Louis Masotti, NU professor who worked with Jane Byrne

Louis Masotti was a Northwestern University professor and an urban affairs activist who headed Jane Byrne’s transition team in 1979 during her successful mayoral run.

“Dr. Masotti was a big thinker always looking for ways to make big things happen,” said Lance Pressl, a former student and a senior policy fellow at the Institute for Work & the Economy.

Masotti, 88, died of complications from colon cancer April 14 at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, said his wife of 35 years, Randi. A San Diego resident, he had lived in California since 1990.

Born in New York City, Louis Henry Masotti received a bachelor’s degree in 1956 from Princeton University and served in the Navy on active duty for three years, rising to the level of lieutenant.

Louis Masotti of Northwestern University on July 12, 1985.

Masotti received a master’s degree in political science from Northwestern University in 1961 and a doctorate from Northwestern in 1964, writing his dissertation on the controversial consolidation of high school districts into single units in suburban Cook County townships.

Masotti taught political science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland where his lifelong balancing act between theory and practice started with work as a research director for Carl Stokes’ successful run for mayor of Cleveland in 1967.

He remained as an adviser to Stokes but left Cleveland in controversy after writing 1969′s “Shootout in Cleveland,” which raised questions about the police role in a 1968 shooting incident.

Masotti was a Fulbright Fellow in Italy for one year, then returned to Northwestern as executive director of the university’s Center for Urban Affairs, which he soon built into a $2 million-a-year research facility known for innovative approaches to city problems.

He also had a joint appointment as a tenured associate professor of political science and urban affairs, and he was promoted to full professor in 1972.

Mary Ludgin, a senior managing director and director of global investment research at Chicago-based real estate investment management firm Heitman, worked for Masotti at the Center for Urban Affairs for three years while a graduate research assistant at Northwestern.

She co-authored a 1985 report with Masotti that listed 160 public and private construction projects completed in the downtown area between 1979 and the end of 1984, with more on the way, adding up to a $10 billion wave of downtown construction.

Their report made the front pages of the city’s daily newspapers, and ran counter to “claims by some that political turmoil since the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1976 has steered investors away from Chicago,” the Tribune wrote about the report.

Democratic mayoral candidate Jane Byrne (not pictured) announces the appointment of Louis Masotti, 44, to head her policy study task force on March 5, 1979, in Chicago.

“The sheer volume of investment ran contrary to the theme of the era, that the downtowns of cities like Chicago — Rust Belt cities — were blowing away like dry leaves, losing population and jobs to the suburbs or to the Sun Belt,” Ludgin said. “Our report caught the impact of early residential investments that were drawing Baby Boomers, just out of college or graduate school, to live as pioneers in places like the South Loop that lacked amenities like grocery stores.”

Ludgin said Masotti’s “lectures integrated lessons from scholarly journals and academic techniques with real-world insights.”

“He loved seeing in person the intersection of politics and policy,” she said.

Masotti took a leave from Northwestern in March 1979 to be Byrne’s transition committee chief. He unveiled a list of a dozen appointments to her government transition team, including retiring Ald. Dick Simpson, former Ald. Leon Despres, former Ald. William Singer, academic Timuel Black and former corporation counsel Raymond F. Simon.

“I want to stress that this is not a complete list, and we will be adding names in the coming days,” Masotti told the Tribune at the time. “But I think everyone on that list is knowledgeable and has imaginative proposals to make.”

After Byrne won, she began downplaying any role that Masotti would play in her administration, and she opted not to name him one of her top administrative officers. By the end of April 1979, Masotti had exited the mayor’s office altogether after six weeks and returned to Northwestern.

The reasons for his hasty retreat, according to news accounts, were that Masotti had taken public positions on some issues that differed from Byrne’s, and that she was concerned that Masotti had been leaking information to reporters.

Masotti was recruited in 1986 to run for mayor of Chicago as a Republican, but declined.

“I looked at the numbers,” he told the Tribune in 1987. “I saw 5% (of the electorate) voting Republican. They said I would be a symbol; I’m not interested in being a symbol.”

In 1980, Masotti started teaching at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, where he was made a full professor in 1983. He also co-founded Northwestern’s Real Estate Research Center in 1986, which he ran until 1988.

“He built a robust graduate real estate program that educated and inspired,” said longtime Chicago real estate and zoning attorney Jack Guthman. “His courses were both intellectually rigorous and grounded in reality.”

Masotti was a consultant to various developers, including one hoping to build a never-constructed football stadium for the Chicago Bears on the West Side. He also conducted economic-impact studies for a possible White Sox stadium in Addison and a new racetrack in Lake County, and he was a strategist in the ill-fated 1992 World’s Fair project.

“When I get bored at the university, I come downtown and get involved in problems,” he told the Tribune in 1987. “When that gets to be too much, I return to the sanctuary and think about it.”

Pressl called Masotti “one of the most approachable professors I have ever had the privilege to meet.”

Louis Masotti, NU professor who worked with Jane Byrne

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“Dr. Masotti had an uncanny ability to explain complex issues to his students,” Pressl said. “But it was his infectious charm and intellectual curiosity that really captivated us, frequently causing the class to be as excited as he was about a particular topic under discussion.”

Masotti left Northwestern in 1989 to be a visiting professor at Stanford University and UCLA’s business schools. In 1992, he moved to the University of California at Irvine, where he was a full-time professor in the real estate program. He retired from that job in 1998.

Masotti also wrote, edited or co-authored 14 books and numerous journal articles.

Two previous marriages ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, Masotti is survived by two daughters, Laura and Andrea; a sister, Isabel Yardley; and a granddaughter.

A private celebration of life will be held at a future date.

Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.

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