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Photography: (Joe, Marlene) Courtesy of the Rickettses; (Pete) Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune; (Tom) Nuccio Dinuzzo; (Laura) Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune; (Todd) Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
To understand the Ricketts family, you have to start not at the ballpark, or at their gleaming new offices in a red-brick building just off Clark Street, or at a press conference, or on the tree-cool streets of Wilmette, where Tom and Todd live. You have to travel to Nebraska City.
To reach it, you drive down Interstate 75 about an hour south of Omaha, along the serpentine Missouri River; past the cornfields that blur by for mile after waving mile, like a vast golden ocean; past long stretches of boxcars that rise blue-black against the horizon and clatter so slowly across the plains that they seem almost motionless; past the billboard that asserts “America Needs Farmers.” You swing onto North 11th Street, where the closest thing to a skyline is a cement grain elevator hung with little lights that shine at night like dangling pearls. And finally you enter the oldest incorporated city in Nebraska, population 7,200, best known for its AppleJack Festival in September, where around 40,000 folks from the region gather to enjoy parades, a carnival rides, and a quilt show.
John Joseph Ricketts came into the world here in 1941, the oldest of four children born to Florence and Donavon Ricketts. Don, as he was known, was a carpenter, an exterminator, a small-business man, a farmer, and a staunch Catholic—“a very, very hard worker [who] was very strict with his children,” Laura says.
Joe got his first job in third grade, cleaning stools at the county courthouse. At St. Bernard’s Academy, he met his future wife, Marlene Volkmer. In 1959, he went to Omaha to attend
Creighton, a Jesuit university, working first as a janitor and then as a hospital orderly to pay his tuition.
The young man’s worldview was informed by the conservatism that surrounded him. “He has . . . bedrock Midwestern values, which is to say a real belief in hard work and that if you apply yourself and work hard, you’ll get results,” a close family friend and associate tells me. “He’s a very straightforward guy. He doesn’t play games with people. He lets you know how he feels, positive or negative, and he appreciates the same from people who deal with him.”
In 1963, when he and Marlene were both 22, they married. “There’s a picture of the happy couple,” says Michael McCabe, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, pointing to a framed photo in the church entrance. “Flush with excitement, ready to tackle life.”
The initial plan was that Marlene, a teacher, would work while Joe finished college. But in 1964 she became pregnant with Pete. A year after he was born, Tom came along. “The bills started piling up,” Joe recalled in 2000 in a rare interview with a local weekly newspaper. “I had to reduce my academic effort to be more in line with my ability to pay, so I went to school part time.”
It took Joe nine years to get his bachelor’s degree. In retrospect, he said, he was glad for the decelerated pace. “[It] helped me to learn how to organize my mind in figuring out problems,” he said. “I had to learn a lot of discipline.”
During those years, he found his calling. Working as a credit analyst at Dun & Bradstreet, he said, he “saw the fun and excitement that business people had. . . . I decided I wanted to have my own business. But I didn’t have any money.”
He subsequently took a job as a stockbroker at Dean Witter but quit to strike out on his own as soon as he earned his degree. In 1975, the year that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission deregulated broker commissions, Joe cofounded something new: a discount brokerage. First Omaha Securities, as it was called, allowed investors to buy and sell securities for lower commissions than old-school full-service brokerages charged. It was a prescient move that would make possible all that followed.
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In those days, the business came first. For Joe, that meant working 80-hour weeks and plowing virtually every spare penny back into the company. For his children, it meant that vacations were virtually nonexistent. Paper routes paid for bikes. The family car was a puke-green Ford station wagon or some other hand-me-down from a relative, his children recall.
The decor of their house—a white dormered three-bedroom dwelling on Hickory Street, perched on a hill in an Omaha neighborhood with a mix of middle- and upper-middle-class homes—“was probably outdated by 10 years,” Laura laughs. “It was falling apart.” When the dishwasher broke, as it often did, it stayed broken until the family could scrape together repair costs. “We may have propped a chair against the oven door for a while to keep it closed,” Laura adds.
