Interview conducted and condensed by Jeff Bailey
You’re a pediatric nurse and worked at Children’s Memorial Hospital back in the 1970s. Now you’ve donated $100 million to build the new Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, named after you and your late husband, under construction next to Northwestern Memorial. Quite a journey.
Working [at Children’s Memorial] really bonded me to the level of care. I was extremely impressed. But I’ve never been what I would call a stagnant person. I would never have been happy there with the same job for 20 or 30 years. I toured [the new] Children’s yesterday. I feel really good about what’s going to happen at that hospital.
Tell me how you met Bob Lurie, partner to the investor Sam Zell (chairman of Tribune Company, which owns Chicago magazine).
We met in the elevator in Sandburg Village on the way to doing our laundry. He basically picked me up by asking me to help him do his laundry, asking me dumb questions he knew the answer to. It was pretty much love at first sight.
Before Bob died of cancer in 1990, he’d built a fortune Forbes estimated at about $400 million and developed an unusual Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside partnership with Zell. I met Bob while interviewing Zell in the mid-1980s. Bob walked into Sam’s office, behind him, and started massaging Sam’s scalp, and Sam just kept talking, casually introducing Bob. They seemed like an old married couple.
Bob was the mother, and Sam was the father. Sam was selling all the time and doing deals. He’d come home and say, “This is what I committed to. Figure out how to make this work.” Bob was the numbers man. They were both exceptionally wonderful in the roles they chose. Bob could massage the numbers as well as Sam’s head.
They invested in everything together, but since Bob’s death you’ve gone your own way, starting Lurie Investments.
Sam and I still have some commonality in what we call legacy real estate. I own 49.9 percent and he owns 50.1 percent of Two North Riverside [the old Chicago Daily News Building and Zell’s headquarters]. But in terms of doing something new over the years, no. We freed up a fair amount of cash, and I put it into a venture capital pool—start-ups or new technology primarily in the health-care field. It made the whole investment business more palatable to me. You read about what happens in investments these days and how a lot of people are cutthroat. I probably could be richer if I didn’t have this kind of philosophy. The investments support the philanthropy.
As big as Lurie Investments and your Chicago philanthropy are, your work in Africa, building a medical clinic that serves 85,000 rural Kenyans, seems most dear to you.
Next to my [six] kids, this is my biggest involvement. I started visiting Kenya as a safari client on this 300,000-acre ranch. The owner found out I did philanthropy in the U.S. and asked if I’d build a nursery school. On the first day in class, I sat there with 44 little Masai kids, and I said, “Oh my God, most of these kids are sick.” I had an “Aha!” moment: If not me, then who? We’re finishing a 48-bed inpatient unit. Next is a ten-bed maternity unit with OR for C-sections and a separate 20-bed pediatrics unit. There are 140 employees. We have living facilities for the staff. A laundry. A 100-seat cafeteria. We have this outreach team on 16 motorbikes. Everything. It cost $5 million to build and about $4 million a year to operate.
And you run it?
I really have been the driver of the bus. I go five or six times a year. Anywhere from about ten days to this coming trip, when I’ll be there a month. This is sort of what I do.
Photograph: Bob Stefko