Irene Patner, longtime supporter of Chicago culture, is dead at 86

Staff writer

Irene Patner, 1933-2019 (Contributed photo)
Irene Patner, a longstanding figure in the cultural and political life of Hyde Park and Chicago, died Sept. 6 at the age of 86.

Patner was born in Winchester, Kentucky, into an immigrant family originally from Belarus and Lithuania that owned a menswear store. The family took regular cultural trips to Cincinnati and later moved to Lexington.

Patner earned honors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before moving to Hyde Park in 1954 after her husband, Marshall, whom she had met when he was her sorority’s house boy, matriculated at the University of Chicago Law School. After a brief, unsatisfying job doing office inventory at the Chicago stockyards, she spent four years as head administrative assistant for the Illinois ACLU.

She became a significant fixture in the fine arts scene. Over the years, she worked for the Chicago International Film Festival, was a chairwoman for the Women’s Association of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (for which she made pre-concert speeches about classical music to local children), managed the Chicago Ensemble (1978-1988) and was a board director for the 57th Street Art Fair.

She joined the Urban Gateways, a nonprofit that supports music, art and dance programs for public school students, as a volunteer in 1968 and served on many committees over the years, including its Board of Directors in 1989. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Club named her “Neighbor of the Year” in 1991.

Marshall was a public interest lawyer and campaign manager for the late Ald. Leon Despres (5th), opened the Medici Coffee House in 1958 and died in 2000, and Patner was a fellow partner to their business and political efforts. They had three sons: Seth and Joshua, who survive her, and Andrew, the prolific Chicago cultural and arts critic who died in 2015.

“She was one of the most curious, witty and original friends one could ever have,” said Joan Shapiro, who first met Patner decades ago through their work at the Chicago Ensemble. “When I first met her and Marshall, their house was filled with music, books and a vitality, a serious intellectual concern about issues of the day. There was never anything conventional about their opinions, their engagements, their willingness to say what was really at stake.”

A year after the Patners, who were Ray School parents, wrote a letter to the Herald’s editor extolling the virtues of enrolling children in public schools — “the opportunity to learn academic subjects and about the greater community at the same time” — one Maryal Stone Dale wrote a letter in May 1974 after the South East Chicago Commission took over the South Park Improvement Association. She thanked the Patners for having previously run it and “keeping alive the idea of a community responsible for its own maintenance during the giddy days when everyone else was more interested in cleaning up the far corners of the world than tending their own gardens.”

In her final years, Patner was a common sight on weekend mornings at Promontory Point, walking arm-in-arm with friends.

Tom Bachtell, a caricaturist for The New Yorker and Andrew’s surviving partner, remembered Patner as a “fount of critical wisdom and standards, and a direct, iconoclastic thinker and speaker.”

Joshua wrote that Patner was “vibrant, opinionated, ever-curious, passionate, loyal and funny … courageous, life-affirming, a mighty wife and mother, a good neighbor, a good citizen … ‘a participant,’ I think she would say.”

David Polk, program director at classical music radio station WFMT, called Patner “a source of inspiration, opinion, and great amusement. A force of nature. I’m grateful to have known her and to be a part of her world.” In her memory, WFMT broadcast two recordings of Jean Sibelius’ works played by pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, whom she met while traveling and whom she later hosted, along with Lang Lang and Daniel Barenboim, for dinner on Rosh Hashanah.