Throughout his distinguished career in business and as a philanthropist and civic leader, James S. Crown was deeply committed to supporting the University of Chicago and strengthening the greater Chicago region. In his decades of service on UChicago’s Board of Trustees and through his philanthropic support of the University, Crown advocated for improving and expanding access to a quality education and building thriving communities across the country.
Crown, who served as chair of the Board of Trustees from 2003 to 2009, died June 25 at age 70 following an accident in Aspen, Colorado. He is remembered as a devoted citizen of the University and the city of Chicago, who distinguished himself through his thoughtful counsel, his devotion to the University and his passionate work to build a stronger society.
“Jim cared deeply about the institutions that underpin and serve the city of Chicago, including UChicago, and he committed his considerable talents and resources toward strengthening them. He led with an optimistic temperament, conviction and an extraordinary ability to combine creativity with rigorous reason,” said President Paul Alivisatos. “I look forward to our university continuing to honor his legacy by realizing achievements that his generous partnership made possible. I am confident that many of the ideas and investments he championed will yield an even more vibrant Chicago in the years to come.”
“Jim was not only a giant in the Chicago and national business communities, but also a tremendous exemplar in his humanity and dedication to others in need of help, in his commitment to the city of Chicago, and in his passion for the University of Chicago,” said David M. Rubenstein, chair of the Board of Trustees. “I was privileged to know and work with Jim over many years, and always admired his willingness to pitch in to meet a challenge, to add so much value toward meeting that challenge, and to invariably give credit to others—particularly when the lion’s share of the credit was really due to him.”
For decades, Crown and his family have provided meaningful philanthropic support to the University. In 2021 their landmark $75 million gift supported the renamed Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice—the largest gift in history for any school of social work. Their gifts have helped improve access to education, through programs including the Crown Family Chicago Odyssey Scholarship and the Chicago Public Schools Scholarship. Their support has benefited schools and divisions across the University, including the Urban Education Institute, the Humanities Division, the Medical Center, the Biological Sciences Division, Chicago Booth, the Smart Museum and the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics.
“The Crown family’s generous gift to the school two years ago was, without question, transformative. It accelerated our ability to address disparities, conduct innovative research and train leaders to confront difficult societal problems,” said Prof. Deborah Gorman-Smith, dean of the Crown Family School. “We are committed to honor and uphold Jim’s legacy to make deep and sustained social change and will take inspiration from his bold vision.”
A member of the Board of Trustees since 1988, Crown also served as chair of Medical Center Board from 2009 to 2010; vice chair of the University Board from 2001 to 2003; and sat on many University Board committees, including three presidential search committees.
During his time as University Board chair, Crown helped the University complete a $2.4 billion capital campaign—the largest in its history. When Crown stepped down as chair in 2009, then-President Robert J. Zimmer credited Crown with helping UChicago shape its “vision of a civic-minded, outward-facing university.”
Along with his contributions to the University, Crown played a significant role in supporting the city of Chicago. Most recently, he led a public safety task force established by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago to address matters of public safety and community development.
In a statement, President Joe Biden remembered Crown’s thoughtfulness and warmth, and how he worked to “bring out the best in his peers, and help shape the city he loved.”
“Jim represented America at its best—industrious, big-hearted and always looking out for each other,” Biden said. “He was a good man, a dear friend and a great American.”
Born June 25, 1953 in Chicago, he was the son of Lester and Renée Crown. He attended Hampshire College, where he received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1976, and Stanford University, where he earned a JD in 1980.
Upon graduating from law school, he became an associate at Salomon Brothers Inc. in New York City and later became vice president of the Capital Markets Service Group. He acted as lead director of General Dynamics Corporation and was a director of JPMorgan Chase. Most recently, he served as chairman and CEO of Henry Crown and Company, which invests in public and private securities, real estate, and operating companies.
Crown was trustee and chair emeritus of the Aspen Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Civic Committee. He also was a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a former member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. He received an honorary degree from UChicago in 2011.
Crown is survived by his wife Paula (Hannaway) Crown and their children Torie, Hayley, W. Andrew and Summer; son-in-law Matt McKinney; grandchildren Jackson and Lucas McKinney; his six siblings; and his parents Lester and Renée (Schine) Crown. Plans for a memorial service are pending.