The University of Chicago News Office
Sept. 26, 2004 Press Contact: Sabrina Miller
(773) 702-4195

Irving B. Harris, Philanthropist

    Print-quality photo: Irving B. Harris
Irving B. Harris

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Irving B. Harris, whose success as a businessman played a distant second to his remarkable philanthropy for children’s welfare, public policy and the arts, has died in Chicago at the age of 94.

In an interview in 2003, Harris explained his motivation for philanthropy to the Chicago Tribune. “Having money is a matter of luck, and I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “I had more money than I needed. So I decided I could either sit and observe it, or I could try to make a difference in a lot of kids’ lives.”

“Irving Harris was one of those extraordinary and too-rare individuals whose passion and humanity made a real difference in the lives of others,” said University of Chicago president Don Michael Randel. “Because of his foresight and his generosity, countless disadvantaged children have been able to fulfill their potential and to become productive citizens. And many of the most fundamental social problems suffered by children and families now have some hope of resolution thanks to the research he has so generously supported. Our society—no less than the children whose lives he bettered—owes Irving a debt of incalculable gratitude.”

Harris and his surviving wife Joan have for many years been among the leading donors to Chicago’s artistic life, most recently funding the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago’s new Millennium Park. Joan Harris, who is the city’s former Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, has served in numerous other leadership roles in the arts throughout her life.

But his support of public policy and in particular child welfare marks Harris’s contributions most clearly.

“Irving lived a life dedicated to improving the well-being of children and all who are vulnerable and disadvantaged,” said Susan Mayer, Professor and Dean of the University of Chicago’s Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies. “In providing the financial gift that launched the Harris School, the endowment for the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, and funding for countless scholarships, Irving provided the Harris School the opportunity to fulfill the mission that he so strongly believed in: empower scholars to seek impartial policy-relevant knowledge and train leaders to put that knowledge to work for the public good. In addition, Irving’s personal interest in the Harris School and its students, his wise guidance, intellect, and unwavering encouragement provided the essential inspiration and motivation to build the School. Irving will be missed by us all, but his passing is an opportunity to redouble our commitment to the vision that he inspired.”

In 1990, the University of Chicago named its policy school the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies in honor of his support.

“For decades Irving Harris has been a visionary who influenced social policy not only by effective advocacy but also by his own actions that helped transform good ideas into reality,” said Robert Michael, a distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago and former Dean of the Harris School. “Personally, I have lost my mentor. He was my inspiration as well as the namesake for our school as it took shape over the past fifteen years. I will miss him so very much.

“He helped fund, and equally important, helped conceive so many important initiatives,” Michael continued. “These and other programs around the country that have enjoyed Irving’s beneficence have been of tremendous benefit to children, and they reflect Irving’s unique mixture of optimism and resolve. The children of America have lost one of their strongest allies.”

In addition to his strong support for programs at the University, Harris was also a catalyst in launching numerous other initiatives. For example, he helped to create Project Head Start in the 1960s, and he was instrumental in creating the Erikson Institute, a graduate school designed to train teachers in child development. In the 1980s, he developed The Ounce of Prevention Fund, a public/private partnership that develops and monitors programs to prevent family dysfunction, including teen pregnancy, child abuse and neglect; and the Beethoven Project and Doula Project, which provide pre and post-natal support and serve as models for the development of training and service programs across the country. Harris also helped create and fund the Yale Child Studies Center at his alma mater, Yale University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1931. He has also been a strong supporter of the Medical Ethics program at the University of Chicago.

Harris also helped establish Zero to Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families, which helps families, practitioners and communities to promote the healthy development of babies and toddlers.

Harris was also at the forefront of programs to raise awareness and address the physical and mental health of pregnant women and mothers of infants and toddlers, as well as the prevention of violence.

“Irving was a man who deeply appreciated the educational opportunities he had growing up, and he wanted to make them available to all children,” said Dr. Mark Siegler, a distinguished service professor at the University of Chicago and director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. “I never met anyone who directed his philanthropy with such intelligence and purpose to the betterment of the lives of children, and their development into healthy and productive citizens.”

