Andrew McKenna Sr., civic and business leader, part owner of Bears, dies at 93

Andrew McKenna, seemingly inexhaustible, served as board chairman for McDonald’s, Schwarz Paper, the Cubs, the White Sox, the University of Notre Dame and more.

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Andrew J. McKenna Sr.

Andrew J. McKenna Sr.

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Andrew McKenna Sr., a titan in Chicago’s business, civic and sports arenas, died Tuesday.

Mr. McKenna, along with insurance magnate Patrick Ryan, purchased 19.6% of the Chicago Bears in 1990 from the grandchildren of Bears founder George Halas Sr. during a highly publicized family feud.

On the Bears website, team Chairman George H. McCaskey said of Mr. McKenna, who sat on the team’s board of directors: “Few people have had a larger impact on our great city.”

Over the course of his career, he served as board chairman for McDonald’s, Schwarz Paper, the Cubs, the White Sox and the University of Notre Dame.

“His nickname among his close friends was Mr. Chairman because he ended up being chairman of almost everything he touched,” Ryan told the Sun-Times.

Mr. McKenna also served for decades on the board of Aon Corp., a company Ryan founded and formerly headed as chief executive.

Mr. McKenna, who lived in Winnetka, was 93. He died at home surrounded by family from an illness that came on in recent weeks, friends said.

He grew up in South Shore in a large Irish Catholic family and was a member of St. Phillip Neri Catholic Church and was loyal to the South Side his entire life, Ryan said.

After graduating from the University of Notre Dame and earning a law degree from DePaul University, Mr. McKenna worked as a salesman for Schwarz Paper and was about to leave the company when its owner suggested he buy the business.

“He made it a successful company,” his friend Newton Minow said.

His first venture into professional sports took place in his late 20s when Mr. McKenna served as general manager for a minor league baseball team in Michigan City, Indiana, for a year.

Years later, he spearheaded an investor group with Bill Veeck that bought the White Sox and kept the team from being moved to Seattle. Mr. McKenna was named chairman of the ball club. After the team was sold to Jerry Reinsdorf in 1981, he was hired for the same position with the Cubs when they came under Tribune ownership.

Friends spoke of an unparalleled wisdom, sincerity, kindness and trust that undergirded Mr. McKenna’s relationships.

“I’ve never known a person who is more highly regarded across the entire landscape of Chicago, but really beyond Chicago because of his national prominence in corporate governance,” said Ryan, who counted Mr. McKenna as his mentor for nearly six decades.

He mentored hundreds of people as their career trajectories elevated them to unfamiliar heights.

“When people were promoted or hired into prominent positions they were told: ‘Go see Andy McKenna,’ so there were just scores of people as they came into greater responsibility in the Chicago area who were directed to see Andy for guidance. His wisdom was just unique. And he was the go-to guy whenever I had a vexing problem,” Ryan said.

Chicago financier Lester Crown, a longtime friend, spoke with Mr. McKenna weekly.

“When something came up, like thousands of others, I would call Andy. His judgment was just so good and so solid. I called on him often for his evaluation of someone’s character even more than their capability,” Crown said.

“He was very quiet, he wasn’t pushy in any way, he made his point with just good humor, but you could go to bed on what he told you, and there are not that many people you can say that about,” Crown said.

Mr. McKenna was a key player in organizing the city’s unsuccessful Olympic bid under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

“He did things very quietly, behind the scenes, always giving others credit. The important thing was to get things done. He was so comfortable in his own skin that he could do that. He wasn’t afraid of saying things publicly, but he didn’t attempt to become the guy out front seeking publicity,” Crown said.

One of his key roles in boardrooms was bringing in talent, Ryan said.

He headed up the boards of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, the Ireland Economic Advisory Board, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Museum of Science and Industry, Civic Committee, the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago and the Big Shoulders Fund, which he co-founded.

“I will always think of him as St. Andrew because to me he was a saint,” Minow said. “If he was ever asked to take on some civic duty he never said no.”

And he never forgot about his alma mater, Leo Catholic High School, where he helped raise millions for the school’s tuition assistance program.

“I can’t say enough about what he meant to Leo,” said school President Dan McGrath. “His influence was profound.”

Friends all said Mr. McKenna was happiest around his family.

He is survived by seven children, 24 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. His wife of 66 years, Joan McKenna, died in 2019.

Services are being planned.

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