorities, the disadvantaged kids. I said to him, “If you just chase pathology, you’re not going to catch it all. You need to look at what’s healthy and beautiful and strong that also needs support.”

For the Harris Theater, our foundation went to five banks to get guarantees for $5 million each so that we could get a loan to build it. One day I got a call from our finance guy, who said, “Bad news: The banks turned us down.” I turned to my husband and said, “Honey, it’s over. Let’s just move on.” He waited a few minutes, looked out the window, and said, “It’s not over. How much do you need?” I thought he wasn’t paying attention.

We were married 30 years. It was a second marriage for both of us. We had a great partnership. Irving used to say, “Aren’t we lucky we’re not joined at the hip?”

Irving’s not here, but our foundation is. We’re not half as big and wealthy as people think. Our giving is strategic. It makes an impact. I like going where other people don’t. Not many institutions will look at a storefront theater company. Because I was involved with a small opera company early on, I know what it means to get a check for $1,000.

I can’t decide whether I’m an atheist or an agnostic, but I’m one of those. I’m a fugitive from Sunday school and all that stuff, which didn’t take except for one thing: I am my brother’s keeper.

Back in the ’60s, when my children were little, I used to take the boys on marches against the Vietnam War. And I once took my daughter to protest Marshall Field’s because it had no salespeople or mannequins of color. I remember pushing her in a stroller around the building on a winter day, poor thing. Last year, the day after Trump’s inauguration, I was in New York City and marched during the Women’s March.

The best advice I ever got was from my husband: “In times of stress, take a deep breath and count to 10.”

Going into his second term, Harold Washington asked if I would be commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs. His administration was bottom-up. It was chaotic and it wasn’t always efficient, but everybody was engaged in getting things done. When Richie Daley came in, there were four guys from Bridgeport running the place. I don’t know what they wanted, but almost from the beginning I felt like an outsider. I had actually written a letter of resignation a month or two before I was fired, because I knew things were not right. I would make an appointment and sit for an hour in the outer office and never get in to see Daley or his chief of staff. It bothered me for a long time, but if Richie hadn’t fired me, I wouldn’t have been available to start working on what became the Harris Theater. We have him to thank for it.

My three kids were with me at the White House a couple of years ago when I got the National Medal of Arts from Barack Obama. When Barack put the medal over my head, my son Daniel, who was pushing 60 and is a very distinguished educator, said much too loudly, “That’s my mom.”

The first time I met Barack, I was working in my office. Irving popped his head in the door and said, “Come here, I want you to meet somebody.” I said, “I can’t. I’m in the middle of something.” He said, “There’s this young man who tells me he wants to run for the state legislature in Springfield. That isn’t where he’s going to end up, and I want you to know him today.”

Collaboration is what I like more than anything. I think women are much better at it than men.

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