With recent headlines too often focusing on shootings and assorted bad guys, it’s high time to single out some people who have made good—no, amazing—things happen in Chicago this year. They include a low-key philanthropist, a community-minded playwright, an innovative jazzman, a dedicated educator, and a young teen and a pediatric surgeon linked by acts of bravery. Chicago will celebrate the achievements of these special six in a December luncheon at the Peninsula Chicago, sponsored in part by Spex. It’s impossible to read about them and not be inspired.
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Donor, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital
Early one morning last June, Ann Lurie stood in the ambulance bay of the new Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital as attendants wheeled a steady stream of pintsize patients inside. Of the 127 children being transported from the hospital’s old headquarters in Lincoln Park to the $855 million facility in Streeterville, Lurie knew exactly which were the most fragile. “I was nervous all day,” recalls this mother of six and former pediatric intensive care nurse. “You are responsible for these little souls. You know that they will be cared for in a much more sophisticated manner—but they still had to move.”
Lurie’s investment went far beyond her concern for the kids. Her bellwether donation of $100 million and the fundraisers she organized to rally other philanthropists helped build the place. And by contributing more than $60 million to various projects at Northwestern University—including the Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center—she has been steadily seeding what she hopes will become a state-of-the-art medical campus downtown. Since 2001, she’s also devoted much money, time, and energy to Mbirikani Hospital, a 24-building medical complex she started in southeastern Kenya. “I have what I consider a moral and ethical responsibility to act,” says Lurie, who lost her husband, the savvy dealmaker Robert, to colon cancer in 1990. “I see health as a universal human right.”
Freshman, Phoenix Military Academy
Among the reports of hundreds of shootings that dominated the news over the summer, one uplifting tale emerged about an act of spontaneous bravery that inspired people around the world. Its hero was Rony Monzon, a 13-year-old from the Brighton Park neighborhood.
A few minutes after 9 p.m. on July 11, Rony and 14-year-old Daneysi Valdovinos, his downstairs neighbor, were eating pizza on their front porch. A gang member came up the grassy walkway alongside the house, intent on targets across the street. Startled by the two kids, he pointed his 9 mm handgun at Daneysi. “It was unexpected,” Rony says. “When he shot, I just reacted. I jumped up and got in the middle. And I never felt anything.” Daneysi was unharmed, but Rony was hit three times. Each bullet entered and, miraculously, exited his body. Today he’s fully recovered from the shooting.
A freshman at Phoenix Military Academy on the Near West Side, Rony is too modest to brag, but Daneysi insists he saved her life. His parents, who came from Guatemala, wanted to move from the neighborhood, but Rony convinced them to stay. “Thank God he’s alive and happy,” says his mother, Diana. “It’s like he is starting all over again. That day I was praying for his life—and now we’re celebrating it.”
Writer and director, Crowns
When Regina Taylor revived her ten-year-old musical Crowns at the Goodman Theatre this summer, the playwright, director, and Golden Globe–winning actress could have stuck to the script. Instead, wanting to speak directly to Chicago audiences, she reworked the play so that it began on the South Side and revolved around Yolanda, an Englewood teen struggling to cope with her brother’s murder. “Theatre should be vital to the community that comes to see it,” insists Taylor.
As she rewrote Crowns—a celebration of African American women and their hats—Taylor, 52, who moved to Chicago in 2010, talked with people from the city’s most beleaguered neighborhoods. “I started to imagine a collaboration that might be rare,” she says. She held open auditions and cast undiscovered locals in key roles, huddled with students from the dance department at Columbia College to update the choreography, and workshopped verses with the young slam poets of Louder Than a Bomb. And before each show, she turned the Goodman lobby into a stage for gospel choirs, milliners, and spoken word performers.
In the end, everyone involved—actors and theatregoers alike—experiences a life-changing journey, just as Yolanda does when she travels down south for the year. “Art can transform people,” says Taylor. “Words can be liberating, and creativity can be a survival tool. It can enliven your life and open up so many doors.”
Chargé de Jazz
Composer and saxophonist
After the Chicago jazz icon Ken Vandermark learned he would be getting a $25,000 stipend for serving as this year’s artist in residence at the city’s annual Jazz Festival, his first thought wasn’t about the shiny new sax he could buy. Instead, he calculated how many European musicians he could bring to town to entertain the late-summer crowds that would gather at the Petrillo Music Shell in Grant Park.
Vandermark made a similar decision in 1999 when he won a $265,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. Just about every penny went to bringing jazz artists from around the globe to his adopted hometown of Chicago, which he calls “one of the most extraordinary places on the planet. It’s a really special city for music, completely unique—not just nationwide but globally.”
Since moving here in 1989, Vandermark, 48, has been—and remains—one of the biggest reasons for that. This year, with the Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, he released a new CD, Letter to a Stranger (praised by one critic for “leaving no sonic stone unturned”). And he remains one of Chicago’s most distinguished cultural ambassadors, playing in clubs from London and Berlin to Tokyo before making his way back home to the city he loves. “Where else am I going to live to get the support I have for what I’m doing?” Vandermark asks. “It’s been amazing playing music [in Chicago] for two decades. And people still want to hear me!”
Founder, By the Hand Club for Kids
In 2000, Donnita Travis was a partner in a thriving Chicago advertising agency. In her spare time, she volunteered through Moody Church (which she attends) to help students from Cabrini-Green with their schoolwork. “The kids stole my heart,” she says.
Today Travis, 52, is the executive director of By the Hand Club for Kids, an 11-year-old faith-based organization that assists nearly 900 public school students from the city’s toughest neighborhoods: Cabrini-Green, Altgeld Gardens, Austin, and Englewood. And not just any students, but those identified by their principals as failing in reading and likely to drop out. The club’s after-school meetings, held five days a week, focus on helping them with their homework and improving their reading skills.
Those sessions have really paid off: In the 2010–11 school year, 160 of the club’s members were on the honor roll, all its high-school seniors graduated, and 91 percent of the graduates went on to college. More important, there was an 82 percent increase in the number of members who met the state’s reading standards; Chicago Public Schools tallied only a 6 percent increase.
By the Hand has an annual budget of about $5 million, but Travis takes no salary. A devout Christian, she turns to the Gospel of John for inspiration—and for the club’s defining dictum: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”
Late surgeon in chief, Comer Children’s Hospital
After 15 years as a pediatric surgeon, Donald Liu had become internationally renowned for his skill with minimally invasive procedures. Late last year, he described himself to Chicago as someone who provided a second chance at life to “children without hope.”
In August, the 50-year-old assumed that role in a very different setting. Seeing two boys struggling in heavy Lake Michigan surf, he tried to help them make it safely to shore. The boys survived; tragically, Liu did not. “My husband always did what he believed to be the right and good thing,” says his wife, Dana Suskind, also a surgeon at Comer.
Photography: (Liu) Anna Knott; (all others) Taylor Castle