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Futures trader Ivan Lefton, who escaped Hungary to freedom, dead at 70

Ivan Lefton. | Provided photo

As a teenager, Ivan Lefton liked to bowl for money and bet at the racetrack. As an adult, he channeled his love of gambling into becoming a futures trader.

The River North resident died March 3 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital of complications from sepsis and pneumonia, according to Lisa Gottschalk, his girlfriend of 17 years. He was 70.

Mr. Lefton lived in Hungary until he was 9. After the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, young Ivan, his parents and his brother John walked to freedom — a 10-hour nighttime trek through dark cornfields to escape to Austria. They had sewn gold coins in their clothes to help fund their new lives, his girlfriend said.

“It was grueling,” said his brother. “We were young kids. We started walking as soon as it got dark. We ended up in the morning in Austria.”

The Leftons settled in Chicago, where his uncle “Zoli” Lefton had founded a famed collectible company, Lefton China, that designed and imported planters, “lady head” vases, tea sets, bluebird figurines and tchotchkes that were widely sold, including as souvenirs at Disney World.

Young Ivan grew up near Stratford and Broadway and went to Nettelhorst School and Senn High School.

During high school, after classes let out for the day, he and his friends would bowl for money at the old Marigold Bowl, 828 W. Grace, and, on weekends, they’d go to Sportsman’s Park, asking adults to place the bets.

“It was even before he could drive,” Lisa Gottschalk said. “They would get rides out there.”

Mr. Lefton, who was adept at adding columns of numbers in his head, studied economics at Drake University in Iowa.

Starting in the 1970s, Mr. Lefton worked at the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He dealt in S&P futures and commodities including gold and soybeans.

After a morning of trading, he’d start a second shift around 2 p.m. at Lefton China’s showroom in the Merchandise Mart. He created the company catalog, taking photos of the merchandise and writing the copy.

As trading shifted to computers, he made the transition, dealing in currency futures until last year, Gottschalk said.

Graceful at tennis, softball and golf, he was one of the first members to join the East Bank Club after its opening in December 1980, said his son Michael.

He enjoyed regular Sunday morning softball games and Wednesday dinners with friends, always at a restaurant with a round table, rather than a square one, so “no one felt left out,” and everyone could hear, his girlfriend said. And he liked watching “The Alienist” and “Ray Donovan.” He relaxed on trips to Delray Beach, Fla.

Mr. Lefton regularly traveled to Touhy Avenue in Lincolnwood to purchase the bagels he loved at New York Bagel & Bialy.

He served in the National Guard.

Mr. Lefton, whose two marriages ended in divorce, is also survived by his daughters Melissa and Marissa Lefton. Services have been held.