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New athletic center gets healthy start with $15 million gift

When the University of Chicago Field Houseopened its doors in 1932, Gerald Ratner, an undergraduate business student and a left fielder for the baseball team, thought the new building was great: Now the team could practice inside during winter quarter. Dangerous, perhaps, but fun.

In the 66 years since then, the field house has seen more than its share of team practices and games, plus recreational and fitness use by students, faculty, and staff. Gerald Ratner, PhB'35, JD'37, went on to become senior partner of the Chicago law firm Gould & Ratner, but never lost his love for baseball, team effort, or staying fit. Or for the U of C.

To thank Chicago for his "great education," the 84-year-old Ratner has pledged $15 million toward the construction of the University's planned new athletic facility, to be named the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center. Ratner serves on the major gifts athletic committee and was an active member of the team overseeing the field house's renovation in the 1970s.

"This gift will help realize a dream that we and many alumni have shared for years," says President Hugo Sonnenschein. "And it could not have come from a more appropriate friend and alumnus of the University."

Ratner's gift ties with Eric Gleacher's (MBA'67) 1996 gift to the Gleacher Center as the second-largest single donation in University history. The largest gift, from the Richard Duchossois family in 1994, was $21 million for the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine and an endowed professorship.

Ratner hopes the athletic center will encourage all students, not just varsity athletes, to participate in intramural, club, and team sports. "Chicago is not a minor league for professional athletes," Ratner likes to say, contrasting the University with some of the Division I powerhouses. "It's a major league for student-athletes."

"I was a better student than I was an athlete," he notes, "but I was a good ballplayer. I enjoyed it. It's fun to participate." He adds: "The point is, you need fun. You need a laughing place. You need recreation. You need a sound body, you need a sound mind. You can't be all of one and none of the other."

"Gerry is a perfect person to have his name on this facility," says Tom Weingartner, chair of the physical education and athletics department. "Gerry embraces the philosophy of the University, the philosophy of the student-athlete, and is interested in programs not only for varsity athletes but for all students."

A sandlot ballplayer and Marshall High School valedictorian, Ratner came to the U of C on a scholarship and to the baseball team as a walk-on. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa and played for three years on the varsity nine, where his thatch of flame-colored hair earned him the nickname "Red." He also quarterbacked for three years on an intramural touch football team. Attending the Law School on a scholarship, he made the Law Review and the Order of the Coif.

Ratner still works from noon to midnight, Monday through Thursday, at Gould & Ratner, the law firm he founded with his friend, the late Benjamin Z. Gould, AB'35, JD'37. Gould & Ratner's main client is investment firm Henry Crown & Company, which it has represented since 1946. Henry Crown's name has graced the U of C's field house since 1975, when the Crown family donated $1.5 million for its renovation.

Today the Henry Crown Field House is simply not big enough to meet University demand, says Weingartner: "There are just too many people, too little space." In 1997-98, approximately 360,000 people used Henry Crown Field House. An average of 1,000 people came each day, with as many as 3,000 visitors per day during the winter months. Taken together, all of the U of C's recreational and athletic facilities drew an average of approximately 2,000 people per day. Besides being used for physical-education classes; recreational fitness activity by students, faculty, and staff; and varsity, club, and intramural sports teams; the field house occasionally plays host to the Lab Schools and to community events such as the city of Chicago's annual Special Olympics.

The new facility will have space aplenty and will include an Olympic-size pool; a fitness area with strength-training and cardiovascular-exercise equipment; two practice gymnasiums; rooms for aerobics, dance, and martial arts; locker rooms; offices for physical education faculty and athletic center staff; and a U of C Hall of Fame.

The 50-meter by 25-yard pool will have movable bulkheads to separate lanes for classes, open swim, and team practice. The two gymnasiums can be used by teams, classes, and recreational users for basketball, volleyball, indoor soccer, and other sports. One gym will seat 2,500 for competitive events. The Hall of Fame-a first at Chicago-will feature plaques, photographs, memorabilia, and narratives and include such greats as the late Amos Alonzo Stagg, U of C football coach from 1892 to 1933, and Jay Berwanger, AB'36, winner of the first Heisman trophy. The Henry Crown Field House will continue to be used as an athletic center and will offer at least one option-an indoor running track-that the Ratner Center will not. Weingartner adds that Crown will be renovated, possibly getting updated locker rooms, small medical-support and laundry facilities, and an entrance on the west side, closest to the Ratner Center.

The renovations and new construction together will cost about $35 million. Ratner's gift brings the current total up to $23 million, which includes a 1995 gift of $5 million toward the new pool from an anonymous donor. Even undergraduates chipped in, with the Class of 1995 donating $3,450 toward the doors for the athletic center, their senior class gift.

Now interviewing architects for the athletic center, the University plans to break ground at the chosen site, along Ellis Avenue between 55th and 56th Streets, in fall 1999. The building should be finished in 2001

. Ratner hopes the new facility will help "attract more good students, bright students" to Chicago, students with the option to attend one of several top universities, whose decisions might be affected by where their sports and fitness interests would be better served.

"We're recruiting the very best students in the country," agrees Weingartner. "These students have lots of choices. They make them based on a number of factors, not the least of which is their goal to have a good and interesting life outside the classroom." As the country's interest in health and fitness has grown, he notes, high-school students may even have their own memberships to health clubs-and they expect to be able to maintain that level of fitness at college.

"If you build it, they will come," Ratner quips, quoting from the baseball movie Field of Dreams. "But if you don't build it, they may not come."-K.S.

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