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Les Coney and Ricky Byrdsong Jr. at SoHo House Chicago. 1

Remembering Ricky Byrdsong, plus big weddings and donations

February 18th, 2018

Chicago businessman Les Coney travels the world meeting corporate icons, sports personalities and celebrities. But it was a low-key lunch he mentioned on Facebook that caught my eye. There he was, sitting with a beaming Ricky Byrdsong Jr.

He’s the son of Ricky Byrdsong, the first African-American coach of Northwestern University’s men’s basketball team. In July 1999, Byrdsong was gunned down in Skokie by a white supremacist while jogging with his then 8-year-old son, Ricky Jr., and 10-year-old daughter.

Byrdsong had coached at Northwestern from 1993 to 1997 and at the time of the shooting worked at Aon with Coney, who’s now an executive at Mesirow Financial. The two men weren’t just colleagues. They were friends. And the murder in front of Byrdsong’s children hit Coney (and so  many others) hard.

“He was shot over July Fourth weekend. We had had breakfast that day and he went home and was out with his kids,” recalled Coney.

After the shooting, Coney vowed to be a mentor to “little Ricky,”as he affectionately calls his friend’s son. They lost touch, however, until recently when Coney got a surprise phone call the other day from Ricky Jr. asking if they could meet.

“He’s grown up to be a great young man. He’s got this big smile and is warm and just a super-nice kid,” Coney told me after they lunched at SoHo House Chicago.

Ricky Jr. works for a construction company. One of his sisters is a Chicago Public Schools teacher. His mom and another sister now live in Atlanta.

“He called because he’s wanting to reconnect with some of his dad’s friends,” Coney said. “We talked for four hours.”

Ricky Jr. is pulling together information for a documentary about his dad and is eager to hear stories from his father’s friends. Along with Coney, there’s Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr, retired University of Arizona Coach Lute Olson and Joe Branch, who heads Roc Nation Sports (the agency owned by Jay Z).

I was struck that Ricky Jr. and Coney happened to connect last week of all weeks. Their picture popped up at a time when we’re all trying to understand the gun violence that took 17 lives in Florida and a beloved police officer in Chicago.

Ricky Jr. has triumphed over a violent act that scarred his family–a reminder that goodness eclipses evil.

Raffel, Lemonis


Two big weddings to report over the holiday weekend. Marcus Lemonis married businesswoman Robbi Raffel. The two have been a couple for years.

No word on location of the ceremony, but judging by Lemonis’ Twitter feed, it was all sunshine.

Lemonis, of course, is the CEO of Camping World, a Chicago-area company. The rest of the world, though, knows him as the star of “The Profit,” the CNBC reality show about helping small businesses find success. Raffel works behind the scenes on Lemonis’ fashion-focused business investments.

Jakovich, Lagrange

Also congrats to architect Lucien Lagrange and Melinda Jakovich, who also have been companions for years. They got hitched in City Hall.

Lagrange is a former partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The French-born architect went on to found his own firm and remains a force on the architecture scene.  Jakovich sells high-end real estate around Chicago.

I hear Legrange’s brother, Michele, served as their witness.

The couple held an intimate party Saturday night at the Arts Club for close friends, family and the French Consul General and his wife.

“I’m beyond happy,” Jakovich wrote in an email after the party.

Lewis, Sebring

BIG DONATIONS. Philanthropists Charles Lewis and Penny Sebring have donated $250,000 to the Robert Crown Center in Evanston, where their Lewis-Sepbring Family Foundation is based.

It’s one of two major donations that pushed fund-raising to $11 million for the new center. The goal is $15 million. The second big gift is by an anonymous donor.

“There is tremendous momentum behind this project,” Daniel Stein, president of Friends of Robert Crown Center, said in a release announcing the gifts.

The fundraising campaign has solicited 513 gifts from 452 families, businesses, foundations and organizations.

The center is well-known to Chicago-area families who play hockey or ice skate. Speed skater Shani Davis grew up skating at the Robert Crown Center. Others, including my kids, have taken advantage of the basketball camps.

Lewis and Sebring are familiar names on the philanthropic scene. A few years ago, they joined Col. Jennifer Pritzker to fund a youth center in Evanston.

Lewis and Sebring also are major donors to Democratic causes. He served on former President Barack Obama’s finance team in 2012.

Antonia Contro

NEW CHAPTERS. Antonia Contro is stepping down as president and CEO of Marwen, the after-school arts and education program. She’s been with the organization for 25 years.

“When I reflect upon my role in the world as an artist, I realize how much I have learned from and been inspired by everyone who has entered the doors of Marwen,” she wrote in a farewell letter.

Contro may be stepping down from the nonprofit art world, but not art. She plans to paint in her studio and work “collaboratively with other artists as well as scientists, musicians, and philosophers-and contemplating new opportunities to advance the arts,” she wrote.

Her last day is June 1 and she’ll be feted at the Paintbrush Ball on June 2. That’s the fundraising event for Marwen. 

Expect a big crowd at that party–including Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Amy Rule.

Contro famously played matchmaker to Emanuel and his wife many years ago when Rule and Contro worked together at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Chelsea and Bill Clinton

CHICAGO, THEIR KIND OF TOWN. Former President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea Clinton, will bring the “Clinton Global Initiative University” meeting to Chicago later this year (Oct. 19-21).

Of course the gathering will be held at University of Chicago.

That’s where David Axelrod has set up shop as director of the non-partisan Institute of Politics. He’s also a former Democratic adviser.


Rashid Johnson

ARTS HONORS. Chicago artist Rashid Johnson is being awarded the Aspen Award for Art during the annual ArtCrush benefit in Colorado over the summer.

Rashid’s practice transcends a range of materials and disciplines to help us think in new ways about the world around us—a guiding ethos shared by the AAM in its curatorial programming and public service,” Heidi Zuckerman, the CEO and director of the organization said.

Johnson, a Chicago native who studied at Columbia College Chicago, began his career working primarily in photography before expanding into sculpture work, painting and installation.

Todd Hyatt

BOSS PROPS. Todd Hyatt and Virginia Carstarphen, owners of Trader Todd’s karaoke bar in Wrigleyville, recently treated employees to a trip in Fort Myers Beach, Fla.

Can you believe they do it every year? They like to take the staff there so they can better understand the Florida vibe that’s so important to their Chicago bar.

This time, though, Hyatt and Carstarphen incorporated some philanthropy along with fun. The Trader Todd team helped Sea to Shore Alliance, a nonprofit, clean up more than 28 pounds of garbage left from the Hurricane-ravaged beaches.

It was a sentimental gesture, as Hyatt and Carstarphen have been visiting those beaches for some 20 years.

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