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Rolf Weil, Roosevelt U’s longest-serving president, dies at 95

Rolf Weil, a refugee from Nazi Germany who arrived in the U.S. with little English, earned three economics degrees from the University of Chicago and rose to be the longest-serving president of Roosevelt University. | Provided photo

Rolf Weil shined shoes, bussed tables and sold eggs door-to-door after he arrived in America at 15, a refugee from Nazi Germany with little English.

He wound up earning three economics degrees at the University of Chicago and rose to be the longest-serving president of Roosevelt University.

Mr. Weil, who’d been in failing health, died Sunday in hospice care at Lincolnwood Place, according to his son Ronald. He was 95.

Rolf Weil, longtime president of Roosevelt University, and one of its famed alums, Mayor Harold Washington. | Provided photo
Rolf Weil, longtime president of Roosevelt University, and one of its famed alums, Mayor Harold Washington. | Provided photo

His association with Roosevelt lasted 42 years. In 1946, he joined the faculty. He was a professor of finance and economics before serving as dean of the business college. In 1964, he became president, a position he held until his retirement in 1988.

He’s remembered for being a strong fundraiser and proponent of expansion, even as student anti-war protests and sit-ins disrupted Roosevelt and other campuses in the 1960s.

Mr. Weil attributed his success to the USA, his son said. “He always told me, ‘In what other country could you arrive with no money, and with hard work and commitment, become a university president?’ ’’ He even wrote a 1991 book about his life, “Through These Portals: From Immigrant to University President.”

Mr. Weil built the Heller College of Business and its MBA program “virtually from the ground up,” said Ali Malekzadeh, Roosevelt’s current president. In 1978, he established a satellite in Arlington Heights that later evolved into a Schaumburg campus. And he oversaw construction of Roosevelt’s Herman Crown Center, which was later replaced by the Wabash Building, Malekzadeh said.

“It was his vision that saw the possibilities of suburban enrollments,” said Ted Gross, Roosevelt’s president immediately after Mr. Weil.

In 1937, young Rolf enrolled at Hyde Park High School, a German refugee surrounded by American students consumed with proms and graduation, he said in an oral history.

“Here I was, aged fifteen, out of a boy’s school, never having been in a class with a woman and I was still wearing short pants,” he told interviewer Betty Balanoff. To help him fit in, his family sold their Zeiss binoculars for $50 and bought him a new wardrobe.

He praised his history teacher Walter Hipple — who had been a student of Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University — for helping him obtain a scholarship to the University of Chicago.

Mr. Weil said he switched from the study of history after U. of C. instructor Greg Lewis told him, “the thing to do is to major in economics. The government is starting all kinds of agencies and when they don’t know whom to hire they hire an economist.”

Rolf Weil (left), a professor of finance and economics at Roosevelt University, served as the school’s president for 24 years. | Roosevelt University photo
Rolf Weil (left), a professor of finance and economics at Roosevelt University, served as the school’s president for 24 years. | Roosevelt University photo

He grew up in Stuttgart, where his father Henry was a manager of a Singer Sewing Machine store. Life changed for the Weil family after Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Discrimination became overt. The Weils were attacked for being Jewish and for their father’s job with a “foreign company.”

They followed relatives who’d already immigrated to Chicago, settling among the many German-Jewish refugees then in Hyde Park.

On 53rd Street, he ran into Leni Metzger, a young woman he’d known in Stuttgart. They started dating. When he died, they’d been married 71 years.

In college, he worked as a locker room attendant and bussed tables at Idlewild Country Club. He told Balanoff he thought he was going to get fired his first day, when jitters and poor eyesight culminated in a mishap involving Mrs. Nathan Goldblatt, wife of a founder of the Goldblatt’s department store chain. She “was at the table where I was pouring the water and I poured an ice cube down her decolletage and she screamed bloody murder,” he said.

He recalled the discrimination he and other non-WASP academics experienced at the time he was finishing up his Ph.D., when some schools posted job vacancies that said “Baptist Preferred” or “Protestant Required.”

“It was just absolutely unbelievable,” he recalled in his oral history, “so the idea of a Roosevelt, where there was no discrimination, really appealed to me.”

“At Roosevelt, he would treat the elevator operator the same way as the chairman of the board,” his son said.

Mr. Weil was a founder and president of the Selfhelp home, a North Side senior community established 79 years ago for people fleeing Nazism. “He was the person who set our mission and vision to basically provide caring to the Jewish elderly,” said Austin Hirsch, the home’s current president.

In his final hours, it was difficult for Mr. Weil to speak. But when his grandchildren visited, he wrote them a message: “ ‘You let the sunshine in.’ ”

“He was poetic to the end,” said his son.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Weil is survived by his daughter, Susan Weil, and two grandchildren. Services were held Tuesday, Sept. 19, at Weinstein & Piser Funeral Home in Wilmette.