In 1996, the Yale Child Study Center published Harris’s “Children in Jeopardy: Can We Break the Cycle of Poverty?” In the preface, Harris wrote, “I believe that God’s gift of brain potential is not discriminatory. Kindergarten is much too late to worry if a child is ready to learn. We must begin in the first days and weeks and months of life to get children ready to learn. Our hopes for society’s future depend on our being able to bring about improvements in education.” The book has been called “a blueprint for the humane and practical social policy that we desperately need,” and the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote, “Harris’s thought provoking book is required reading for anyone concerned about the lack of informed social policy to protect youngsters at risk.”

In 2003, the University’s Harris School paid tribute to its founder with a conference on one of the principal causes he has passionately supported throughout his long life–the welfare of infants and children, especially those in high-risk environments.

The conference, “Making Wise Investments: How do we help our nation’s most vulnerable families?” provided an opportunity for experts in infancy and child development to share innovative research and discuss current successes and challenges in serving vulnerable families.

The Harrises also helped create and continue to support the University’s Cultural Policy Center, which, in the words of Joan Harris, “has achieved enormous success in addressing many of the important aspects of the role of culture in our time, in building bridges, and in preparing many of its students to take leadership roles.”

The Cultural Policy Center is an interdisciplinary initiative of the Division of the Humanities and the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, where the Center is housed and which is named for its chief founding benefactor.

Carroll Joynes, who founded the Cultural Policy Center with Rothfield and who is the center’s Executive Director, praised the Harrises for “their deep understanding of how an independent research center can help provide the information and analysis necessary to understand the role of the arts and culture in our society.

“At the time the Harris School was established, I hoped we would attract many outstanding young students,” Harris said in 1996. “We certainly have. The Harris School has proved itself. It is a great institution in a great university.

“It has distinguished itself in the research produced by its scholars, in the superlative quality of the faculty, and in the high quality and number of students it has attracted from around the country. The school has already surpassed my early expectations,” he said.

The Harris School provides multidisciplinary training for exceptionally able students interested in public problems. “One of the reasons I helped found the Harris School was that so many talented young people were going into lucrative jobs in law or on Wall Street,” Harris said. “We can’t afford to have all of our brightest young people diverted from public service. We need some of the best working in public policy.

“Problems like poverty are not preordained. Poverty is a problem created by man. If we really want to, we can solve it. But the skills needed to solve our problems—welfare, homelessness, finding people jobs—don’t come without thought or practice.

“We must use the tools at our disposal, including education and research in public policy, to begin to understand the causes of social failure and weed them out. Human motivation and social organization should not be insoluble mysteries, nor should it be beyond our talents to organize our society to eradicate the malignancy of permanent poverty and deprivation,” he said.

Harris was also a member of the National Commission on Children, Subcommittee on Education and Child Development (Committee for Economic Development) and the Partnership for Children of the American Academy of Pediatrics and had been chairman of the Associates of the Yale Child Study Center.

He and his brother, Neison, founded the Toni Home Permanent company, which they sold in 1948. Harris moved to Chicago from his native St. Paul, Minnesota and he later served as chairman of Pittway Corp. and, until the age of 92, as chairman of the Liberty Acorn mutual fund.

In addition to his wife, Joan, Harris is survived by two daughters, Roxanne Harris Frank and Virginia Harris Polsky, and a son, William Harris; ten grandchildren: Ben Harris, David Harris, Nancy Meyer, Tom Meyer, Danny Meyer, George Polsky, James Polsky, Charles Polsky, Jean Polsky and Jack Polsky; three step-children: Daniel Frank, Jonathan Frank and Louise Frank; and 26 great-grandchildren. Harris is also survived by his sister, June Harris Barrows. His brother, Neison Harris, predeceased him. Services will be held Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 11:00 a.m. at Chicago Sinai Congregation, 15 W. Delaware Pl., Chicago, IL. Interment will be private. The family suggests that in lieu of flowers, memorials may be made in Harris’s memory to the Erikson Institute, 420 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL 60611, or Music and Dance Theater Chicago, 205 E. Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60601.
Last modified at 10:59 AM CST on Monday, September 27, 2004.

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