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Peer Pedersen, 87; founder of Pedersen & Houpt was beloved philanthropist

10-12-2001 A private VIP receptifor Boys   Girls Clubs dinner honoring Renee Crown with an appearance televisistar Regis Philbis

10-12-2001 A private VIP reception for the Boys & Girls Clubs dinner honoring Renee Crown, with an appearance of television star Regis Philbin, is held on Friday evening at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. *** MARY FREY TO ID PHOTOS*** (Photo by Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times) digital image. Pictured: Sara and Peer Pedersen

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Updated: February 24, 2013 6:37AM

Peer Pedersen, founder and former chairman of Pedersen & Houpt law firm, became a prolific dealmaker and trusted counselor at big Chicago companies, and he used his success to become a beloved mentor and philanthropist.

After practicing law for 65 years, Mr. Pedersen, of Lake Forest, had retired in March 2010 after suffering a stroke, said his nephew, John Muehlstein, chairman of Pedersen & Houpt.

Mr. Pedersen died Monday at age 87.

Family and friends remembered Mr. Pedersen Tuesday as a tough, honest, positive giant of a man who took pride in his Danish heritage and who loved helping young people realize their dreams.

“I owe my complete professional success to Peer,” Muehlstein said. “He brought me to Chicago. He taught me how to be a successful professional.”

Marc Janser, the law firm’s managing partner, called Mr. Pedersen “my professional father.”

Janser recalled how Mr. Pedersen loaned him $39,000 to buy a house in the DePaul University-Lincoln Park neighborhood after Mr. Pedersen chose Janser fresh out of law school 35 years ago to be a star in the firm.

“He was an excellent lawyer, businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist of tremendous magnitude,” Janser said. “His commitment to his clients was truly tireless — all day and all night.”

Mr. Pedersen had an outsized reputation for living large, too, being able to stay out all night and start the next day “fresh as a daisy,” Janser said.

Vincent Buonanno, CEO of Tempel Steel Co., where Mr. Pedersen served as attorney and lead director for 30 years, said Mr. Pedersen’s stories of “adventures, mergers, takeovers, transitions between fathers and sons” and other intrigue “were always illustrative.”

“He was a brilliant mentor, lawyer and critic,” Buonanno said. “He would let you know he was very much in your corner, but he’d tell you if you were wrong.”

Buonanno said he wanted to get Mr. Pedersen’s advice over lunch for every major plan the company devised.

Mr. Pedersen honed what Buonanno described as a “brilliant emotional intelligence” and foresight from years of working with the masters, ranging from his early legal work at the law firm of powerful Illinois state representative (and later state senator) Russell Arrington to his later representation of W. Clement Stone Jr., then president of Combined Insurance Company of America and Dean Buntrock, co-founder of Waste Management, Inc.

Mr. Pedersen served on the boards of directors of Aon Corp., Waste Management, Combined Insurance Co., Spraying Systems Co., Extended Stay America, SpinCycle and Delray Farms, among others.

He evolved into a business visionary. He led a group of managers in a leveraged buyout of athletic shoe maker Converse Inc., and its successful initial public stock offering afterward. He helped form and capitalize Blockbuster Video, Blue Rhino Corp., Extended Stay America, SpinCycle and Delray Farms.

Mr. Pedersen believed in giving back to the community and made major contributions to the Lyric Opera, where he and wife Sarah were longtime patrons; the Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago; and his law-school alma mater, the University of Illinois, among others.

His donation to the Lyric Opera in 2008 in memory of his late wife, Sarah, who died in 2007, funded a 75-seat restaurant, and his fund-raising efforts resulted in the Peer and Sarah Pedersen Pavilion at the University of Illinois Law School. He also contributed to Chicago’s Millennium Park and the Civic Opera House.

In 2004, he received the William E. Winter Award for Outstanding Advocate Leadership from the University of Illinois, and in 2007, won the Illinois Bar Foundation’s highest honor, the Distinguished Award for Excellence.

It wasn’t always so. Mr. Pedersen’s father died when he was 12, so he took jobs as a newspaper delivery boy and a drugstore employee to help keep the family intact. The family was one of only a few immigrants in the Austin community on the West Side, and they wanted to show they could succeed in their newly adopted home.

The U.S. Navy recruited Mr. Pedersen when he attended Carthage College, and he rose up the ranks to become an executive officer on a PC Patrol Craft during World War II, according to a “Patron Salute” article by the Lyric Opera.

Mary L. Selander, director of development at Lyric Opera, said Mr. Pedersen “lived life to the utmost every day.”

“He laughed a lot,” she said. “He enjoyed every minute of every day. I’ve never known anyone like him. He was a real maverick.”

His 40-year commitment to the Boys and Girls Clubs revealed Mr. Pedersen’s deep appreciation for people who struggled, just as he had. He served as president of the Robert R. McCormick unit in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

“Whenever [Mr. Pedersen] made a presentation or talked about the kids at the Boys and Girls Clubs, this tough guy couldn’t hold back the tears,” Buonanno said.

Muehlstein, Mr. Pedersen’s nephew, mourned the passing of a vanishing generation.

“At his peak, he was bigger than life,” Muehlstein said. “He’d tell me about his meetings with Aristotle Onassis. He could go into any place in town and everybody knew who he was.”

Mr. Pedersen is survived by his five children, Leslie Bertholdt, Peer D. Pedersen, Kristen Meers, Mia Guidarini and Erik Pedersen, and 10 grandchildren.

Visition will be 3 to 9 p.m. Friday at Wenban Funeral Home, 320 E. Vine Ave., Lake Forest.

The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Holy Spirit, 400 E. Westminster Rd., Lake Forest.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago, 550 W. Van Buren St., 7th Floor, Chicago, 60607; The Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago, 60606; The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, 345 East Superior St., 60611; Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, 225 East Chicago Ave., 60611, or the University of Illinois College of Law, 504 East Pennsylvania Ave., Champaign, Ill., 61820.

Burial will be private.

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