Sneed: It’s time to meet the Pritzkers

SHARE Sneed: It’s time to meet the Pritzkers

J.B. Pritzker was joined by his wife, M.K. Pritzker, and their children Thursday when he officially kicked off his campaign for governor of Illinois at Grand Crossing Gym. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Who is J.B. Pritzker?

We know he’s the billionaire scion of the legendary Hyatt Hotel dynasty with a history of progressive causes who wants to govern our state.

Pritzker is also the brilliant tech entrepreneur and mega Dem donor who claims Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner gave the state the “runaround” when he promised a “turnaround.”

But if you ask his wife, M.K. Pritzker, whom her husband describes as “my partner in everything,” she’ll tell you:

“I’ve known him for 30 years and not once has he let me down. He will not let the people of the state down. He truly cares. We’ve been married for 24 years and I’ve never seen him so excited; hoping to get people’s lives back on track; helping those who have little or no help.”

Rauner’s wife, Diana, is a self-proclaimed Democrat who supports her husband — but privately struggles with his agenda’s effect on cost cuts to social services. When Sneed told Pritzker this, he replied:

“If that’s true, it’s horrible and ironic at the same time.”

“Look, M.K. is my partner in this endeavor,” Pritzker said.

“We’ve got to turn this around. And we are on the same page!”

In an exclusive interview with Sneed amidst the din of the busy West Loop Sawada Coffee house Friday morning, the Pritzkers talked family, marriage, his role in early childhood development causes — and how one of the world’s wealthiest men [reportedly worth $3.4 billion,] met his future wife on a blind date for lunch.

And almost stuck her with the bill!

“People always ask me how did I get a girl from South Dakota and I always tell them I lucked out,” he said.

Thirty years ago, M.K., [Mary Kathryn Muenster] whose mother was a South Dakota state senator, took a school break from the University of Nebraska to work on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

J.B. [Jay Robert Pritzker] worked nearby for U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon.

A mutual friend thought they ought to meet.

• J.B.: “It was lunch and a blind date. I was bowled over. But while we were looking at the menu, I realized my wallet was in my car four blocks away!

“So I excused myself — and I SPRINTED four blocks wearing a blazer and tie! I returned 10 minutes later. I thought it was over.”

• M.K.: “I was wondering what was up with this guy who came back sweating and breathing heavily?

So how was Pritzker’s first visit to South Dakota?

J.B.: “It was 30 below zero! I thought I was prepared wearing a parka. Her dad was waiting with a coat that looked like Nanook of the North had given up his hide!

“He said there was a “Frozen Flesh Advisory” outside. Frozen flesh! I heard of a snow advisory, a freezing rain advisory. But not a frozen flesh advisory!  And of course it means if your flesh is exposed for too long a period of time you get frostbite. So that was my first exposure, literally, to South Dakota!”

The couple now have a 14-year-old daughter, Teddi [Theodora] named after M.K.’s father, and a 12-year-old son Donny, named after Pritzker’s late father, Donald.

“Look. I am so incredibly fortunate and lucky,” M.K said.

“First of all, I am married to a man who supports me and everything that I do. And I know this is not the case everywhere. I deeply care about women’s health and community health and have been involved in that area for 12 to 15 years and hope to continue in that vein.”

“I grew up in the Midwest and I spent a lot of time with my “Grandma Marce” on her small farm in a teeny tiny house in Nebraska. She was the most amazing person who taught me how to knit and farm and the importance of giving. I fed the pigs every morning. My grandparents weren’t well off. But it was the best time. She was the church secretary at the First Christian Church in Beatrice, Nebraska, and she would collect the donations.”

Pritzker’s background is dramatically different.

J.B.: “My parents, Donald and Sue, were progressives; believers in social justice. They were both Chicagoans. Although my father graduated cum laude with honors from Harvard, he felt he was low man on the totem pole in the family business. So he moved to California at the age of 26 and helped develop the motel business. That was the beginning of Hyatt.”

“My sister Penny, my brother Tony and I were raised in California. And when I was 7 years old and Hyatt had become the fastest-growing hotel chain in America, father died of a heart attack at age 39. My mother was left with three young kids and for ten years struggled mightily with alcoholism.

My mother, who I want to make clear is a hero to me, eventually died from it. And while she was going through that struggle — and while my brother and sister were off at school, my Aunt Cindy and Uncle Jay insisted I move to Chicago from California and live with them while my mother was trying to overcome her addiction.

“Aunt Cindy was an important part of my upbringing because she kind of rescued me from the situation.”

Sneed: Do you remember where you met?

J.B.: “The American cafe.”

M.K.: “I remember I had a chicken sandwich.”

J.B.: “I remember how much it cost.”

Sneed: How much?

J.B.: It was $4.80.


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