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Lee Sacks, son of immigrants who rose to head insurance side of JMB Realty, dies at 85

Lee Sacks’ immigrant parents loved him fiercely and believed he could do almost anything.  

Lee Sacks and Elise, his wife of 61 years. They met on a blind date and “he just adored her,” said their son, Michael J. Sacks.
Provided photo

Lee Sacks was the son of immigrant parents who loved him fiercely and believed he could do almost anything.

“My grandma used to call him her ‘Sonny Boy,’ ” said Michael J. Sacks, one of Mr. Sacks’ two sons. “There was no wrong he could do, and he was like that with us [Michael and his other son, Kenny].”

Mr. Sacks, who rose to run the insurance side of real estate powerhouse JMB Realty, died Saturday of complications from congestive heart failure. A Winnetka resident, he was 85.

His Austrian-born father, Kalman, and mother, Shirley, from Belarus in the Soviet Union, named him Abraham Lee.

He grew into an optimistic, resilient child. Wandering into the wrong alley in 1930s Chicago could earn a schoolboy a good trouncing from neighborhood ruffians. But he told his sons he found adventure traveling through the Jewish, Irish, Italian and Polish enclaves around Garfield Park on the West Side.

He earned good grades and stood out for his agility at soccer, track and field and tennis at Marshall High School.

“He was a kid on the make. You know, two immigrant parents,” said Michael J. Sacks, an investor in the Chicago Sun-Times. “He wanted to succeed.”

Young Lee attended Herzl Junior College and graduated from DePaul University in 1955.

Lee Sacks served on the USS Shasta in the Navy.
Provided photo

Drafted into the Navy — where he served as a storekeeper 3rd class aboard the USS Shasta — he chose to overlook on-deck drudgery, according to his son. Mr. Sacks said he felt lucky he got to see the beauty of the Mediterranean and cities his parents could only dream of.

And he valued kindness. He lost respect for people if he noticed them being unkind to a waitress or busboy, his son said.

His pivotal business moment came during the Blizzard of ’67, when Chicago ground to a halt and snowdrifts were as high as some people’s heads.

By then the head of Sacks and Sacks, a small family insurance brokerage, Mr. Sacks had struck up a relationship with his Lincolnwood neighbor, Judd Malkin, a co-founder of JMB Realty. He impressed Malkin with his good-natured determination to restock the family refrigerator and find medication for Michael, who was sick with the chickenpox.

“They had to walk to the store to get food and medicine,” his son said, “and Judd said, ‘We’ve got this new real estate company, why don’t you fold your business into our company? We’re going to need insurance.’ ”

“It turned out to be wildly successful,” said Sacks, the CEO of Grosvenor Capital Management and an adviser and top donor to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Kenny Sacks is a co-CEO at JMB Insurance.

Their father helped them direct the Sacks Family Foundation, which supports educational, civic and Jewish causes.

“He thought of himself as a very lucky man,” said Michael J. Sacks. “He was a first generation American. His parents, the only thing they really had to give him was love.”

Mr. Sacks enjoyed telling stories. He told his children the family’s original name sounded like “Sass.” But someone, perhaps at Ellis Island, informed relatives, “Sass is not a good name in America.”

It became Sacks.

Decades after he’d first thrilled to it, Mr. Sacks could still quote a radio serial about the mysterious crime-fighter known as “The Shadow,” which opened with a chilling laugh and the question, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

He met his future wife, Elise Gutter, on a blind date. “It was love at first sight,” Michael J. Sacks said. They married in 1958, and she taught at Jenner School.

“His whole life was his wife, his family and our friends,” their son said.

After Dr. Patrick McCarthy performed heart surgery on Mr. Sacks at the Cleveland Clinic, he worked with [JMB Realty co-founder] Neil Bluhm to recruit him to Chicago, Michael J. Sacks said. The physician heads the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Mr. Sacks enjoyed James Bond movies and horse racing. He invested in prizewinners including Dotsero, who won the 1990 Illinois Derby, and Wiseman’s Ferry, who took first place in the West Virginia and Lone Star derbies of 2002.

Like his immigrant parents, he taught his sons they were as good as anyone else, telling them: “They put their pants on one leg at a time.”

Mr. Sacks’ sister Miriam died before him. In addition to his wife, Elise, and sons, Michael and Kenny, he is survived by six grandchildren. Services are planned at noon Tuesday at Am Shalom synagogue, 840 Vernon Ave., Glencoe. Burial is to follow at Memorial Park Cemetery, Skokie.