Gerald Ratner, PhB’35, JD’37, law partner, avid supporter of UChicago, 1913-2014

In 1931, the University of Chicago awarded Gerald Ratner a $300 annual scholarship to cover his undergraduate tuition. A high school valedictorian who commuted on a streetcar every day from the city’s Southwest Side, Ratner graduated with honors from the College in 1935, and from the Law School in 1937.

Ratner embarked on a successful legal career in Chicago and became a devoted and generous supporter of his alma mater. Saul Levmore, former dean of the Law School and the William B. Graham Professor of Law, put it, he was “one of the best ambassadors the University has sent forth.”

Gerald Ratner, a senior partner at the law firm of Gould & Ratner, died in his sleep on June 20. He was 100.

“We have lost a truly generous, beloved and devoted friend in Gerald Ratner,” said University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer. “We mourn his death while valuing our memories of his long and remarkable life. His various achievements as a philanthropist, attorney and athlete live on as his legacy.”

A former varsity baseball player and a longtime advocate for UChicago athletics, Ratner mentored student-athletes while emphasizing the value of physical activity for all students. In 1998 he made a generous gift toward what would become the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center. Opened in 2003, the center is used by thousands of students, faculty, staff and alumni each week.

“We need recreation to complement our academic challenges,” Ratner said in announcing his gift. “You are a better student if you have a release or diversion from academic pressures, and mine was athletics,” he added. “Chicago is not, like some colleges, a minor league training ground for professional athletes; it is a major league for future leaders. Life would have been a lot less fun without sports.”

In April 2006, Ratner funded a gallery in the Smart Museum of Art named for his late wife, Eunice Payton Ratner, and an endowed distinguished service professorship in the Law School, currently held by Prof. David A. Strauss, a constitutional scholar.

Ratner also established a student loan fund in 1961, at what is known today as the Chicago Booth School of Business, in memory of his brother, J.E. Ratner, a former UChicago faculty member and editor-in-chief of Better Homes & Gardens.

“I did these as my way of giving back to the University for what it gave to me. It was the springboard for my career,” Ratner said in an interview with the University of Chicago Chronicle in 2003. “I felt that any gift to this great University would, in turn, be magnified and multiplied a thousand times by what its outstanding graduates and faculty could do for the world.”

Ratner received the Law School’s Distinguished Law Alumni Award in 1999 and six years later was awarded the University of Chicago Medal. In 2009, he won the Alumni Service Medal.

Michael H. Schill, the Harry N. Wyatt Professor of Law, said the deans of UChicago’s Law School had a tradition of taking Ratner out for his birthday each year. “At these lunches he would regale us with stories about his time here in Hyde Park,” recalled Schill. “He loved every part of this university with every fiber of his being. Gerry Ratner was one-of-a-kind. We have lost a wonderful man whose memory will be cherished.”

A Chicago lawyer for more than 75 years

The son of a neighborhood grocer, Ratner was born on Dec. 17, 1913—the 10th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight. He grew up in the city’s Brighton Park neighborhood, where his mother ran a small store that sold candy, ice cream, tobacco and other items while single-handedly raising him and two other siblings. 

Ratner told Crain’s Chicago Business in December 2013 that his father had left home when he was 5, and the adverse family circumstances had made him a ‘tough little kid.” His mother’s hard-working style had a tremendous influence on him. He attended Marshall High School and earned a full scholarship from UChicago, where he excelled in his academic work.

“Everything at the University was stimulating,” he told The Chicago Maroon in May 2006. Ratner said he took electives in economics, political science and “a little of everything.” He obtained his PhB from the University and went on to study law. “The Law School taught me to think and analyze. Even if I wasn’t a lawyer, the education was valuable. There are many great universities, but none greater than the U of C.”

Ratner also was an outstanding student-athlete. He played baseball while enrolled in the College and intramural football at the Law School. Although he dreamed of entering the world of professional baseball, he chose the stability of a law career after graduation and practiced for several years before joining the U.S. Army during World War II. According to Crain’s Chicago Business, he served as a military policeman stationed in Africa, where he processed German and Italian prisoners of war.

He returned to Chicago, where he married his late wife, Eunice, in 1948. In 1949, Ratner co-founded the law firm of Gould & Ratner, which, according to Crain’s Chicago Business, counseled the Crown family on many headline deals over the past decades, including the 1959 merger of Material Service Corp. with defense contractor General Dynamics Corp., and the 1961 sale of the Empire State Building.  

Ratner practiced law for more than 75 years and maintained a noon-to-midnight work schedule into his 90s.

“Gerry was an extraordinarily kind and generous man, with a sweet disposition and a subtle intellect,” said Geoffrey R. Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law and a friend of Ratner’s. “As an alum of both the College and the Law School, he was deeply devoted to the University and, above all else, to the well-being of its students.”

Ratner is survived by his nephew William Ratner of Los Angeles. A memorial service will be held at noon, Tuesday, July 1 at Drake & Son Funeral Home at 5303 N. Western Ave.