January 27, 2006

Comers pledge $42 million to U of C Hospitals

In the largest single donation ever made to the University, the founders of Lands’ End, Francis and Gary Comer, have given $42 million for the creation of the Comer Center for Children and Specialty Care. The gift makes the Comers the leading benefactors of the U of C Hospitals, with their contributions totaling over $84 million.

James Madara, dean of the biological sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine, announced the donation Wednesday morning before a thrilled audience in the lobby of the Comer Children’s Hospital. Surrounded by such dignitaries as Chicago’s First Lady Maggie Daley and Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul, Madara hailed the scope of the gift, calling it a tremendous benefit for “the truly needy on the South Side of Chicago, the nation, and the world.”

The Comer Center for Children and Specialty Care will be located on Drexel Avenue and 57th Street, just east of the Comer Children’s Hospital, Construction has already begun on the 122,500 square-foot structure, which will expand the current children’s facility by 50 percent. At a total cost of $100 million, the center is part of an extensive effort to advance pediatric medicine at the University, including last year’s Comer Children’s Hospital and the Institute of Molecular Pediatric Sciences, set to open in 2008.

On its first floor, the building will house the Comer Pediatric Emergency Department, to be ready later this year. The remaining three floors will gradually follow, providing expanded areas for specialty ambulatory care, operating rooms, and inpatient services.

Focusing on pediatrics, the new facility will concentrate on providing seriously ill children with access to the most sophisticated medical procedures and technology. It will do so while recreating the warm, comforting environment that has elicited patient and family praise for the current children’s hospital.

The goal is to bring “world-class specialty care to children on the South Side of Chicago,” said Michael Riordan, Hospitals president and CEO.

In addition to funding a large portion of the construction expenditures, the Comer gift includes $8 million to recruit doctors and scientists to work at the center. Leaders in the field of pediatric medicine will be sought, according to hospital officials.

This level of advanced care also offers the ideal setting for training new doctors in the latest treatment methods. The center will create “future leaders who will carry knowledge across the globe,” said Stephen Goldstein, chairman of Pediatrics. These experts will give the hospital the truly “international impact” that it desires.

A sense of excitement filled the air on Wednesday as the crowd of mostly University faculty and staff arrived to hear the news of the donation.

As Gary Comer entered the hospital lobby, a sudden hush took hold, triggered by the sight of the 77-year-old philanthropist. After the initial announcement and a number of introductions, he mounted the podium to a standing ovation.

Describing his gift giving to the University as “a great thrill,” he outlined his vision for the future. The Comer Children’s Hospital “became the best pediatric hospital in a year,” he said. With the new additions, “Chicago can become the world center for pediatrics.”

However, such an achievement requires more help. He appealed to others to continue the work after his time is up: “This is the end of what I can do,” he said. “It’s up to everyone else now to keep this going.”

The reaction to the Comers’ gift was one of unreserved gratitude. Madara spoke of a “contest of who is the most grateful group.” Daley talked about “all the children who are going to have better lives because of you.” She presented a proclamation from her husband declaring the day “Gary and Francie Comer Official Day in Chicago.”

The most emotional moment came during a speech by 16-year-old Ally Bain, who suffers from Crohn’s disease and recently received treatment at the Comer Children’s Hospital. She thanked the Comers for their generosity with a poem she had written about her month-long stay, focusing on how the hospital environment allowed her to feel comfortable despite her condition.

For University physicians, the response was much the same. “The Comer gift is nothing short of remarkable,” said James Nachman, professor of Pediatrics. “The U of C will now have unparalleled research and patient care. The pediatric faculty is extremely upbeat and extremely grateful to the Comer family.”

The Comer announcement came as the University continues its “mega donations” campaign, seeking an increase in gifts of $5 million or more. According to Ronald Schiller, vice president for development and alumni relations, the Comer donation was partly the result of this enhanced effort. He expects more major contributions to follow.

“[T]he University is in multiple conversations with donors who are considering principal gifts,” he said. “I expect there will be more wonderful news to share before long.”

The Comers have had a long relationship with the University, according to John Easton, director of media affairs at the Hospitals. They made their first significant donation in 2001, giving $21 million for the Comer Children’s Hospital. This, followed by a $20 million gift in 2003 for the Comer Pediatric Emergency Department, along with other smaller donations, totaled their giving to $84 million.

The latest donation came after several months of “serious discussions” between the family and the University, according to Easton. In addition to their financial contributions, “the Comers have been intimately involved in the entire process of designing and building the new children’s hospital and now in expanding it,” he said.

Through decades of giving, the Comers have become renowned for their philanthropic commitment to Chicago’s South Side. Aside from their contributions to the University, the family has donated $50 million to Gary Comer’s childhood home near the Revere school community.

This donation, which comes as Comer nears 80, is likely his final one.

“Everything else has been done,” he said. “This is going to be the last big gift.”