The Uncommon Interview: Gerald Ratner

By Rachel Brumbaugh

Gerald Ratner, a World War II veteran and Chicago lawyer, graduated from the College in 1935 and the Law School in 1937. Ratner has made frequent contributions to the University, most recently to the new athletics facilities and a $6 million gift to the Law School and Smart Museum last month. And at age 92, he still goes to work every day.

Chicago Maroon: You attended the University on a scholarship and started your own law firm. How has your background shaped your views on philanthropy? Why give to the University?

Gerald Ratner: I did feel that I owed the University something. It gave me an education that was the springboard for whatever I did in my career. And it’s the best place to make a contribution. The University can do more good for more causes than I can possibly do.

CM: Those at the University who know you emphasize how active you are. At the age of 92, you continue to work. Why?

GR: I can live longer by staying active physically and mentally. I go to the office every day of the week. Most of the work goes to younger people, but I stay active. I read a lot, am concerned, and I have a trainer. I don’t do e-mail; I just walk over and talk to people. Of course there’s also good medical technology, good diet, and good luck.

CM: Are there other reasons why you continue to be involved in your practice?

GR: I am trying to postpone dying. My wife died last year. It was quite an emotional blow, and it is particularly hard on the weekends. Working keeps me distracted. As you know, I have recently given to the Smart Museum as a memorial to my wife.

The University has been good to me, and I want to be as good as I can to it. I’m no Bill Gates, but I have been able to give because I’m a lawyer who has lived long, and I’ve kept my frugal habits.

CM: Besides being a successful lawyer and a philanthropist, I understand you also served in the Second World War?

GR: I went in November of 1942. I couldn’t get a commission due to a bad right eye, but then went to officer school. For the first year and a half I served with the military police, brought Rommel’s Afrika Korps to POW camps. I left the service in April 1946, and my highest rank was Captain.

A dear friend of mine, Howard Rich, was a sports columnist with the Maroon who followed our baseball team when we were in the Big Ten. He got his commission earlier and died in the Phillipines in the Bataan Death March….

CM: As a student, what did you like best about the University?

GR: Everything. Everything was stimulating. I was there just before the comprehensive courses began but took electives in economics, political science, a little of everything. I got my Bachelor’s from the School of Business. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I took an education sequence that included teaching at the Lab School and so would have been qualified to teach secondary school. But I went to the Law School. I had no idea I would remain a lawyer all these years. The Law School taught you to think and analyze. Even if I wasn’t a lawyer, the education was valuable. There are many great universities, but none greater than the U of C.