Oct. 1, 1998
Vol. 18, No. 1

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    Alumnus' $15 million gift to open athletics center doors

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    Gerald Ratner, a senior partner at the law firm of Gould & Ratner in Chicago and former varsity baseball player at Chicago, has given $15 million to the University to help build a new athletics center to supplement or replace facilities that include the Bartlett Gymnasium swimming pool built in 1904.

    In recognition of his gift, the University will name the new facility the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center.

    "This gift will help realize a dream that we and many alumni have shared for years," said President Sonnenschein. "That it comes at a time when we are giving new attention to the fullness of the student experience is especially gratifying. And it could not have come from a more appropriate friend and alumnus of the University. From his days as a student athlete, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the College and Order of the Coif honors graduate of the Law School to his subsequent great success as a lawyer, Gerald Ratner personifies our ideal of the way education and athletics can lead to a life that is truly well-lived."

    "I attended one of the leading universities in the world," said Ratner. "I know my contribution will be more effectively used here than anywhere else. It's important for the University to have excellent facilities, and I hope my gift will encourage others to understand the difference their gifts can make."

    The addition of Ratner's gift to previous gifts from alumni and friends allows construction planning to begin in earnest.

    The largest previous gift was promised by an anonymous donor, who contributed $5 million to fund construction of the center's new swimming facility. The class of 1995 donated the building's front doors as a lasting memorial to their years on campus. In addition, there will be many naming opportunities within the athletics center in appreciation for gifts for its construction.

    The athletics center is part of the University's comprehensive master plan for campus improvements. The high demand for additional recreational facilities is well known to student athletes. Approximately 2,000 people use the Henry Crown Field House each day, and approximately 9,500 undergraduate and graduate students participate in 19 intercollegiate sports, 736 intramural sports and 40 sports clubs.

    To meet student and faculty needs, the athletics center will house a 50-meter, Olympic-regulation pool, practice gymnasiums, a 2,500-seat gymnasium that also will be used for special events, a fitness center, workout rooms, dance classrooms, locker rooms and offices for athletics staff and physical education faculty. The center also will include a University Hall of Fame for those who contributed to sports history at Chicago.

    "You're only young and in college for a few years. Those years should be well-rounded," said Ratner, who works out regularly. "You can be both a good student and a good athlete. It enhances the academic life. It enhances anyone's life."

    "Students at Chicago expect to have a rich extracurricular life. Participating in recreational sports, or simply working out, is a part of that. And our varsity athletes want to take on both our academic and athletics challenges," said Thomas Weingartner, Associate Professor and Chairman of the Department of Physical Education & Athletics and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics. "We want excellence in both arenas. At Chicago, we're educating the whole person." Gerald Ratner, was known as "Red" in his days of playing varsity baseball at Chicago. Ratner was drawn to the University as a young boy, reading the sports news about Coach Stagg's great football teams and the "Monsters of the Midway" while behind the counter of his mother's sundries shop in Chicago's Brighton Park neighborhood. He began his career at the University on a $300, full-tuition scholarship from Marshall High School, spending 14 cents a day round-trip on the streetcar and 25 cents a day for lunch.

    After Ratner enrolled in the College, he enlisted his older brother's help to get his mother's permission to play for Chicago's varsity baseball team. "She warned me that if I tried to become a professional baseball player, I would not earn more than $300 per month a good starting salary for professional baseball at that time and even then, I'd only earn that for a few years," said Ratner. "I couldn't become a professional baseball player, but I'll never forget the memories I have of playing college baseball for Chicago." As a Chicago baseball player, Ratner was know as "Red;" today, friends call him "Gerry."

    Other memories Ratner has of Chicago include his excitement about the then brand-new field house. "It was one level at that time. It had a clay floor, a track and a basketball court. We could practice baseball inside during the winter," said Ratner. "We loved the field house. We thought it was great!"

    Ratner recalled a game against Northwestern University, then Chicago's arch athletic rival. He was playing left field with the sun in his eyes when he lost a fly ball in the sun a crucial out because the bases were loaded. He begged his coach, Pat Page, for a chance to redeem himself at bat in the ninth inning. As a switch-hitter, he batted right-handed against a left-handed pitcher, getting a hit that won Chicago the game. "I believe I remember my base hits better than I remember some of my classes," Ratner added.

    Ratner also remembers the time in 1940 when Robert Maynard Hutchins, who withdrew Chicago from Big Ten football after a disastrous 1939 season, arrived at an Order of the C protest meeting dressed in a white suit, asking to speak to the disgruntled assemblage. Ratner recalls Hutchins' famous response to the angry athletes, "Whenever I have the urge to exercise, I sit down."

    While studying at the Law School, Ratner balanced academic rigors with his continued love of sports. As quarterback of his Law School intramural football team, he led them to three consecutive championships in the non-fraternity division.

    Ratner has maintained a close relationship with the University since he graduated from the College in 1935 and from the Law School in 1937. In 1961, he established a student loan fund at the Graduate School of Business in memory of his brother, J.E. Ratner, a former faculty member at the University and editor-in-chief of Better Homes & Gardens . Ratner's law firm has represented the Crown family since World War II, and he worked closely with Lester Crown on the field house renovation in the mid-1970s. It was at that time that the field house was renamed the Henry Crown Field House in honor of Lester's father, a great industrialist and philanthropist.

    "I've talked a lot about sports, but that isn't the primary reason for a new athletics center," said Ratner. "We need recreation to complement our academic challenges. You are a better student if you have a release or diversion from academic pressures, and mine was athletics. Chicago is not a minor league training ground for professional athletes; it is a major league for future leaders."

    Ratner believes that excellent facilities, such as the new athletics center, will help Chicago attract the bright students and excellent faculty who can continue his legacy of giving back to the "place that enabled me to get a great education that enriched my life in many ways.

    "To borrow from the nostalgic baseball film Field of Dreams , eIf you build it, they will come,'" said Ratner. "If you don't build it, they may not come."