Jonathan Kleinbard, U. of C.’s public face for a quarter-century, is dead at 80

U. of C. Vice President Jonathan Kleinbard (left) talks to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley in an undated photo. (Herald file photo)

Staff writer

Jonathan Kleinbard, the lead communicator for the University of Chicago during the latter years of urban renewal and who, in its wake, worked with communities the planning had alienated, died on Oct. 16 at age 80.

He was born in Philadelphia, grew up in its suburbs and graduated from Kenyon College in Ohio. He then worked as a journalist with United Press International in Pennsylvania and London. He first worked at the U. of C. from 1965 to 1969. He then worked at a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., for two years before then-U. of C. President Edward H. Levi hired him again in 1971.

A vice president by 1979, his comments on issues from housing and business development to security alerts to U. of C.-funded community efforts turn up well over 200 articles in the Herald’s archives.

“As both a top administrator and a key spokesman, he is a newsmaker as well as a news reporter,” the Herald once reported. “His unique role gives him broad control over which of the university’s actions become public knowledge and which remain confidential.”

He moved to St. Louis from Hyde Park in 1997, where he worked in community relations for the Missouri Botanical Garden before retiring in 2004 and returned to Philadelphia. Per his obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer, is survived by his wife, Joan, two sisters and two brothers.

Kleinbard fought to keep the Hyde Park Shopping Center a home to small, neighborhood businesses — a role it continues to some degree today. He put the U. of C. on the side of Regents Park owner Bruce Clinton after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development refused to renegotiate his mortgage after he went into debt renovating the twin 36-story towers, 5035 S. East End Ave.

Upon Kleinbard’s 1997 resignation, Clinton said Regents Park, which had gone bankrupt just after opening in 1974 and had been threatened with demolition, would have been “unrecognizable” without him. “He’s had such an impact on building good will for the community,” Clinton said. “He’s an evangelist for Hyde Park.”

A 2006 letter to the U. of C. magazine signed by Clinton, U. of C. Law School professor Douglas Baird and then-Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th), among others, credited Kleinbard with having “worked tirelessly to lay the foundation for improved relations for the University with the Woodlawn community,” and for having helped “bring about a dramatic renaissance” in North Kenwood-Oakland through his work alongside Preckwinkle.

“He was a big, big booster of the community,” Preckwinkle remembered after his death, noting their friendship and his stalwart support for the neighborhood’s bookstores. “He and Joan lived in the neighborhood. It was a time in the university when more of our faculty and staff lived in the community than is the case now. That was a good thing.”

Baird remembered Kleinbard for his “gruff, no-nonsense” professional bearing — a far cry from smooth-talking public relations professionals — his work for Regents Park and for spearheading the reforestation of the Midway Plaisance, which had been devastated by Dutch elm disease.

“Anytime there was a crisis, anytime there was a mess, he was the person who was absolutely at ground zero,” Baird said. “Jonathan was someone who really came in and secured a solid footing for both the neighborhood and the University in what were much-harder times than the ones we’ve gone through recently — and he basically created the foundation for where we are today.”

As the public face of an institution with community relations as complex as the U. of C.’s, Kleinbard’s job performance was sometimes controversial. “There isn’t much community in ‘community relations,’” ran one punchline. As the representative of an institution “rich enough to buy you out and big enough to shut you down,” one anonymous neighborhood business owner said upon his resignation, “Kleinbard made the rules.”

A 1995 Herald editorial described the shift in community development from the late 1950s, “when the University all-but-oversaw disbursement of close to $100 million in federal urban renewal policy,” to that summer, when the U. of C. was supporting “a range of housing initiatives in Woodlawn, a retail development on 47th Street in Kenwood and a school improvement plan which would involve both the neighborhoods and Hyde Park as well.”

By that time, the U. of C. had personnel on the city’s Community Development and Plan commissions, a “cozy” relationship with City Hall and pacified “one-time agitators” like Bob Lucas of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and Leon Finney of the Woodlawn Organization.

“Be assured that with a free hand and more-than-a-handful of clout, the work will go on,” the Herald editorialized. “Not that anyone would want to, but who could possibly stop it?”

Responding a week later, Kleinbard said that “the revitalization efforts were being planned and are being implemented by organizations who live and work in those neighborhoods, not by the University of Chicago.” Residents and community leaders, he said, developed the plans with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley and his head of the Department of Planning and Development, Valerie Jarrett.

“The University is proud to have been asked to be a junior partner in those efforts, and we are trying to be of assistance to those neighborhoods’ leaders and residents,” Kleinbard wrote.