Grace Barry, former head of Economic Club of Chicago, was best friends with Maggie Daley, dies at 82

Grace Barry’s ties with the Daley family helped her career and drew criticism when she was awarded a no-bid gift shop concession contract at O’Hare Airport.

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Grace Barry

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The walls of Grace Barry’s Lincoln Park home were decorated with impressive photographs.

There was Ms. Barry with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Or former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

As head of the Economic Club of Chicago, many world leaders and business luminaries accepted her invitation to come to Chicago and speak before the group’s elite membership.

Alongside those photos were ones of Ms. Barry’s closest friends, including Maggie Daley, the late wife of former Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Ms. Barry knew the couple from get-togethers of all sorts long before they got married and was one of the few people comfortable being irreverent toward the former six-term mayor.

“She was never scared of anything, and I think that’s what made her so successful, she just thought everyone liked her,” said her daughter, Catherine Barry-Binney.

Her close relationship with the Daleys helped her land the job as the first female head of the Economic Club in 1986. She held the post for more than 25 years, according to former Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan, a friend of Barry’s since their days growing up in the Beverly neighborhood on the South Side.

“She was a force. Bringing people together was her major talent,” Houlihan said.

“She could get anybody to do anything for her,” her daughter said. “Nobody could say no to her. She’d get it done. She had a look. She could literally make you stand up with her eyes, and any of her friends knows exactly what I’m talking about.”

Ms. Barry probably used the look many times when in late 2002 she found herself with eight days to plan a visit by then-President George W. Bush that normally would have taken about eight weeks to orchestrate. She pulled it off.

Her relationship with the Daley family also drew scrutiny when in 1996 Ms. Barry, along with another Maggie Daley friend, was awarded a lucrative no-bid gift shop concession contract at O’Hare Airport designed to benefit women- and minority-owned businesses.

Ms. Barry felt she won the contract on merit. She had previous experience as the owner of a coffee shop inside a Waterstones bookstore on North Michigan Avenue. The company that owned the shop also owned the airport concessions and cut Ms. Barry in as a partner.

Ms. Barry was stung by the criticism alleging inside dealing, Houlihan said.

But Houlihan acknowledged her relationship with the Daleys helped.

“She was close to the Daleys, and is that wrong?” said Houlihan. “Connections make a difference in Chicago, and they do everywhere.”

The late Oscar “Mayor of Little Italy” D’Angelo, a charismatic and colorful confidant to Richard J. Daley and Richard M. Daley, worked as an unregistered lobbyist on the deal that landed Barry the contract.

Ms. Barry sold her interest in the gift shop concessions in 2003 and exited as head of the Economic Club in 2011 with a $1.7 million compensation package. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a short time later.

Ms. Barry died May 6 from Alzheimer’s. She was 82.

In 1995 Ms. Barry was instrumental in organizing state and private funding to help move the Joffrey Ballet from New York to Chicago.

After graduating from Barat College, Ms. Barry worked on Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and helped found CALM, the Chicago Area Lay Movement. It was a Catholic group of mostly college-educated young people who focused on social issues in inner-city parishes under the guidance of the Rev. Andrew Greeley.

Ms. Barry was born Grace Ann Carroll, one of six siblings. Her father was a 19th Ward precinct captain. The family belonged to Christ the King Parish in Beverly.

Ms. Barry married Jim Barry, and the couple moved to Buffalo, New York, for a time, where Ms. Barry worked for the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. But the marriage didn’t last, and Ms. Barry returned to Chicago around 1980.

She later took a job with Cablevision Systems, an unsuccessful bidder back when all the big players in cable television were vying to get into the Chicago market.

Friends and family said Ms. Barry loved a party, people loved her fun personality, and her greatest strength was bringing people together.

She once planned a train ride to New Orleans so a small group of friends could see the University of Notre Dame take on the University of Georgia and famed running back Herschel Walker in a New Year’s Day bowl game.

Despite a Notre Dame loss, the festivities went all night and culminated in sunrise beignets at the famed Cafe du Monde.

Ms. Barry spent the last few years of her life living in an apartment across the street from her daughter’s Lakeview home with the assistance of a caretaker.

“It was the best decision I ever made, my kids would be over there all the time putting makeup on her, putting on plays for her, and she heard everything and felt it and we all got to be with her when she died,” her daughter said. “It’s a terrible disease. She had plans to travel and be on boards and be with grandkids.”

Ms. Barry sat on multiple boards, including those of the Joffrey Ballet, After School Matters and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

In addition to her daughter, Ms. Barry is survived by her three grandchildren.

A wake will be held May 23 from 3 to 6 p.m. at Old St. Pat’s Church. A memorial Mass will follow at 6 p.m.

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