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Happy birthday, pizza matriarch Jean Malnati

Thanks for the millions of dollars you donated to fight cancer. And for the pizza.

Jean Malnati, matriarch of the Lou Malnati’s pizza chain, with sons Rick (left) and Marc, who now run the company. She turned 91 on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
Jean Malnati, matriarch of the Lou Malnati’s pizza chain, with sons Rick (left) and Marc, who now run the company. She turned 91 on Tuesday.
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We had a nickname for my Grandma Sarah: “The Christ Child.” Please forgive the blasphemy. But she was born on Christmas Day and certainly adored. Besides, it wasn’t our religion we were playing loose and weird with.

People born on Christmas get their celebrations lost in the glare of the holiday. Even those born near the holiday. In some ways, they have it worse. All the preparations, the distractions, and not even the quiet of Christmas Day. Add COVID, when all our birthdays are denied the attention they deserve.

And some individuals really deserve attention.

Where to begin? Let’s start in 1980, with the great Sun-Times sports columnist Bill Gleason sitting in the Bears locker room, amid the discarded tape and sweaty socks, having a postgame chat. Gleason brings up Brian Piccolo, the Bears running back who died of cancer 10 years earlier, at age 26.

“What made you think of Brian?” he is asked.

Gleason replies he always thinks of Brian this time of year. Someone makes it easy for him to remember.

“He is garlanded with fresh flowers, a gentle hero among us,” Gleason later wrote, “because a lady who is beautiful on the inside as well as on the outside throws a party for him every autumn.”

That lady is Jean Malnati, who with her husband, Lou, founded Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in 1971. She is one of those unfortunates whose birthday (Dec. 22) falls around Christmas.

“We’ll always have the Brian Piccolo Scholarship Party,” Jean told Gleason 40 years ago. “I’ve never given a thought to discontinuing it.”

And amazingly, she didn’t. What started as a pizza party at Malnati’s Lincolnwood restaurant to raise money for a scholarship fund rolled into an annual cancer dinner, until, in her generosity’s most recent manifestation, the Lou and Jean Malnati Brain Tumor Institute was unveiled at Northwestern Medicine in 2017 after a “transformational donation.” The Malnati family has given more than $4 million to cancer research.

Not that I knew any of this yesterday, when Malnati’s asked if I would extend my birthday wishes.

Why not? It’s Christmas, nearly. The gentiles at the paper are trying to take time off to be with their families, not that anybody is anywhere else lately. Besides, how much Trump can readers take? (Sigh. Oh, all right, for you news junkies: Trump is a traitor who ought to be in prison. There, happy?)

Now, I don’t want to suggest Lou Malnati’s is the only pizza in Chicago. There’s Burt’s Place in Morton Grove, and my family loved to go, back when, you know, people went places, to enjoy their great blackened disc of caramelized wonder. Or Chicago Pizza & Oven Grinder on Clark Street, which might be the only pizzeria that customers — OK, me — patronize without actually liking their pizza.

But Lou Malnati’s is the mothership. With 56 locations in the Chicago area, celebrating its 50th anniversary this St. Patrick’s Day (assuming anyone is able to celebrate stuff by then).

Space dwindles, and I have not done what I’m supposed to do, which is typical. So, Jean — if I may — happy 91st birthday. Thank you for everything you did to help get Lou Malnati’s off the ground in the 1970s and for carrying on after your husband passed on, from cancer, far too young at age 48. And for taking your grief and using it as inspiration to lighten the burden for others in difficult situations.

I started this column thinking I was going to thank you for deep-dish spinach and mushroom, with the trademarked Buttercrust. But the millions of dollars to Northwestern ... well, I’m not so good a person as to suggest the Brain Tumor Institute you financed is on par with feeding the best pizza in the world to Chicago and, more importantly, to me. But the argument could be made. Cancer research helps people stay alive so they can eat more pizza. So it’s important too, in its own way.

Happy birthday, and thank you for all that, and for subscribing to the Sun-Times — that’s what clinched the deal for me. We try to go the extra mile to keep subscribers. I’m sure you miss your family, because of this COVID silliness, and they certainly miss you. That means you’ll just have to celebrate twice as hard next year.