Chicago investment executive Mellody Hobson and her husband, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas, are donating $25 million to the private University of Chicago Laboratory Schools to support the construction of an arts building.
This brings the couple’s commitment to Chicago institutions to at least $50 million since marrying last year. They also have pledged $25 million to the education charity After School Matters, catapulting them into the upper ranks of the city’s philanthropists.
Hobson’s connection to the Laboratory Schools is personal. The founder of the firm where she has spent her career, John Rogers Jr., is chairman of the school’s board and an alumnus. He approached her about making a gift.
At Hobson and Lucas’ request, the building will be named the Gordon Parks Arts Hall in honor of Parks, the first African-American staff photographer for Life magazine and later the first African-American to direct a major Hollywood movie, his most famous film being 1971’s "Shaft."
Rogers said he believes the arts hall will be the first building on the University of Chicago campus named after an African-American. Hobson and Lucas declined an interview request, but the university provided statements from both.
"It was important to us that the University of Chicago campus have a building named for an African American, given the diverse community in which it sits, and the outstanding contributions to our society by people of color," Hobson said.
And from Lucas: "We believe in the power of art to transform lives and communities. Gordon Parks’ work did just that."
The gift from the George Lucas Family Foundation caps a fundraising campaign for Lab that had an initial goal of $40 million and brought in $80 million, including this gift.
The school has more than 1,770 students, nursery school through 12th grade. The three-story, 86,000-square-foot arts building has an estimated price tag of $43.7 million. It is scheduled to open in 2015 and includes a lobby/art gallery, 700-seat auditorium, 250-seat theater, 150-seat drama studio and four art studios.
"They thought this was important to have an African-American name on one of the major buildings in the university campus," said Rogers, who founded the investment firm Ariel Investments, where Hobson is president. "Mellody is a deep believer in diversity. She has been such a pioneer as an African-American woman leader. So I think she felt if they were going to give a major gift, they wanted to make history in that way."
Hobson, in an essay for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In campaign, wrote that she interned at Ariel Investments while at Princeton University. Her sole responsibility was to answer Rogers’ mail, according to a 2012 interview in Marie Claire. She joined the firm after graduation in 1991, rising to president by 2000.
"Since I met Mellody 27 years ago as a prospective student at Princeton, she’s heard me talk about how important the Laboratory Schools have been in my life," said Rogers, another Princeton grad. "She had a chance when (U.S. Education Secretary) Arne Duncan worked at Ariel. She’s gotten to know other Lab grads. She’s come to believe what it stands for, how unique it is. I can’t overstate how special a place it was for me growing up."
Ariel manages about $9 billion in assets. Lucas has an estimated net worth of $4.2 billion, according to Forbes.
When Lucas and Hobson married, it magnified Hobson’s ability to give to causes that she and those she admires have long championed. In December, the couple announced they would give $25 million over five years to After School Matters, founded by late Chicago first lady Maggie Daley.
Hobson is chairman of After School Matters, which has a heavy arts component. But there also is a deep personal connection. The Daley family, like Rogers later, has been a key part of Hobson’s support structure since her high school days at St. Ignatius College Prep.
Hobson is the youngest of six children from a single mom and the first and only to graduate from college, according to her Lean In essay. She met Lucas in 2006 at a business conference in Aspen, Colo.
Rogers’ daughter also attended Lab. Rogers said he did not know if Hobson and Lucas would send their daughter, whom the couple had by surrogacy last year, to the school. The Lab Schools are a division of the university and are located on campus.
Yearly tuition for high school students is $28,290 — and more than half the student body are children of University of Chicago professors and staff, who get discounted tuition and priority on admission. The U. of C. says that 49 percent of the Lab School’s students are students of color.
In late 2012, after Lucas sold his film company to The Walt Disney Co. for $4.05 billion, a representative announced that he would donate the majority of the proceeds to philanthropy, specifically education. And in 2010, he signed Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, committing to give away half his fortune in his lifetime or upon his death.
The George Lucas Family Foundation, the source of the After School Matters and University of Chicago gifts, had more than $1.1 billion in assets as of the end of 2012, according to tax filings.
"This arts wing was such a big part of our campaign," Rogers said. "Right up there with the early childhood center, and we needed a lead gift for the arts wing. I knew Mellody loved the arts, so it just made sense for us to approach them."
Parks rose to fame in the years before Lucas’ "Star Wars."
He was considered a Renaissance man, a skilled novelist, photographer, poet, film director, and even a composer of film scores and classical music, according to a 2006 Tribune obituary.
According to the university, "Parks once told an interviewer that he was sitting in a darkened theater in Chicago, watching a newsreel, when he discovered the power of documentary images. Shortly after, in 1938, Parks bought a camera in a pawnshop for $7.50." He displayed his first pictures in a Minneapolis Eastman Kodak store.
"It was never about Gordon," John White, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, told the Tribune in 2006. "It was about others. And I think that’s the reason that people connected with him. He would get embarrassed when people would call him ‘The Renaissance Man.’ He would say: ‘I don’t even know how to spell it, but if that’s what you think, I’m honored.’"