Richard J. Franke, the CEO of Chicago investment bank John Nuveen & Co. for 22 years, co-founded the Chicago Humanities Festival and helped establish the Franke Institute for the Humanities at the University of Chicago to encourage new projects across traditional departmental and disciplinary lines.
“Mr. Franke was a wonderful friend of the humanities,” said retired U. of C. President Hanna Gray. “He was above all concerned … that the beauties of the humanities and the arts be at the center of educational purpose and enrich the lives of people, including his employees, his colleagues, people throughout the community and his philanthropies.”
Franke, 90, died of complications from pneumonia on April 15 in New York City, said his daughter Katherine. A Chicago-area resident for 63 years, Franke since November had divided his time between Arizona and New Haven, Connecticut.
Born in Springfield, Richard James Franke earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in 1953. After serving in the Army, Franke returned to school, receiving an MBA from Harvard in 1957. From there, he joined Chicago-based John Nuveen & Co., which at the time largely managed municipal bond investments.
Franke rose quickly, becoming a vice president in 1965, an executive vice president in 1969, the firm’s chief administrative officer in 1970 and president and CEO in 1974. On his watch, Nuveen grew significantly and pioneered the development of unit investment trusts, which offered small investors shares in a fixed portfolio of municipal bonds.
“Rich led the firm very well. He understood markets, he understood risk and he focused on the management of our risk positions,” said Donald Sveen, a former president and chief operating officer of Nuveen.
Franke also was deeply involved in hiring new employees, and he was interested in hiring not only top MBAs but analysts with higher degrees in the humanities such as history, English and philosophy.
“He gave weight to new employees’ education, not so much are they business grads, but, can they think, can they reason?” Sveen said. “He was interested in their development.”
An Evanston resident in the late 1960s, he was president of the Southeast Evanston Association community group. He later joined the board of trustees of Yale University, and in 1987, he joined the board of the U. of C., where he served for the next two decades.
In 1984, Franke was appointed to the board of the Illinois Humanities Council, and he was its chairman from 1989 until 1991.
“The word ‘humanities’ may be a vague term for some people, but for me, it has to do with all the ways we talk about the human condition,” Franke told the Tribune in 1997. “The humanities are the essence of what life is all about. What makes up a successful life? Why are you the way you are? Some people examine this through writing, some through art or music or painting.”
In the late 1980s, he helped create the Chicago Humanities Festival, an annual series of lectures, concerts and films. The event started as a one-day gathering at the Art Institute of Chicago and at Orchestra Hall, around the theme of “expressions of freedom.”
The festival expanded quickly into being a multiday event and now is a citywide, year-round suite of popular programs. Franke chaired the event until 2006.
“I wanted to do something that made a difference,” he told the Tribune in 1997. “I’d been playing with the idea of finding a way to bring the humanities to more people.”
Willard Fraumann, who succeeded Franke as the festival’s chairman, called Franke a “powerful thinker” who, when he believed in an idea, “supported it heart and soul.” And Phillip Bahar, the festival’s executive director, recalled how Franke saw the festival as a way to create a platform for challenging new ideas drawn both from thinkers and talents in Chicago and from around the world.
“Rich had the ability, through his influence and sheer force of will, to mobilize others, inspiring them to dream about what may be possible,” Bahar said.
In 1990, the U. of C. opened the Franke Institute for the Humanities, which encourages creativity across disciplines and was renamed for Franke and his wife, Barbara, in 1999.
“Rich was a tireless advocate of making the humanities publicly available, both nationally and locally,” said Jim Chandler, the director of the Franke Institute for the Humanities from 2001 until 2018.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed Franke to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities advisory panel.
After retiring from Nuveen in 1996, Franke continued serving on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In 1996, Franke was named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
“He was a leader in creating the academy’s Humanities and Culture initiative, and he enriched the dialogue among business, philanthropic, public policy and academic leaders,” said Jonathan Fanton, the academy’s former president. “He was a model of what John Adams and John Hancock imagined when they created the Academy in 1780.”
In 1997, President Bill Clinton honored Franke with the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest arts and humanities award.
Franke wrote two books: “Cut from Whole Cloth,” which was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2004 and covered the story of Franke’s immigrant grandparents’ struggle to build a new life in America, and “Books, Bonds and Balance: Ruminations of a Pensive Grandfather,” a 2014 collection of life lessons.
Franke also is survived by his wife of 64 years, Barbara; another daughter, Jane; and two grandchildren.
Services are being planned for Chicago and New York.
Bob Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.
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