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James Crown, mainstay of the Chicago Jewish community, dies in car crash on 70th birthday

Part of the prominent Crown family, which has long donated to Jewish and other causes, Jim was eulogized by President Biden, Chicago’s mayor, head of the Chicago federation

The Chicago Jewish community is mourning the sudden death of James “Jim” Crown, a towering figure in the midwestern city, who died Sunday in a single-car crash at the Aspen Motorsports Park where he was celebrating his 70th birthday.

Crown, a member of the city’s prominent Crown family, has made major donations over the decades to a wide variety of Jewish causes, municipal causes and Democratic campaigns. 

According to the Pitkin County, Colo., coroner’s office, James Crown – Jim, as he was known to all – suffered blunt-force trauma after his car struck a wall at the race track, though the official cause of death was still being investigated. 

“The Crown family is deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Jim Crown,” a representative of the family said in a statement. “The family requests that their privacy be respected at this difficult time.”

Lonnie Nasatir, the head of Chicago’s Jewish United Fund, who has worked closely with the entire Crown family for years, told eJewishPhilanthropy that Crown’s death represented a “great loss” for the Jewish community, both in the city and around the world.

“It’s a loss for the Jewish people. It’s a loss for the [Chicago] Jewish community. And for our city of Chicago. It’s just a great loss because this was a really creative mind who had so much business experience and understood our city and understood our community. It’s just — it’s too soon. It’s too soon,” Nasatir said.

“He had a love for the Jewish people, a love for Israel, and really just wanted to make sure that we in Chicago were taking care of our most vulnerable, both Chicago’s Jews and Chicago writ large,” he said.

Jim was chairman and CEO of his family business, the investment firm Henry Crown and Company, as well as the director of General Dynamics and a board member of JPMorgan Chase & Co. He was board chair of the Aspen Institute and chairman of the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, representing the largest businesses in the midwestern city.

At the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, which is taking place this week, the former president and CEO of the organization, Walter Isaacson, praised Crown as embodying the types of values that are needed in this day and age.

“He had a deep sense of values,” said Isaacson, who has written several books about inventors, visionaries and leaders. “When you write about geniuses enough… the problem is not their genius, but their values. Especially as we move into the era of [Artificial Intelligence], the people who [create it] have to have the values that work. If someone were to say to me, ‘How do you define those values?’ You’d say, ‘Jim Crown.’”

Jim was one of seven children of Renee and Lester Crown. “He was the leader of our family both intellectually and emotionally, and he looked out for everybody,” his 98-year-old father, Lester Crown, told the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday. “He also was a great leader also for the community.” In 2020, Forbes estimated the Crown family’s wealth at $10.2 billion. 

Nasatir noted that Jim had only just announced a new effort to combat violent crime in Chicago.

“He was just embarking upon this big initiative with the city in terms of bringing down violence. He recognized the importance of this issue in terms of our city… and put his money where his mouth is both in terms of his actual money and his time,” Nasatir said. “And we all in the Jewish community were so proud of the fact that he took on such a leadership role on a topic that’s affecting all of us Chicagoans right now.”

President Joe Biden, who has deep ties to the Crown family, released a statement eulogizing Crown, calling him “America at its best – industrious, big-hearted, and always looking out for each other. He was a good man, a dear friend, and a great American.”

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson also hailed Crown, saying he “truly embodied the soul of Chicago.”

Any attempt to list the organizations and initiatives that Jim Crown was personally involved with or supported will surely be lacking as he “had his hands in so many different things,” Nasatir said. This included trusteeships with the University of Chicago, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Museum of Science and Industry.

As Jim played a more active role in running the family’s considerable business interests, he had taken a step back somewhat in running the family’s philanthropic efforts – at least in an official capacity. Unlike many of his siblings, Jim Crown was not serving on the board of the family’s grantmaking organization, Crown Family Philanthropies, at the time of his death. Crown Family Philanthropies, which focuses on both Jewish and non-Jewish issues, was a major donor to the Jewish United Fund and to the education-focused Covenant Foundation and Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education.

However, Nasatir said that while Crown was not on the board, he was deeply involved in the family’s philanthropic activities in a more personal capacity.

“I think philanthropy was always something that he not only enjoyed, but also that he took the Crown family commitment to giving back very seriously. It was just a part of his DNA and he recognized that the family had always had this responsibility to give back to Chicago, to the Jewish community, to the arts, the civic world, science, medicine – and he took that responsibility really seriously,” Nasatir said.

Nasatir, who took office as president of JUF in 2019, succeeding his father Steven, recalled Crown inviting him to his office shortly after he took over as president of JUF. (Steven Nasatir is particularly close with the Crown family, serving as vice president of Crown Family Philanthropies.)

“He said, ‘Let’s come over to the office. I’d love to talk with you.’ We had an hour and a half discussion about life, it was just very open. He was a terrific listener,” Nasatir said. “He had such vast experience in the business world, in the civic world, in the philanthropy world… He had sage advice to give me about management, leadership, and of course the Jewish community.”

Nasatir said that while Jim was no longer officially involved with the JUF, he had served on the organization’s board for nearly a decade and remained in close contact with him.

“Jim was definitely connected to us in terms of the Jewish community and particularly JUF. He served on our board for a good nine years or so in the late 80s, early 90s. So he understood our role in the Jewish community, our role in terms of overseas and and always took great interest and even after his board tenure, he was always very much involved and wanted to hear what was going on,” Lonnie Nasatir said.

Nasatir highlighted Crown’s efforts during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to fortify the city’s Jewish institutions and help its most vulnerable populations.

“When COVID-19 hit, Jim and I had a conversation about what can [the Crowns] do as a family to make sure that we can take care of the most needy?” Nasatir said. “He was really concerned about taking care of the Jewish ecosystem at this perilous time. I remember we had several conversations about what can we do to make sure that we can stabilize Jewish overnight camps, day schools and early childhood centers.”

Nasatir said Crown’s death was a personal loss for him, a comment that was reiterated by several colleagues and friends of Crown’s, who asked not to speak on-record out of sensitivity to the family. “He was very sweet and kind and very deferential and respectful,” Nasatir said. “My heart goes out to his wife and his kids. He just became a grandpa in the last few years as well, which he was so excited about, and it’s just heartbreaking that we lost him in such a sudden, unexpected way.”

Crown is survived by his wife, Paula, their four children and two grandchildren, as well as his parents, Renee and Lester, and his six brothers and sisters.