Benefits of Harris’ philanthropy reached beyond University
Irving B. Harris, whose support and contributions to the University benefited the Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, which bears his name, died Saturday, Sept. 25, in Chicago. He was 94.
In an interview in 2003, Harris explained to the Chicago Tribune his motivation for philanthropy. “Having money is a matter of luck, and I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he said. “I had more money than I needed. So I decided I could either sit and observe it, or I could try to make a difference in a lot of kids’ lives.”
President Randel described Harris as an extraordinary individual who made a real difference in the lives of others. “Because of his foresight and his generosity, countless disadvantaged children have been able to fulfill their potential and to become productive citizens. And many of the most fundamental social problems suffered by children and families now have some hope of resolution thanks to the research he has so generously supported,” said Randel. “Our society—no less than the children whose lives he bettered—owes Irving a debt of incalculable gratitude.”
Harris and his wife Joan have for many years contributed to Chicago’s artistic life, most recently funding the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Chicago’s new Millennium Park. But his support of public policy, and in particular child welfare, marks Harris’ contributions most clearly. As an editorial in the Saturday, Oct. 2 Chicago Tribune noted, Harris has left “a phenomenal legacy of philanthropy that benefited Chicago, the nation—and most of all, children.”
“Irving lived a life dedicated to improving the well-being of children and all who are vulnerable and disadvantaged,” said Susan Mayer, Professor and Dean of the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies. “In providing the financial gift that launched the Harris School, the endowment for the Center for Human Potential and Public Policy, and funding for countless scholarships, Irving provided the Harris School the opportunity to fulfill the mission that he so strongly believed in: empower scholars to seek impartial policy-relevant knowledge and train leaders to put that knowledge to work for the public good.”
In 1990, the University named its policy school the Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies in honor of his support.
“For decades Irving Harris has been a visionary who influenced social policy not only by effective advocacy but also by his own actions that helped transform good ideas into reality,” said Robert Michael, the Eliakim Hastings Moore Distinguished Service Professor in the Harris School and the College, and former Dean of the Harris School. “Personally, I have lost my mentor. He was my inspiration as well as the namesake for our school as it took shape over the past 15 years. I will miss him so very much.
“He helped fund, and equally important, helped conceive so many important initiatives,” Michael continued. “These and other programs around the country that have enjoyed Irving’s beneficence have been of tremendous benefit to children, and they reflect Irving’s unique mixture of optimism and resolve. The children of America have lost one of their strongest allies.”
Harris also was a catalyst in launching numerous other initiatives outside the University. He helped to create Project Head Start in the 1960s, and he was instrumental in creating the Erikson Institute, a graduate school designed to train teachers in child development. In the 1980s, he developed the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a public/private partnership that develops and monitors programs to prevent family dysfunction, including teen pregnancy, child abuse and neglect. In addition, Harris helped create and fund the Yale Child Study Center at his alma mater, Yale University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1931. He also has been a strong supporter of the Medical Ethics program at the University.
Harris also helped establish Zero to Three: The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.
“Irving was a man who deeply appreciated the educational opportunities he had growing up, and he wanted to make them available to all children,” said Mark Siegler, the Lindy Bergman Distinguished Service Professor in Medicine and Director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.
“I never met anyone who directed his philanthropy with such intelligence and purpose to the betterment of the lives of children, and their development into healthy and productive citizens.”
The Harris School provides multidisciplinary training for students interested in public problems. “One of the reasons I helped found the Harris School was that so many talented young people were going into lucrative jobs in law or on Wall Street,” Harris said.
“We can’t afford to have all of our brightest young people diverted from public service. We need some of the best working in public policy.
“Problems like poverty are not preordained. Poverty is a problem created by man. If we really want to, we can solve it. But the skills needed to solve our problems—welfare, homelessness, finding people jobs—don’t come without thought or practice.”
Harris and his late brother Neison founded the Toni Home Permanent Company, which they sold in 1948. Harris moved to Chicago from his native St. Paul, Minn., and he later served as chairman of Pittway Corp. and, until the age of 92, as chairman of the Liberty Acorn mutual fund.
In addition to his wife Joan, Harris is survived by two daughters, Roxanne Harris Frank and Virginia Harris Polsky, and a son, William Harris; 10 grandchildren; three step-children: Daniel Frank, Jonathan Frank and Louise Frank; and 26 great-grandchildren. His sister, June Harris Barrows, also survives him.