The ultimate, however, was Marlene’s decision to use plastic picnic-table covers with a 1976 bicentennial theme as curtains in the bedroom that all three boys shared, recalls Pete. “We definitely were the poor family in the neighborhood,” Todd says. “I tell people that one of the reasons I have a bike shop today (see “Take a Ride with Chicago’s Craziest Bicycling Subculture”) is that I never had a bike as a kid.”
The children took on familiar birth-order roles. “Pete, the oldest, was all about maintaining the status quo,” says Todd. “Tom was more of a diplomat in his personality, as he kind of still is today.” Laura—“the smart one,” she describes herself—caught “the brunt of the teasing from the boys,” says Pete.
Sibling disputes often ended in calls to their mother’s office (Marlene was by now working as a secretary at Joe’s business). Todd recalls with a laugh that after he made Laura cry about something, “she called my mom, but my mom wasn’t around, so she got my dad. I was probably seven and Laura was nine. My dad tells Laura, ‘Put Todd on the phone.’ And he’s like, ‘When I get home you will be spanked.’ There was no debate. No defense.”
As a father, Joe Ricketts was much like he was as a businessman: imposing, tough, gruff, intolerant of disobedience, and stingy with words. “I think that what made us not cross him is that there weren’t big conversations,” says Todd. “It was, ‘You’re going to do this.’ ”
“He was not one to be playful very often,” agrees Laura. “On Saturday mornings, I remember him coming down, and we’d be watching cartoons and eating cereal, and he’d say, ‘OK, now this is your job for the day. Boys, you’re doing this. Laura, you’re doing that.’ He was just very much like, You need to work to make your way in this world, and we’re not going to spend Saturday watching TV.”
All four Ricketts children attended West Side High, a public school that at the time was dubbed Hollywood High. “It was where the rich kids went,” says Henry Cordes, an Omaha World-Herald reporter who has covered the family.
But unlike many of their classmates, the Ricketts boys worked summers—Pete and Tom at Burger King and Todd at Kentucky Fried Chicken. (Laura got a pass.) When it came to college, Joe showed rare permissiveness. He would pay their way to any school they wanted, with one caveat. “It had to be far enough away that we couldn’t come home to do our laundry,” says Todd. “My mom [would have] hated that.”
Pete chose the University of Chicago for its strong biology program. Though he didn’t know it at the time, he was blazing a trail to the Second City. Both Tom and Laura followed him to U. of C., and Todd headed to Loyola University.
After college, the Ricketts siblings stayed in Chicago and remained as tight as ever, hopscotching their adopted city together. “Every year we [the three boys] would move just to try new neighborhoods,” Tom tells me from the owner’s box as a game grinds on. “Then, one year, probably around 1990, Pete and I just moved up here [to Wrigleyville].”
They became roommates in a quintessential neighborhood pad above the Sports Corner Bar & Grill at the corner of Sheffield and Addison Avenues. They couldn’t have chosen a more Cubs-centric spot. “The vendors would be yelling, like, 10 feet from my head,” Tom recalls. “We were just immersed in Wrigleyville.”
Immersed to the point that the brothers went to the basement of the Cubby Bear to pay rent to the bar’s proprietor, George Loukas—one of the rooftop owners with whom Tom now finds himself locked in a stalemate.
One day in the Wrigley Field bleachers—where “before the tyranny of the two-beer limit you could go down and get as many beers as you wanted and just hand them up,” Tom recalls—
a group of college-age women sat next to him and some friends. Tom took note of one young woman in particular. “We started talking,” he says. “And now we’ve got five kids.”
In the years that followed, the siblings went their own ways for a time. Tom, who had gone on to earn his MBA at U. of C., moved to Detroit, where his wife-to-be was doing her medical residency. Pete started working for his father, whose company had been renamed Ameritrade Clearing, rising to COO (Joe was the CEO). Laura earned her law degree from the University of Michigan and then began practicing in Chicago at Schiff Hardin. After a brief period at Ameritrade, Todd moved to New Jersey to work for a securities firm called Knight Capital.
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