James Crown, Chicago businessman and avid philanthropist, dies at 70

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James Crown, Chicago businessman and avid philanthropist, dies at 70
James Crown speaks at the Aspen Institute’s Annual Awards Dinner in New York, Nov. 9, 2017. Crown, a scion of a wealthy Chicago family who held important positions in businesses as diverse as General Dynamics, Sara Lee and JPMorgan Chase, and who became a crucial early supporter of an up-and-coming politician named Barack Obama, died in Woody Creek, Colo., on Sunday, June 25, 2023, his 70th birthday. (Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times)

by Daniel E. Slotnik

NEW YORK, NY.- James Crown, a scion of a wealthy Chicago family who held important positions in businesses as diverse as General Dynamics, Sara Lee and JPMorgan Chase, and who became a crucial early supporter of an up-and-coming politician named Barack Obama, died in Woody Creek, Colorado, on Sunday, his 70th birthday.

Crown’s family said in a statement that he died in a single-car accident at the Aspen Motorsports Park racetrack. The statement provided no further details about how he died.

Crown was the CEO of Henry Crown & Co., the family’s privately owned investment firm. The company is named for his grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian sweatshop worker, who built a family concern that sold sand, gravel, lime and coal into a Chicago business empire worth billions.

James Crown was also the lead director and a major shareholder of the defense and aerospace company General Dynamics; a former chair of Sara Lee who helped the company split into beverage and food divisions; and a board member of JPMorgan.

An avid philanthropist, Crown met Obama in 2003, when he was preparing to run for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, and became an enthusiastic supporter.

Obama had been trounced in a 2000 congressional race against the Democratic incumbent. His advisers said he needed a greater connection to Chicago’s Jewish voters. They also said he needed money. Crown provided both.

“I was just taken with his sensibility, his intelligence, his values and how he conducted himself during that campaign,” Crown told The New York Times in 2007.

Crown and his family donated a total of $112,500 to Obama during the Democratic primary, and Chicago’s Jewish leaders raised hundreds of thousands more during the campaign. Obama won the primary, then defeated Alan Keyes for the Senate seat and began the national political career that would take him to the White House.

A few years later, Crown became Obama’s chief presidential fundraiser in Illinois. When Obama ran for president in 2008, he released a list of earmarks he had secured as a senator, including $750,000 to help renovate a space center named after Henry Crown at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

In 2014, Obama appointed Crown to the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board, an independent group that advises the president on the effectiveness and goals of U.S. intelligence agencies.

“When Barack was still an unlikely candidate running for the U.S. Senate, Jim became one of his fiercest advocates and most perceptive advisers,” Obama and his wife, Michelle, said in a statement Monday. “He believed in our family, and worked hard to convince others across Chicago that they could, too.”

Another beneficiary of Crown’s largess was the University of Chicago, where he served as chair of the board of trustees from 2003 until 2009. The university named its social services school the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice after Crown and his wife, Paula, donated $75 million in 2021.

After Obama left the White House, Crown continued to mingle with world leaders, including President Joe Biden, whom he saw last week at a state dinner for Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.

“Jim lived a great Chicago story — one that tied our nation’s industrious past to an ever-hopeful future,” Biden said in a statement. “He grew up the great-grandson of a sweatshop worker whose son turned a construction-supply company into an empire. Throughout his own career as a business and civic leader, Jim continued to drive that legacy forward.”

Crown was a director of Bank One, a consumer banking giant in the Midwest and South, from 1991 until 2004, when JPMorgan acquired it in a deal valued at about $58 billion. He stayed on as a board member after the merger.

Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s chair and CEO, wrote in a statement that Crown “has been a trusted adviser for me for nearly 20 years, playing a key role in helping our company navigate numerous business and economic challenges.”

Crown and two other board members, David Cote and Ellen Futter, drew criticism in 2013 after JPMorgan lost more than $6 billion in a bet on credit derivatives. The loss drew scrutiny from federal regulators, demands for more robust risk management and intense criticism of Dimon.

James Schine Crown was born in Chicago on June 25, 1953, to Lester and Renée (Schine) Crown. His mother also comes from a wealthy family — her father, J. Myer Schine, made a fortune in real estate and hotels — and she serves as a director of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and created an honors program at Syracuse University.

Lester Crown was for many years the leading shareholder of General Dynamics. He also became a minority owner of the Chicago Bulls and the New York Yankees.

The Crown family fortune began with Henry Crown, James’ grandfather, born Henry Krinsky, whose father changed the family name to Crown when Henry was a boy. Henry left school in the eighth grade and, with his brother, eventually started the family construction materials business, which he expanded into railroads, meat packing, hotels and, for a time, a major interest in the Empire State Building.

In 2020, Forbes magazine ranked the Crown family the 34th-richest in the United States, with an estimated worth of $10.2 billion.

James Crown graduated in 1972 from New Trier West High School in Northfield, Illinois. (now part of New Trier High School). He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1976. After completing a law degree at Stanford, he began working for Salomon Brothers, a New York City investment bank.

In 1983, he became a vice president at Salomon, where he met Paula Hannaway, an investment banker. They married in 1985 and moved to Chicago, where Crown joined his family’s investment firm.

In addition to his wife and his parents, Crown is survived by two brothers, Steve and Daniel; four sisters, Patricia (known as PC), Susan, Sara and Janet Crown; three daughters, Torie, Hayley and Summer Crown; a son, W. Andrew Crown; and two grandsons.

Crown, who kept a home in Aspen, was also an avid skier and a managing partner of the Aspen Skiing Co., which operates a resort.

The family statement did not say what Crown was doing at Aspen Motorsports Park when the accident occurred. The park’s website says that members gather twice a week to race, typically a qualifying session followed by two races with “fast-paced, wheel-to-wheel action” in “Spec Racer Toyotas.”

The racetrack did not respond to phone calls or an email.

Crown recently began an effort to tackle gun violence in Chicago by encouraging the city’s business leaders to create thousands of jobs in underserved areas of the city, providing millions of dollars for civilian violence intervention programs and shoring up law enforcement and low-income communities.

He said that the effort would help Chicago’s upper crust as well as its lower-income residents.

“You’ve got altruism,” Crown told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But you’ve also got the enlightened self-interest of: I want to be safe, I want my workers to come to work, I want the tourists to patronize my business, whatever that may be.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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