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Robert ‘Bud’ Lifton, a civic leader and volunteer, dead at 94

Robert "Bud" Lifton reads to kids through the Working in the Schools program. | Supplied photo

Many Chicagoans knew Robert “Bud” Lifton as a business and civic leader who headed Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and Chicago Public Radio.

“He was the chairman of just everything, and people gravitated to him,” said his wife, Carol Rosofsky. “He was my Sara Lee — nobody didn’t love Bud Lifton.”

To kids at Jenner School on the Near North Side, he was “Mr. Bud,” who, until six months ago, came twice a week to read to them, even if he had to get around in a wheelchair.

“He wasn’t just a grandfather figure” for Working in the Schools, a corps of 1,800 volunteers, said Brenda Palm, chief executive officer of the group. “He was focused on getting every student up to grade-level reading at the end of every year.”

Mr. Lifton, 94, who died July 29, talked about volunteering in Chicago’s schools in a video for the WITS program, saying, “In 1991, I started at Schiller School, and it was one of five schools in the Cabrini-Green area. And I’ve been doing that ever since.”

Born in Chicago, he grew up on the West Side in Austin. At 7, he lost his father to pneumonia, according to his daughter, Amy Lifton.

His mother operated a button store and worked for American Printers and Lithographers, scrimping so she could afford to introduce her children to Chicago’s cultural highlights. When Mr. Lifton was young, his mother bought a lifetime family membership to the Art Institute of Chicago. Later in life, he regularly renewed his membership. But sometimes, for fun, he’d flash the card from his childhood at the museum. It was so old, his wife said, “They didn’t even know what the card was.”

When he entered the University of Chicago, where he studied business and played on the tennis team, his family moved to Hyde Park. “They couldn’t afford for him to [live] on campus, but they at least wanted to be close enough for him to be in the neighborhood,” Amy Lifton said.

Dental issues kept him away from the front lines of World War II, his daughter said. “He had an underbite,” she said. “They rejected him for [combat] because he couldn’t bite whatever you had to bite off a hand grenade to throw it.”

He was assigned to an Army patrol on the East Coast. “He talked about looking for German subs off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, driving around. Everyone expected the Germans to invade,” said his daughter.

After college, he was hired by American Printers, where his mother worked.

“His whole goal of going to business school was to take over so she wouldn’t have to work,” according to his wife.

“He ended up being the chair of that company,” his daughter said. “Worked his way up.”

Mr. Lifton met his first wife, art historian Norma Ulian, through an Army buddy. They were married 39 years until her death in 1989 from pancreatic cancer.

Later, friends introduced him to Carol Rosokfsky. They got married 25 years ago on a ski vacation in Canada with their seven kids in attendance.

Robert “Bud” Lifton. | Business and Professional People for the Public Interest
Robert “Bud” Lifton. | Business and Professional People for the Public Interest

He also helped lead Shore Bank, the Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Chicago Public Radio.

“If you called in during our pledge drives, it may have been Bud’s voice on the other end,” WBEZ host Tony Sarabia said in a broadcast tribute. “His vision and leadership helped shape the organization into the community resource it is today.”

Mr. Lifton also fought for open housing. He once said “one of the absolute highlights” of his life was introducing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke in 1966 at his synagogue, Hyde Park’s KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation.

“He cared deeply about those less fortunate than he and dedicated a good part of his life to doing something about it,” said E. Hoy McConnell II, executive director of BPI.

“I always thought that he was on the right side of everything,” said another daughter, Julie Lifton. “I always felt proud of that.”

Mr. Lifton loved his family’s Irish setter, Rusty, and a black-and-white collie, Chris. He was a regular at the Chicago Symphony, theater and the Lyric Opera.

Services have been held. He is also survived by another daughter, Emily Lifton; stepchildren Steven Rosofsky, Amy Rosofsky and Rebecca Rosofsky Ryan; a sister, Gladys Wolff; and nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His son David, 63, died of an aneurysm in December.