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Billionaire Robert Pritzker dies at 85

Billionaire Robert Pritzker, one of America’s wealthiest men and a member of the Chicago-based Pritzker family business empire, died Oct. 27 at 85.

Pritzker built the Marmon group, a conglomerate of manufacturing and industrial service companies sold to Warren Buffett in 2008 for $7 billion, and he and his family’s holdings have included the Hyatt hotel chain, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, banks, tobacco companies and other businesses. Many of Marmon’s companies produced low profile but profitable products such as railroad tank cars, highway equipment, piping, cables and medical devices, the New York Times said.

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In total, the Pritzker family’s fortune has been estimated the fifth largest in the US at more than $19 billion, according to Forbes, but family rifts that have been fought publicly in courts for the last decade have been dividing the clan’s wealth, businesses, philanthropic efforts, and political clout among 11 adult cousins, some of them Pritzker’s children.

Two of his children, Liesel and Matthew, filed a lawsuit alleging he and other family members had taken money from their trust funds and did not consult them on. The case was settled in 2005, at which time Pritzker said in a statement he had acted properly: “I love them very much and it’s sad they feel they were wronged.” Liesel is a sometime actress who appeared in the films, “Air Force One” and “A Little Princess.”

Pritzker, an engineer in a family of bankers and businessmen, gave $60 million to his alma mater, Illinois Institute of Technology, in 1996, and the school now has a Pritzker Institute of Biomedical Science and Engineering.

“I remember him as very inquisitive and intelligent. He always wanted to understand things,” said IIT professor Vincent Turitto, director of the institute, which started in 1981 with $5 million in seed money from Pritzker.

Although Pritzker was one of America’s richest people, “he was very down to earth and lived rather simply,” Turitto said. “He traveled a lot, but that was to keep on top of all the companies he ran.” He traveled economy class, and wore bow ties.

He was a chairman of the board of trustees of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, and was on the board at American Enterprise Institute, Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Rush University Medical Center, among others. The Robert A. Pritzker Center for Meteoritics and Polar Studies at the Field Museum’s Department of Geology in Chicago houses the largest meteorite collection at a private institution.

The family name is attached to the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, the Pritzker School of Medicine at University of Chicago, and Pritzker Center for Jewish Education at Chicago’s JCC, and the Pritzker Military Library among others.

Pritzker was president of the Pritzker Foundation, which has more than $600 million in assets, but which keeps a low public profile.

Robert Pritzker was the grandson of an immigrant from Kiev who shined shoes and sold newspapers to send his three sons through law school. Pritzker’s father, A.N. Pritzker, took the family law practice into business.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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