Weather Updates

Christopher Kennedy to leave Merchandise Mart, boost Illinois

Christopher Kennedy

Christopher Kennedy

storyidforme: 14226215
tmspicid: 4934242
fileheaderid: 2430253

Updated: September 29, 2011 12:32AM

Chris Kennedy, who has worked at the Merchandise Mart for nearly a quarter century, is quitting “the greatest job in America.”

He will step down as president of MMPI — the owner of the Mart and other properties, plus trade shows — by July 22.

“I don’t want to be a one-trick pony,” Kennedy said, explaining why he’s leaving the organization he joined as an analyst in 1987.

“This is the start of my 25th year,” Kennedy told me, in his fourth-floor office Wednesday. “I don’t want to do this forever. New ideas have to be invested in, it’s the only way to save the economy in Illinois, I’ve been preaching that for years now and it’s time I went and did something about it.”

The new president will be Mark Falanga.

Kennedy is the son of Robert F. Kennedy, who was slain campaigning in 1968. Despite popular perceptions, the Mart was neither built by the Kennedys nor do they own it now. The 4.2 million square foot behemoth was built by Marshall Field & Co. in 1930, bought by Joseph P. Kennedy, Chris Kennedy’s grandfather, in 1945, and sold by the family to Vornado Realty Trust in 1998.

Kennedy, 47, will continue to have a financial stake in Vornado; he will also remain chairman of the board of trustees of the University of Illinois.

I asked him what kind of businesses he hopes to develop. He said it would have been wrong for him to even think along those lines while running MMPI.

“I can’t start businesses for myself while I’m working for a publicly traded company,” he said. “These big research universities like U. of I., Northwestern, U. of C. are kicking off great ideas all the time. I’m in a unique position to get close to that. I hope to invest in new ideas, start new companies, employ people, pay taxes, protect our state.”

And if you’re wondering why he was telling this to me, of all people, well, I guess the short answer is, because we’re friends.

But friendship for me involves stating opinions bluntly — that’s probably why I have so few — and my concern for Kennedy is that, given the inherent difficulty of turning ideas into businesses, that he’ll somehow never quite find the right new idea to throw his boundless energy and financial heft behind.

That’s what I would worry about were I in his position, with a comfortable lifestyle and a large family and no need to earn money.

Kennedy says that won’t be a problem.

“Serving a larger community is critical to my happiness,” he said. “I think I can do that. I would have nothing but regret if I did one thing all my life. I’ve a restless mind and an active spirit, so I think I’ll begin working on ideas as soon as my official role as president ends in a month. I have great confidence.”

Tune your radios to 91.5 FM

Life has a way of nudging writers into public relations, whether they want to go there or not, and when they pass over to the dark side, they often vow to continue their creative endeavors as a hobby. Inevitably they don’t, which, given the quality of the average piece of creative writing, may not be a bad thing.

But for those who hold to the dream, you have a new patron saint: Jack Zimmerman.

Jack, novelist, former newspaper columnist, is subscriber relations manager at The Lyric Opera of Chicago, as well as performing other vital roles. He’s the guy who walks onto the stage before star-crossed performances to deliver the bad news: the tenor has a cold.

But he never stopped writing stories about his youth on the South Side of Chicago.

I stopped by The Cliff Dwellers Club Wednesday to hear Jack read, backed by a jazz trio led by his son Andrew. His stories are fine and funny and closely observed.

Jack will be reading one of his tales on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion this Saturday night, broadcast from Ravinia on WBEZ, and since I know some writers will wonder, “How did he land THAT gig?” I will tell you. It happened like this:

Keillor, looking for local musicians for his program, contacted Magda Krance at the Lyric. She recommended soprano Kiri Deonarine — who will perform Saturday too — and also sent along the YouTube link of Jack reading a story. Keillor took one look and invited him on the show. The irony is that Jack was a publicist at Ravinia for seven years. I’d wish him luck, but the man doesn’t have a nerve in his body. Anybody who could not only bribe a cop, but dicker down the bribe, not just tune a piano but break a piano apart with a sledgehammer and toss the pieces into a vacant lot — Jack has done all these things — will have no problem reading a story. Have fun Jack; tell Garrison Keillor I think he’s the most enduring American humorist since Mark Twain.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.