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Sun-Times Media, Mesirow Financial chief Jim Tyree dies at 53

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Jim Tyree embodied Chicago, right down to his big shoulders.

The basketball-playing, lower-middle-class kid from Beverly grew up to become one of his city’s top business leaders and most-respected citizens.

He got there the South Side way: St. Barnabas elementary, Marist High, the City Colleges and Illinois State.

And once he made it big, he shared his wealth, reportedly donating more than $500,000 each year to charities and championing research on diabetes — the disease that temporarily blinded him in the prime of his life.

Mr. Tyree, chairman and CEO of Mesirow Financial and chairman of Sun-Times Media, died late Wednesday afternoon after battling cancer for several months. He was 53.

“I am saddened to tell you that our leader and friend, Jim Tyree, has passed away,” Richard S. Price, Mesirow’s president and chief operating officer said. “There was an unexpected complication, and after a valiant fight, Jim lost his battle with stomach cancer surrounded by his loving family” at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Mr. Tyree announced in October he had cancer and would undergo chemotherapy. Late last month, he told his co-workers his cancer was shrinking, but then he was hospitalized earlier this month with pneumonia.

It wasn’t Mr. Tyree’s first bout with health issues: He survived a simultaneous pancreas and double-kidney transplant in 2006, and before that, went through four eye surgeries in his 20s to restore his vision.

Mr. Tyree’s perseverance through those tragedies inspired those who knew him. Meanwhile, he built Mesirow into an investment-banking powerhouse.

In October 2009, he led an investment group that took the parent company of the Chicago Sun-Times and dozens of suburban newspapers out of bankruptcy. While friends questioned his wisdom for investing in an industry under siege, Mr. Tyree said he was convinced there was a business model to build around “high-quality, high-integrity and focused local content.”

“In addition to being one of the most prominent businessmen in Chicago, Jim was a tireless supporter of Sun-Times Media and all of our newspapers,” said Jeremy L. Halbreich, Sun-Times Media CEO. “It was his vision and effort that brought our company out of bankruptcy and gave us all the bright future that we have today.”

A lifelong White Sox fan, James Craig Tyree grew up in the Beverly neighborhood and delivered the Beverly Review and Southtown Economist newspapers as a boy.

He took classes in the City Colleges of Chicago system while attending Marist High School — a move he said enabled him to get a bachelor’s degree in three years from Illinois State University, where he also earned an MBA.

Mr. Tyree paid his way through college, getting an academic scholarship and grants and working a summer job as a forklift operator. During the school year, he worked for the ISU campus recreation department.

He joined Mesirow, a diversified financial services firm, in 1980. After beginning as a research associate, he was named president of the firm in 1990, chief executive officer in 1992 and chairman and chief executive officer in 1994.

Under his leadership, Mesirow acquired some 50 firms, including the U.S. Corporate Recovery practice from KPMG LLP; Dann Insurance, and Boockford & Company.

In 2000 — decades after he took City Colleges courses in high school — Mayor Daley appointed him board chairman of the City Colleges system, a position he held for 10 years.

“Jim Tyree was a wonderful Chicagoan and a dutiful civic leader,” Daley said. “He was a mentor to the students and a strong example of what can happen through hard work and perseverance.”

Another Chicagoan — President Obama — said Mr. Tyree will be “sorely missed.”

“Jim was a quintessential Chicagoan, a South Side kid from humble roots who worked his way to the top but never left the city behind,” the president said. “He was beloved for what he gave back to the city that gave him so much — from his work with non-profit organizations, to his service on the board of the University of Chicago Medical Center, to his role in giving the Sun-Times a new lease on life.”

Besides the U. of C., Mr. Tyree served on dozens of other corporate, civic and not-for-profit boards. He was named the 2004 Person of the Year by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

“He was a tireless advocate and fund-raiser,” said Patrick Reedy, executive director of the diabetes research organization’s Illinois chapter. “For someone who was as busy and as influential as Jim was, I have never run into anyone who was as easy to talk to about anything.”

“The amazing thing about Jim was no matter what personal crisis he was facing in his life, he always managed to have a smile on his face and stay totally involved in those causes he thought important,” said Jayne Thompson, former Illinois first lady and current board president of the Chicago Public Library.

“He found out about his stomach cancer during the period that he served as one of our co-chairs of the most recent Carl Sandburg Awards, and he never once slacked off in support of that dinner — which was a tremendous financial success for the library.”

Price, the Mesirow president and COO, called Mr. Tyree “a great friend to so many.”

“Jim was truly one of a kind, an amazing leader,” Price said in a statement to employees. “Our hearts are broken. We will honor him by continuing his legacy and following the tenets that he taught us. Because of Jim’s leadership, he has prepared us well to band together and get through this difficult time.”

Survivors include Mr. Tyree’s wife, Eve; a daughter, Jessica, 11, and twin 9-year-old sons, Matthew and Joseph.

“He loved his family. That was No. 1,” said his friend Wayne Watson, former City Colleges chancellor. “Then he loved his company. Then he loved the diabetes foundation and he loved his City Colleges. Probably in that order.”

“I always thought of him as a contemporary embodiment of Chicago as a city of big shoulders,” said Christie Hefner, former CEO of Playboy Enterprises. “Not only a giant in his own industry, but someone willing to stand up to ensure that we remained a two-newspaper city.”

Funeral arrangements were pending.

Contributing: Lynn Sweet and David Roeder

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